When Desmond Howard takes a seat in the back of a convertible as the grand marshal of the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s annual parade on Sunday, it won’t be a first ride through the village of Canastota for the 1991 Heisman Trophy winner.
Howard, a huge boxing fan, attended the Boxing Hall of Fame’s induction weekend last year.
He wasn’t invited by the Hall of Fame officials. He wasn’t paid an appearance fee. He just showed up at the urging of a friend, who had made the Hall of Fame weekend a regular trip.
“Once I found out Tyson was being inducted,’’ Howard said. “I said OK.’’
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“I was with Mike Tyson, talking to him and his wife, and Bert asked me to hop in the car with him,’’ Howard said. “You don’t decline an invitation like that.’’
So Howard rode alongside Sugar; the former Super Bowl MVP and the gregarious writer in his trademark fedora. Sugar took pride in the fact that both he and Howard were University of Michigan graduates.
So when officials at the Boxing Hall of Fame asked Howard to return this year as the parade’s grand marshal, he took less time than one of his famous kickoff returns to accept.
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“It’s a huge honor,’’ Howard, who since 2005 has been part of ESPN’s widely-popular College GameDay show, said. “I’ve been such a big fan of the sport and boxers for such a long time. I still have VHS tapes of fights. I’ve always been around boxing. In my book (“I Wore 21’’), I talk about my football career, but there are quotes in there from Mike Tyson.’’
Howard’s return to Canastota will be tinged with sadness, however. This past March, Sugar passed away. He was 74 years old.
“Bert was the life of the party no matter where he was,’’ Howard said. “Bert would talk to anyone. It didn’t matter if it was the heavyweight champion of the world or just a stranger on the street. He’d have a conversation like he’d known you for years. He was so engaging.’’
Howard and the boxing world lost another Hall of Famer in February when Angelo Dundee, who was best known as Muhammad Ali’s trainer, died at the age of 90.
Howard met Dundee several years ago when he visited the set of the movie “Ali.’’
“I met Will Smith and I met Ali with my dad,’’ he said, “and I met Angelo there.’’
Howard became friends with Dundee and his family. He started training at Dundee’s gym in Miami and continues to work out there.
Clearly, Howard is more of a boxing fan than many of the Hall’s past parade grand marshal. He can rattle off the names of the members of the 1984 U.S. Boxing team. In an instant, he recounts Floyd Mayweather’s epic 2001 fight against the late Diego Corrales.
“Mayweather just disarmed him,’’ Howard says. “Corrales’ corner threw in the towel.’’
Of his fellow GameDay pals, Howard lists only Lee Corso as a boxing fan.
“I know he follows it,’’ Howard said, setting up his foe for the knockout punch, “but he’s in his 70s now so I’m not sure how many of those late-night bouts he’s staying up to see.’’
Although he works out in Dundee’s gym, Howard never boxed. He stuck to football, baseball, basketball and track. But when he got to Michigan, he began incorporating boxing exercises into his workout regimen.
“I would jump rope,’’ Howard said. “I had a boom-box and I’d put three or four of my favorite rap songs on a cassette tape. I figured if I jumped rope for the entire tape, I’d be done at 12 minutes. That was my goal.
“Even today, I travel with a jump rope.’’
Howard hit the speed-bag after he heard that it would help his hand-eye coordination, which would translate to catching footballs.
Each player on the Michigan football team had to run 1.5 miles in a certain time. Howard detested distance running.
“Distance was my enemy,’’ he said. “But I’d act like a boxer and go do my road work at night. When that mile and a half run came, it was a breeze.’’
Howard said he’s looking forward to Sunday’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony when the likes of Thomas Hearns, Mark Johnson and trainer Freddie Roach will be among this year’s induction class. He will take yet another ride down Canastota’s main thoroughfare in a scene dripping with small-town Americana.
And as he waves to the crowd, he’ll remember his old friends, Sugar and Dundee.
“Their deaths both affected me,’’ Howard said. “I definitely still wanted to come to the Hall of Fame this year; maybe even more so with them being gone.’’
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