The helicopter door opens and there he is: Muhammad Ali.
Immediately, flashbacks and flashbulbs are popping in your head.
Madison Square Garden, 1971: Ali vs. Joe Frazier.
The Thrilla in Manila.
Zaire, George Foreman and the rope-a-dope.
You see Ali standing over a vanquished Sonny Liston, his mouth agape. You remember the hand speed, the magnificent physique, the shuffle. Always the shuffle.
You can hear him, too.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
“I am the greatest.”
“I got nothing against no Viet Cong.”
You could stay here forever, reminiscing. But you force yourself to focus.
Ali is sitting in the helicopter. He’s wearing a blue and white checked short-sleeve shirt, with black pants, black socks and black dress shoes. Sunglasses hide his eyes.
His wife, Lonnie, and a family friend each grab an elbow and help Ali out of the helicopter. His left hand is trembling, the most visible sign of the Parkinson’s disease that has ravaged his body.
He is unsteady on his feet, tilting to the left.
As he slowly shuffles his feet on the grass field, Ali waves at the crowd that awaits him. His hand barely gets above his waist.
Finally, he’s helped into a chair. His head drops and his eyes close.
Sadness overwhelms you.
This man was once bigger than life. He was the most famous athlete on the planet.
Now look at him.
Ali is here, at Schnepf Farms in Queen Creek, to see his image carved out in a 10-acre corn field.
It’s an annual event for Mark and Carrie Schnepf. Larry King, Oprah Winfrey and Steve Nash are among those who have viewed their likeness from a helicopter.
But this is Ali. The champ. The greatest of all time.
“He’s really bigger than a sports figure,” Mark says.
As Ali rests in the chair, the fingers on his right hand curled into a claw, you can’t help but pity him.
He’s 66 years old. He should be talking and laughing and regaling us with stories.
This shell of a man? This isn’t Ali.
But then something happens. Something extraordinary.
Carrie Schnepf asks if anyone wants their picture taken with Ali. Suddenly, Ali is Santa Claus.
Men, women, boys, girls, they all take their turns, kneeling next to Ali.
He doesn’t acknowledge most of them. They don’t care.
“He’s an American icon,” said Todd Hebdon, 38, of Queen Creek. “It’s a great honor just to be able to be near him.”
So many people want photos that Ali sits there for more than 15 minutes. He doesn’t say a word, other than to whisper to a friend that he’d like a Coke.
You want to ask Ali a million questions. About Frazier and Foreman and his opposition to the Vietnam war. You wonder whether he would see parallels to the current conflict in Iraq.
But you can’t ask a thing. So you turn to Lonnie.
She says Ali is doing well, that he loves the Valley.
They moved to Paradise Valley in 2006 so they could be close to friends and the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in downtown Phoenix — and the apricots at Schnepf Farms.
But is he happy?
“He is,” Lonnie says. “He believes everything is God’s will, so he figures this is part of God’s plan as well. And he loves being out here and doing things like this. To know these people are here for him gives him a big boost.”
Maybe, you realize, you really haven’t seen Ali at all. You’ve been so focused on who he isn’t anymore that you haven’t considered who he is.
For who is better off?
The man who can run but can’t find peace, or the man who can’t walk but has discovered contentment?