BERKELEY (KPIX) – When Justin Wilcox took over as the head coach at Cal in 2017 he promised an improved defense and a tougher brand of football. Wilcox hasn’t delivered a Rose Bowl bid yet, but there’s no doubt the Bears are a more physical group.
In fact, the player who packs the biggest punch does so with his middle name: Ali.
“I’m a little unique myself,” said running back Biaggio Ali Walsh, “Berkeley’s perfect right now for me.”
The Bears redshirt freshman is loving life on one of the most socially aware college campuses in the country. It’s an appropriate home for Muhammad Ali’s grandson.
But Walsh hopes to leave his mark at Cal for the same reason that initally made his grandfather an American sports icon – speed and athleticism.
“When I see a hole I’m going to hit it… and I’m gone,” he said of his attributes that most Cal fans have yet to see on Saturdays.
Walsh is two years removed from being named Nevada’s player of the year at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. These days most of his football is played on Cal’s scout team.
“You come out of high school thinking you’re super good, but everyone’s good here,” said Walsh who received eight official offers from Division I schools including Cal.
Walsh is the son of Rasheda Ali who is one of Muhammad’s nine children. It wasn’t until recently that Walsh became comfortable with publicly acknowledging his famous bloodline. He’s still unsure if all of his Cal teammates are aware.
“It was always a secret growing up,” he said. “I didn’t know if people would be my friend or not because of it, but freshman year (of high school) when I started playing football it got out there.”
By time Walsh was a senior in Las Vegas, he had a butterfly tattooed on his left forearm and a bee on the right. He says most strangers are complimentary of the ink, but rarely understand the significance.
To the world Muhammad Ali was known as “The Greatest,” but to his grandchildren he was known as “Poppy.” Walsh only knew the man who was stricken with Parkinson’s disease which was diagnosed in 1984 – 14 years before he was born.
“His speech was slurred so we could understand him, but it wasn’t super clear,” he said. The grandchildren didn’t need clear speech to treasure their time with him.
“We did a lot of magic tricks with him. We drew a lot, and we watched music videos – especially Beyoncé because he loves women,” Walsh said with a laugh.
Walsh enjoyed watching his grandfather’s fights on YouTube, but admires him most for his distinguished charisma and eloquence. Walsh was introduced to Ali’s history when he did a report on him in the third grade, but he never revealed his relation to the class.
The meat of that reported focused on Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, and the consequences that occurred because of his convictions. Ali was stripped of his license and gave up four years of his prime boxing years. Some say Ali’s sacrifice is reminiscent of Colin Kaepernick’s current sacrifice in the NFL, and Walsh agrees.
“I think the same people who hated my grandfather are the same people who hate Colin Kaepernick right now,” he said. “He’s starting to remind me of my grandfather right now with everything that’s going on.”
Walsh says his grandfather was a big football fan. He often was able to FaceTime with Poppy before big high school games. Even though Poppy could barely speak, Walsh knew he was proud.
“My sophomore year he came to our state game and he saw a 92-yard run,” Walsh said.
In the Ali-Walsh family the greatest football player in the world wears #26 at Cal. Even if he’s low on the Bears depth chart this year, his coaches believe impossible is nothing.
“If he does have pressure from his grandfather’s history he doesn’t show it,” Cal running backs coach Burl Toler III said. “He has a higher expectation for himself then anyone.”