By Leighton Ginn
When John Carlos returned from a cross-country trip in 2005, his phone was ringing constantly, and annoyingly.
Carlos didn’t want to pick up, but it wouldn’t stop ringing.
Finally, Carlos answered and it was a voice he didn’t recognize.
“He said, who’s calling? I said ‘George Foreman and I’m looking for John Carlos.’ He said again, ‘who is this’? I said George Foreman. He said, ‘Yeah, right,’” Foreman remembered. “I had to prove to him that I was George Foreman.”
“I had to prove to him that I was George Foreman.” — George Foreman
Carlos and Foreman were teammates in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and were close friends. But what happened to both kept them from communicating for over 36 years.
Carlos, who would win the bronze medal in the 200-meter dash, went to the awards ceremony with gold medal winner Tommie Smith and provided the lasting image of the 1968 Olympics. As the U.S. National Anthem played, Smith and Carlos dropped their heads and each raised a fist in a black glove. They were making a stand for civil rights and were protesting the treatment of African Americans in the turbulent 60s.
Carlos and Smith were thrown out of the Olympic Village and were sent on the first plane home. Many felt their protest was an anti-American act.
A few days later, a 19-year-old Foreman won gold medal when he won the heavyweight boxing title. To celebrate his victory, Foreman waved a small American flag he had tucked away. Many pitted the images against each other, showing Foreman as the pro-American and a contrast to Carlos and Smith.
However, Foreman said his celebration didn’t have a message, other than to say he was happy with his victory and proud of the country he was from, despite what others might interpret.
And Carlos, for his part, said he never interpreted Foreman’s celebration as a message against himself and Smith.
“George and I never had tension,” Carlos said in a telephone interview from his home in Georgia. “Other people felt George sold out. Some of the athletes felt that way. Some of the hard core black revolutionists might have felt that way … I never had any misgivings of George.”
“I never had any misgivings of George.” — John Carlos
Yet, Carlos and Foreman had not spoken since the Olympics. That was, until Foreman called him out of the blue.
By this time, Foreman was the two-time world heavyweight champion, having won the title a second time in 1994 and became the oldest heavyweight champion at 45-years old. Foreman also was a successful businessman with his popular Foreman Grills.
Foreman said one day he started thinking about Carlos and realized it was such a long time since they’ve been in contact. So Foreman started calling around, trying to track down Carlos.
“You’re busy, busy, busy, and when you stop to look around, it’s 30 years,” Foreman said. “I wanted him to know he is still my teammate, I missed him and I love him.”
“I wanted him to know he is still my teammate, I missed him and I love him.” — George Foreman
But convincing Carlos took some time.
A skeptical Carlos kept asking questions, but then came one answer that convinced Carlos it was, in fact, Foreman.
He asked Foreman why he fought for so long, and why he was considering getting back into the ring.
“When he answered, ‘You know, my wife has been asking me that same question.’ I thought, it really is George,” Carlos said. “That’s how he would answer a question like that. I knew it was him.”
The two rekindled their friendship, communicated by phone or email.
One day, the Palm Springs High School counselor was working on a Black History Month celebration and was searching for that one person to make it special for the students. That’s when Carlos reached out to Foreman and asked if he would consider flying to Palm Springs from Houston.
The only problem was the ceremony was the next day, so Foreman could only get there if he chartered a private jet. For Foreman, there wasn’t a second thought. It was important for Foreman to be there for Carlos and he flew in with his daughter.
“Me in Palm Springs, that was our day. He was walking around and I was looking at him with the same awe that I had.” — George Foreman
Foreman said it was well worth it.
“I’ll tell you, the crowning moment was reuniting with John Carlos,” Foreman said. “That’s big, oh, if I could tell you how special that was. That was special. That was my teammate, my real beloved teammate who I hadn’t seen all those years.
“Me in Palm Springs, that was our day. He was walking around and I was looking at him with the same awe that I had. He told me some amazing stories.”