HUNTINGTON — When Marshall running back Rasheen Ali answered the phone at his apartment for interviews this week, there was another Ali in the picture.
That would be Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxers in history and someone Rasheen Ali has always admired, shown in a poster hanging in the background.
“Oh yeah, I’ve got a lot of posters,” Ali said. “Growing up, I boxed. I’ve got the USA boxing, I’ve got Muhammad Ali, I’ve got a lot of posters of a lot of greats.”
As Ali spoke about the picture and its importance to him, it became known that boxing, not football, was his first sports experience.
While Ali has since traded in his boxing gloves for a helmet and shoulder pads, the lessons learned in boxing are still with him as he takes the field for the Thundering Herd.
Ali said his father made him box as a kid, which gave him the toughness that he exhibits on the football field.
“My dad has a lot to do with how I am today,” Alis said. “It definitely made me mentally tough because if you can sit in the ring and fight somebody, you can definitely run up and down a football field with a team of people.”
That toughness has shined through as Ali burst onto the scene last year, showcasing an ability to make plays in practice.
While it did not translate to the field at the time, it gave Ali the confidence coming into 2021 to go after the starting job, which he’s won.
Since then, he hasn’t looked back.
Ali leads FBS in touchdowns with 13 and is averaging 93 yards per game on the ground.
Much of Ali’s success can be attributed to his keen footwork, which also circles back to his boxing experience growing up.
“It helped me get in and out of cuts easier,” Ali said. “My whole life, I’ve been doing eye-hand coordination and bouncing in and out, in and out, in and out.”
Those cuts caught the eye of first-year Marshall coach Charles Huff early in his tenure.
Following the win at Navy, Huff said that Ali has the “it” factor, much like what he’s seen out of Saquon Barkley and Najee Harris as they got their start at Alabama, where Huff served as an assistant coach before coming to Marshall.
However, Ali fell victim to fumbles, which plagued him in the early weeks of the season. Huff attributed several of those fumbles to Ali fighting for extra yardage.
It’s symbolic for Ali because, for the Cleveland native, everything has been a battle to reach his stature within Division I football.
Ali still laughed and said that football comes much easier for him than being in the boxing ring.
“Boxing was always the most pressure I had in my life, so football was never a big [pressure] deal for me,” Ali said. “It was easy because all eyes aren’t on me.”
In terms of teams trying to game plan for Marshall’s offense, all eyes are starting to shift toward Ali as he’s ripped off several big gains and shown an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Ali will no doubt be a focal point of the North Texas defense this weekend as the Mean Green looks to take down the Herd at 7 p.m. on Friday.