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Memories of 'The Greatest' when he's your grandfather

Biaggio Ali-Walsh, who has signed with California, will bring a multi-faceted résumé to Berkeley. He played running back at national powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, and with a 40-yard dash time of 4.41 seconds, he'll be one of the fastest incoming freshmen in the country.

The high school senior also signed with Wilhelmina Models, one of the world's prominent agencies. He's an amateur magician and he has become close with former Cal great Marshawn Lynch.

Most interesting of all: He's Muhammad Ali's grandson.

"Growing up, being around him, he was a grandfather," Ali-Walsh said. "But to the public, he was an icon. I would watch videos of my own grandfather on YouTube. And then we'd go over on Thanksgiving and see him in person. This is the guy I was just watching on YouTube! That was crazy -- I'd trip out like that."

Ali-Walsh's view of Ali was markedly different than the public's. Many know the legend for his flashy pre-fight trash talk -- something that his grandson learned was simply a veneer for the public.

"He had to talk because boxing was more individual," Ali-Walsh said. "But behind the cameras, my grandfather was one of the most humble people you'll ever meet. He definitely talked, and he told us that he talked a lot for people to pay, for the entertainment aspect of it. That's why he did the talking. So it would sell."

Ali-Walsh dedicated his senior season at Bishop Gorman to his grandfather, who passed in June at the age of 74. He converted a game-winning 2-point conversion in triple overtime against Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas that all but locked up an eventual No. 1 national ranking for the Gaels. But unlike his grandfather, Ali-Walsh doesn't do much in-game talking.

"That's ironic, considering how my grandfather was," he said with a laugh.

Instead, Ali-Walsh attempts to emulate the quiet ways of Lynch, the former Cal running back who has become a mentor of sorts. Ali-Walsh and Lynch -- a big fan of Ali's -- became close around the time of his grandfather's death.

Most people remember Ali as a global icon and an all-time great champion. For Ali-Walsh, Muhammad Ali was simply known as "Poppy," but as Ali-Walsh has gotten older, he's come to appreciate the magnitude of his grandfather's legacy.

"He really inspired me, because he's created an expectation that I really want to live up to," Ali-Walsh said. "I know it's going to be hard to meet that level, but it pushes me to better myself not only in sports -- but as a person."

What's it like to grow up with Muhammad Ali as your grandfather? Ali-Walsh shared some of his memories of growing up with "Poppy."

Muhammad Ali, the greatest fighter of all time, was a Popsicle enthusiast.

"He loved Popsicles," Ali-Walsh said. "He was a big fan of fruit Popsicles. The fruitier, the better."

Ali-Walsh and his younger brother, Nico, who has taken up boxing, knew they were in for a treat when they visited their grandfather.

"He had a ton of Popsicles in his freezer," Ali-Walsh said. "We would just raid his freezer and eat them all when we came over."

When Ali came to visit his grandchildren in Las Vegas, Popsicle consumption hit record levels. Ali made sure that the freezer in his hotel room at The Bellagio was stocked before his grandchildren came to visit.

"Nico and I downed eight Popsicles that day," Ali-Walsh recalled. "They were all my grandfather's. I remember that day -- it was such a fun day."

Before Ali-Walsh's family moved to Las Vegas, they lived in Chicago and made frequent trips to Ali's estate in Berrien Springs, Michigan, which he nicknamed "The Farm."

"His land over there was massive," Ali-Walsh said. "To get from place to place, you had to use a golf cart."

Four Doberman pinschers, including one named "Champ," guarded the estate. The dogs had their own house on the property and would respond viciously to any intruder. But they loved Ali's grandchildren, furiously chasing their golf cart as it rumbled around the property.

"They were mean-looking," Ali-Walsh said. "They had spikes around their necks. They were sick. When I get a dog, I'm actually going to get a Doberman because of my grandfather. That's my favorite dog. You don't want to mess with those dogs."

Muhammad Ali had Parkinson's disease for more than 30 years and as his health deteriorated, he was often unable to speak, so his family communicated with him nonverbally.

"My dad loved magic," said Rasheda Ali-Walsh, Muhammad's daughter and Biaggio's mother. "Nico and Biaggio would show my dad magic tricks and my dad would have to figure them out. It was so beautiful to watch. You'd just show my dad the trick and his eyes would light up."

The two brothers bought a kit sold by the magician Criss Angel so they'd be able to perform for their grandfather. One trick involved sticking a pencil through a dollar bill, and then revealing that the bill didn't actually have a hole in it. Another -- Ali's favorite -- involved making a toothpick that was secretly taped to the thumb look like it had disappeared with a simple flick.

"We would do that one, and it would have him tripping out," Ali-Walsh said.

Ali often performed tricks for friends and family. But that came with a caveat.

"We're Muslim so we're not supposed to deceive people," Rasheda said. "So he would always tell people how he did the trick because he didn't want to deceive anyone."

Ali also enjoyed painting, which offered another means of communication for Biaggio and Nico, who would draw portraits of their grandfather.

"His reaction to these drawings would be our way of communicating with him," Ali-Walsh said. "We would draw a really big ring, like the George Foreman fight. And we'd draw so many dots around the ring representing people. He loved that, because it would take him back to that feeling of walking into that ring with all the people watching the fight."

It's a feeling Ali-Walsh remembered during a recent visit to Cal's Memorial Stadium, where he stood on the field enveloped by 60,000 seats.

"I think about how big the crowd is going to be in college all the time," Ali-Walsh said. "It's crazy because my grandpa dealt with it so well, and I want to see if I can, too."

Before Ali-Walsh reached high school, only his closest friends knew that Muhammad Ali was his grandfather.

"Back then, it was a huge secret who our grandfather was," Ali-Walsh explained. "If we liked you enough, we would tell you. But we kept it a secret, because we didn't want people to be me and Nico's friends just because of who we were related to."

In 2007, during Ali-Walsh's fourth-grade basketball game, the secret was let out when Ali decided to drop into a Las Vegas gym to surprise his grandchildren. He entered through a side door with the game already underway.

"Everybody just stopped what they were doing and looked," Ali-Walsh said. "The ref was like -- 'what the ...?'"

A crowd gathered around Ali, as parents in the stands turned their attention away from their kids' basketball game to get a glimpse of the boxing legend.

"The ref couldn't really ref, the coach couldn't really coach," Rasheda Ali-Walsh said. "Nobody could believe it. Nico fell down onto the ground out of shock. It was just hysterical."

Even late in life, Ali had similar pull -- one that would magnetically capture the attention of any venue he entered -- every time he made an appearance in public.

"Every time we would go out, we would see how much people loved him," Ali-Walsh said. "We'd go to movie theaters and everyone in line would stop what they were doing and bum-rush us. Going into restaurants, everyone would stand and clap."

Ali-Walsh said that seeing these experiences of public adulation firsthand grounded him and his brother, because Ali would communicate perspective to the boys afterward.

"I feel that in this generation, if someone were to have that kind of power, they would let it get to their head," Ali-Walsh said. "So I would always ask my grandpa, 'With all that fame, do you like it?' And he said that he did, but he told me to always stay humble. Don't let anything get to your head. We're all humans, and no one is higher than anyone else. Over the years, that's the biggest thing I got from him."

Ali's health prevented him from attending many of Ali-Walsh's high school games, but he was able to make a surprise visit for Bishop Gorman's win in the 2014 Nevada state championship game in Reno, capping off a perfect season. Ali-Walsh was a sophomore, and hadn't played much that season, but he broke out for 137 rushing yards on only four carries with his grandfather watching.

It was Ali-Walsh's coming-out party: As a junior in 2015, he would explode onto the Division I scholarship radar.

"It was foreshadowing as to what would be coming his following season," Rasheda said. "I think many would agree. I think his grandfather being there really helped him. And that was really neat."

Like many mothers of children who play contact sports, Rasheda Ali-Walsh is conflicted.

"I don't want Biaggio to play football and I don't want Nico to box," she said. "I want them to swim or play golf or something that wouldn't worry me as much. But then I realize: What if my grandmother had taken away my dad's dream from him in boxing?"

"My dad loved boxing so much, but he should have retired a lot sooner," Rasheda said. "He didn't want to say goodbye to boxing. He let boxing say goodbye to him."

Rasheda is now a public advocate for Parkinson's research, as well as an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump's travel ban. She devotes time to familiarizing herself with preventative training techniques designed to pre-emptively fend off the damage that football and boxing can inflict on her sons.

"The only thing I can do is try to keep them as safe and healthy as possible," she said.

As her sons work to perpetuate their grandfather's legacy, starting on the gridiron and in the ring, the bar doesn't rest at athletic aspirations; it's set much higher than that.

"To say Muhammad Ali was only a boxer would be an insult," Rasheda said. "My sons see their grandpa, who took boxing as his platform, changed it, made it exciting for all races, religions, and ages. He did more than just box."