Some folks who make chocolate chip cookies trotted out the greatest heavyweight fighter of his generation yesterday afternoon, into a cloud of hot dust and 8-year-olds at Brookhaven Elementary School in Rockville.
Muhammad Ali, 44, emerged laboriously from a yellow limousine at 2:18 p.m. He hugged kids, signed his name over and over and for 20 minutes moved from photo opportunity to photo opportunity. But he never said a word.
Ali posed with the Brookhaven Rockets of the National Capital Soccer League, whose players were born in 1977, the year before he thrashed Leon Spinks and retook the world title for the third and final time.
He stood alongside team captain Chris Chambers and, when the boy wasn't looking, Ali slid an arm behind his back, put two meaty fingers next to Chris' ear and rubbed them together to make a sound like crepe paper rustling. It was a trick a man might play on a boy he loved, and the boy laughed.
But Ali never said a word.
"This is all he is going to do," said Roberto Anderson, an administrative assistant at Celebrity Products, the company pitching Champ cookies, which have Ali's picture on the bag. Anderson said Ali "doesn't want to answer any personal questions."
A half-dozen aides hovered around the former champion. They hollered at him from time to time, hurrying him along. "Got to get back, Ali, let's go," they said, though Anderson conceded the only place they had to go was back to the hotel room. Ali took his time, moving tentatively, signing papers, toying with the boys' hair, kissing the little girls.
These kids never saw Ali when he was brash and young and full of life, but Martha Abolins, their teacher, did. "I expected him to be more verbal," she said matter-of-factly.
Doctors two years ago diagnosed Ali as having Parkinson's Syndrome, a nerve disorder that doesn't affect the brain but slows his movements and slurs his speech.
"He loves the kids," said Celebrity Products spokesman Ed Arnold, which was evident from the easy way Ali moved among them, like a mime, captivating them with his silence.
"People want to know what he thinks of Sugar Ray Leonard going back in the ring," someone told Anderson. "Won't he answer that?"
"Maybe you can get him in the limo now, before they leave."
"Ali, what about Sugar Ray and Hagler? What do you think?"
The old fighter kept signing autographs, but looked up out of the corner of his eye.
"It's his business," said Ali, softly. "He's doing what he wants to do."