As people in Louisville, Kentucky, and all over the world, paused Friday to remember the life of legendary boxer and humanitarian Muhammad Ali, two retired police officers in Vermont reflected on their memorable encounter with the athlete.
"To me, it was an honor," said Bob Collins, a retired Vermont State Police trooper.
Collins was at work one Sunday in early October, 1977, assigned to patrol Interstate 91, when he got a call for a bus with a flat tire.
As the original police report showed, it turned out Muhammad Ali was aboard that bus.
"This long arm reached out; 'Hi, Trooper Collins, Muhammad Ali here,'" the retiree remembered. "And I said, 'It looked like him,' but I thought, 'it can't be!'"
The legendary boxer, just off a successful title defense in New York, was en route to New Hampshire to receive an honorary degree.
Collins said he and his colleagues helped arrange for an emergency roadside mechanic to come tend to the bus. While waiting for the flat to be fixed, Collins said Ali asked him for a ride to the barracks in Rockingham for a visit.
At the barracks, Collins said Ali enjoyed meeting the dispatcher and other troopers, Tom Fields and Glenn Cutting.
In a photo Fields took of Collins and Cutting with the boxing mega-star, Collins landed a make-believe right hook on the champ's chin.
"It was a very friendly gesture," Collins recalled, noting Ali was known for posing for similar photos around the country. "It was all his idea, and he had a great time with us."
Then, the trooper took the champ up the road to his quiet street in Chester to meet his family and a neighbor.
"He said, 'Don't be surprised if some day, there's a knock at your door and I'm back to stay for a couple days,'" Collins remembered. "So he must've really been in his comfort zone. And we would've welcomed him!"
Collins said he never did end up crossing paths with Ali again.
Still, the officer was forever left with a sense "The Greatest" was actually pretty down-to-earth, very kind-hearted, and genuinely interested in others.
"He was a great man," Collins told necn.
Glenn Cutting, who is also retired, said he met a lot of interesting people over the course of his long career in Vermont law enforcement, but he said no one tops Muhammad Ali.
Cutting said he considers himself lucky to have been working that night, and said he is still struck by how personable, gentle, and appreciative one of the most famous men in the world was of help from the Vermont State Police.
Collins and Cutting both said they were impressed at Ali's generosity when he gave the mechanic a very big cash tip after he suffered a minor injury fixing the tire.