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September 17, 2012
Extraordinary People: Harbaugh wants Mays, Ali to visit 49ers


Jim Harbaugh has invited colonels and generals and Navy SEALs to talk in front of his team. He had actors Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn on the sideline during Sunday's game and in the locker room afterward. But two of the figures he'd really like to have on the premises are Willie Mays and Muhammad Ali.

"I don't want anything from him," Harbaugh said of Mays. "I just want to go up to him and shake his hand and tell him that me and my dad think that he's the greatest baseball player in the history of the game. That's all I want."

As far as Wilson and Vaughn, who were decked out on 49ers gear for the Lions game, Harbaugh said that Wilson called him recently asking if they could attend the game. The two are shooting a movie locally about a couple of 40-somethings who try to tackle Google's internship program.

He said that was the kind of culture he wanted at the 49ers complex - one in which the players are regularly exposed to special people. "We like being around these kind of extraordinary kind of guys," he said.

Meanwhile, Jim's dad, Jack, met Ali last week at a Ravens practice outside of Baltimore, and Jack came away with two great stories about Ali, a man whom the Harbaughs consider "the greatest sports competitor this world has ever known," Jim said.

One of the stories, as Jim Harbaugh relayed it today, took place when Ali was young and was known as Cassius Clay. The kids in his neighborhood would take a bus to school every day. The route was 2 ½ miles, and the bus would take them through rain, sleet, snow or a humid Louisville day. Except that Clay never would climb aboard. "Muhammad would run and follow the bus to school every single day," Jim Harbaugh said.

The other story involved Ali's famous fight with Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964. The hotel that staged the fight was segregated, and even though Ali trained there he wasn't allowed to stay there. Instead he had to lodge at a hotel five miles away. Again, Ali refused to take the easier route and would run the five miles before his training sessions. Said Harbaugh: "Every step of that run, he would tell himself, 'Somebody's going to pay for this.' And that was going to be Sonny Liston."

Harbaugh relayed those stories to his players on Tuesday. Asked what the take-away message was, Harbaugh said it was in the mind of the person who listened to it.

"We don't break it down, Barney-style, at the end of a story," he said. "We don't try to tell people what we think the message is or what it should be. We just put it there, and they relate to it in the ways they relate to it."

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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