Skip to main content
Original Issue

Like Father, Like Son

Linebacker Ken Norton Jr. of UCLA is one hard hitter, as was his dad, the ex-champion

Something is calling to you. Your eyelids snap open and there it is, clear as a signal bounced off a satellite. Former heavyweight champion Ken Norton is young again, whole, strong. It's the second round of a 1973 heavyweight title fight in San Diego. Blood is seeping from Muhammad Ali's mouth; Norton has broken Ali's jaw. The crowd roars. Dr. Ferdie Pacheco is saying, "Ken Norton has one of the most perfect bodies I've ever seen of any athlete in any sport." Norton goes on to win the fight by a decision.

Then, suddenly, you think about that stupid movie Mandingo. Acting the role of a slave in the antebellum South, Norton stood by with his thumb in his mouth while the mistress of the plantation had the umbilical cord of their newborn child sliced so the baby would bleed to death. Then Norton, er, Mandingo died a horrible death in a giant kettle of boiling water. And that was that. This is what you remember when you think about Norton—Muhammad Ali's broken jaw and an embarrassing movie. The curtain comes down quickly after that.

It's picture day at Spaulding Field on the UCLA campus, and the football team is dressed out in spanking new blue-and-gold uniforms. Some of the most perfect bodies of any athletes in any sport are running around beneath gold helmets. No. 41 has his back turned. Seeing the outline of the body, you'd swear it is Ken Norton. In fact, it says NORTON across the shoulders. Norton did wear No. 41 when he played football, but that was 25 years ago.

Of course, it couldn't be Norton because on Feb. 23, 1986, he drove a Clenet sports car over the side of the Vermont Avenue on-ramp of the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles. The car hurtled down an embankment and came to a crashing halt, totaled. The fire department needed the Jaws of Life to get Norton out. He was nearly in sections. He had a broken leg, a shattered jaw and a fractured skull. Two teeth were knocked completely out of his head. Bits of skull were lodged in his brain. And his face—you could not even recognize it as Norton's. So if this isn't Ken Norton in Bruin blue-and-gold, who is it?

When No. 41 turns around, the mystery is solved. This is Ken Norton Jr., the prizefighter's son, 6'2", 230 pounds of senior All-America inside linebacker, hard as a brick, a candidate for the Butkus and Lombardi awards. He is such a natural that he earned a UCLA football letter as an 18-year-old freshman.

"Kenny was so very gifted," says coach Terry Donahue, "he could have been a tight end, a running back. He's a more versatile athlete than our top tailbacks, Gaston Green or Eric Ball, and I take nothing away from them at all. When Kenny was a freshman, all the coaches on the staff wanted him in their group."

Running back coach Ted Williams was in charge of the UCLA linebackers during Norton's first three years. "When he came here, the greatest need was at linebacker," says Williams. "Ken was good enough to play tailback. Still is. But when we brought the freshmen in, he tested higher than anybody in his class in agility, elasticity, speed and strength combined. All we had to do was see him take his pass drop. When the quarterback drops five steps, a good linebacker will be 10 yards back. On his first drop, Ken got 18 yards back. Terry looked at me and said, 'Hey. We've really got something here.' "

For the second straight year, Norton has been voted a captain of the defensive team by his fellow players. Last year he led the 7-3-1 Bruins in tackles with 106, many of them the kind of punishing, wrestling-style takedowns that Norton calls "sized-up hits." He leads UCLA again this season and has paced the Bruins to a 4-1 record and the No. 5 ranking in the SI Top 20.

"You know what my fantasy is?" he says. "I envision Ryan Knight turning the corner on the USC sweep. I'm there every time. I jump over the lineman and then...when you get a really good, sized-up hit, it's like riding on a cushion of compression. It fits. There's no pain. The air explodes out of the pads. It's a solid sound, and the crowd feels it and goes 'Ooooo....' "

It has been said that linebackers must be a little uncivilized, but the thought of another one whose idea of Utopia is the smell of blood through a broken nose is almost enough to make you root for the nerds.

Then Norton takes off in an unexpected direction. "You don't want to use your helmet, though," he says. "I see guys who show off their helmets with these scars and different color paint streaks on them. They say, 'This means I'm a tough guy.' They're fools. Hey, I'm a psych major. I never gave any thought at all to becoming a boxer. I didn't want to end up with...Parkinson's disease." Norton laughs with a snort, his great jaw jutting out like that of a gargoyle.

"That was what he had to learn," says Donahue. "To revel in it. He had to learn to take on the isolation running plays, right at him—to feed off the contact. He's been toughened. I don't think he ever disliked contact. I just don't think he understood it."

"I never allowed him to see me fight, not in person, not even on television," says Ken Norton, the father. "I never wanted him to see me get hurt in the ring. I didn't want to leave him with a scar."

Long before Norton broke Ali's jaw, he had already played fullback in high school in Jacksonville, Ill., and for two years at Northeast Missouri State. Norton enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1963 and served part of his hitch at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, where his extraordinary physique, as much as anything, led him into the ring. Norton wasn't a prizefighter at heart, but he looked the part. "And I never lifted a weight," says Norton. "Never in my life. Not until after I left boxing."

While a Marine, Norton got married, but the marriage lasted only two years. After the divorce became final, Norton and his wife agreed that he would raise his 14-month-old son and namesake.

"When Jeanette and I got divorced, there were no hard feelings," says Norton. "No real hard feelings. I took Kenny because he was my son, and I loved him. She's a good lady, but she could not have loved him more than I did. I learned to change diapers, feed him. I didn't have to learn to love him."

Norton's first professional fight was in 1967 when he knocked out Grady Brazell. After that he fought 29 times in five years, winning 28, before he got the chance at Ali, who was then wearing only the NABF heavyweight crown. Ken Jr., six years old at the time, stayed with friends in Carson, Calif., the night of that fight. During other fights he would be with his grandparents at their home in Jacksonville. Occasionally, Norton would take his son to a training site, like the Gilman Hot Springs resort near San Jacinto, Calif.

"I never saw him fight," says Ken Jr. "He made sure of that. But I've seen my dad wake up at four in the morning to run. I saw what he had to do. I saw you had to hurt. You had to sacrifice. Eat certain things. Have a certain attitude. Be a certain way. It was drilled into me early. He didn't like how dangerous it was, how hard it was. He said it just wasn't a good life."

Ken Jr. has only a vague recollection of the night his father beat Ali. "My father never made a big deal out of it," he says, "so I had no reason to."

Norton's ring career would last eight more years, propelled by that one incredible upset, two more stirring fights against Ali—both losses—and his perfect body. In March 1978 he was handed the WBC title when new champion Leon Spinks withdrew from a promised fight with Norton to give Muhammad Ali a rematch. Norton's reign was shortlived; ten weeks later he lost the crown in an epic 15-round war with Larry Holmes. Finally, Gerry Cooney annihilated Norton in 54 seconds in May 1981. He retired from the ring with all his faculties, to a future that seemed to offer vast possibilities.

In the mid-'70s, Norton had made Mandingo and Drum, two period films that were not epic in any proportion save lack of good taste. His handsome features still intact after a 14-year career, Norton now took another stab at acting, with a small role in TV's The A-Team, and became a print ad model. ABC Radio hired him to do color commentary on boxing during the 1984 Olympics. "He did a good job. He was very glib and knowledgeable," says Shelby Whitfield, the executive producer for sports at ABC Radio. "He might have had a future."

During this time, Norton also shared offices with an agent named Jack Rodri, and he joined with Rodri in representing the Rams' star running back, Eric Dicker-son. Both Norton and Dickerson ended up suing Rodri for mismanagement in unrelated suits, which are still pending in the courts. (Rodri denies the allegations and has filed a counter suit against Norton.) Dickerson remains a Norton family friend and a particular idol of Ken Jr., who can't get enough of tailbacks.

Norton had remarried in 1977. He and wife Jackie have three children, Brandon, now 17, from Jackie's first marriage; Kenisha, 11; and Kene Jon, 6. Accepting Jackie and adjusting to his new family was difficult for Ken Jr. When Ken Jr. was 15, his father sent him to Kentucky to spend some time with his natural mother. "I wanted him to know her," says Norton. "It was that simple."

"We tried," says Ken Jr. "But I didn't know her at all. It dawned on me a little later, about Jackie. Here she was, washing my clothes, picking me up from school, doing all these things. Jackie was my mother."

Ken Jr. was still adjusting when he told his father he would play football at Westchester High School in Los Angeles. "I had forbidden it until he was a junior in high school," says Norton. "I wanted his bones to be set before he tried it. Heck, the boy was a fine outfielder. But he was thinking football."

Ken Jr. gained more than 800 yards rushing his senior year and started at linebacker on defense. If he had to pick a hero, a role model, it would be another athlete with a remarkable physique: Herschel Walker. "I thought the world of Walker," he says. And if Walker played tailback, so would he, at UCLA.

Williams, the assistant coach who recruited Norton, says, "He was so shy he couldn't even look at you. I talked to the side of his head when he was a junior in high school. We didn't so much as make eye contact until his senior year. I told him, 'Son, you can play for anybody.' "

But not tailback for anybody. The Bruin coaches wanted him to play defense. The dream of being another Walker was just that. "If the head coach at UCLA came up to me and said, "You've been evaluated as the best freshman athlete on the team,' I don't think I'd be disappointed," says Donahue. But Norton was disappointed. Concerned for his son, Ken Sr. called Donahue. They chatted about the move. The upshot: Ken Jr. became an inside linebacker and learned to like it. Better to hit than to be hit.

"Amen," says Ken Sr.

When the California Highway Patrolman told Jackie over the phone that her husband had been in an accident and asked her to please stay calm, she had no trouble obliging him. Norton had been in a bad accident a little more than three years before, while riding a motorcycle on the Harbor Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. A car veered into Norton's lane. He somehow flipped himself off the motorcycle, which ended up under the car. Norton then somersaulted—or something—and soared over the hood of the car to land on his feet. He suffered two sprained ankles. That was about it. This would be much, much worse.

Norton says, "I can't remember anything about it. I remember snatches of that night, but about the accident, I don't remember a thing. It's just gone. If I hadn't been in shape, there's no doubt I would've bought the farm."

Says Jackie: "It happened so quickly his brain didn't have time to record it. As bad as it was physically, mentally it was worse for him. Kenny had always been such a great athlete. He was 243 pounds when the accident happened. To go from that to...."

The night of the accident, Norton had attended a gubernatorial fund-raiser for L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley. No witnesses to the 11 p.m. crash came forward. Jackie dismisses alcohol as a possible cause. "Ken never drank," says Jackie. "They've pretty much concluded there was something wrong with the car. But it's still a mystery." (Norton has sued the manufacturers. Ford and Clenet Coach-works, alleging that the accident was caused by a design defect. Ford and Clenet are contesting the suit.)

Norton was transferred at 3:30 the next morning from California Hospital to Cedars-Sinai, where doctors operated on him for three hours. "I almost felt as sorry for Ken Jr. as I did for Ken," says Jackie. "When he found out, he was taking finals." A family friend called Ken Jr., who immediately "went numb"—and then to the hospital and his father's bedside.

"It was strange," says Ken Jr. "I had always seen my father as this Superman. Nothing in the world could hurt him that I knew of. The crash made him human to me."

Norton rapidly lost 43 pounds. "There's no doubt that someone without the body Ken had would not have survived," says Jackie.

Three weeks after the accident, when he checked out of Cedars-Sinai, Norton still was not a well man, not himself. Ken Jr. would take him to the shower, leaning him against the wall and supporting him with one hand while he made sure of the water temperature. When Norton wandered to the family car one day and attempted to start it and go who-knows-where—he can't remember what destination he had in mind—it was Ken Jr. who came and persuaded him to return to the house. He would take his father for long strolls in a wheelchair. "He always wanted to know what had happened to him," says Ken Jr.

"I was like an infant, couldn't walk, couldn't talk," says Norton. "Ken was very supportive, being the son I needed, being the man I needed—in that one year he made up for a lifetime of whatever it is I've done for him."

Now Norton has regained most of the weight, but he may limp for the rest of his life. His equilibrium is still unsteady, his memory is fuzzy, and there is occasional numbness in the right side of his body. His speech is slurred just like Ali's. "Kenny loved to talk, to express himself," says Jackie. "That's the worst thing for him now."

"I'm twice as strong as before I got hurt," says Norton, who is undergoing physical and speech therapy, "but I get that numbing in my right side, like hitting your crazy bone."

Last season, Norton went to a UCLA game at the Rose Bowl. Jackie tried to prepare him for it. He wore a hat. She carried an umbrella. But the sun and exertion were too much for him. He temporarily lost his sight and nearly blacked out. Two months ago, he attended a UCLA scrimmage. He became sick again, but refused to give in and has gone to each of the Bruins' home games this fall without incident.

"It's strange," says Jackie. "Kenny got out of the ring, where one blow to the head can take you out of this world. He was unmarked. Untouched. The worst thing he ever had was a black eye. He was in such excellent shape, such tip-top form...then for this to happen."

"I think it just was a sign to me," says Norton. "I was not including my family as I should have been doing."

Meanwhile, his son's Bruins hope to win the Pac-10 championship. "We're older and bigger than we were last year," says Ken Jr., who is 10 pounds heavier. "And we're in charge of our bodies. Bigger linemen? So what? They're all big, but they're all slow. I'll beat up and get by a big lineman just as soon as I will a little one."

"I'm just glad to see the work pay off for Kenny," says his father, sitting in his living room. "I don't think I should have to say I'm proud of my son. If any father isn't proud of his son, then something's wrong."

At practice. Ken Norton Jr. is flexing his arms. His neck bows up. The sun glints brightly off his helmet. He's ably demonstrating the sized-up hit. He makes a muscle forklift of his arms and gathers me up. He makes it seem all so very inescapable.

That evening. Ken Norton Sr. struggles to make the words come out right. Slowly but surely he says, "Only sons...can make fathers...immortal."



Against Nebraska, Norton stuffed the run, forcing the Huskers to pass for their win.



Norton broke Ali's jaw early in the first of their three fights and won by a split decision.



Ken Jr. has been behind Dad all the way in his effort to recover from a car crash.



Though Norton dreamed of being a tailback, the Bruins elected him a defensive captain.



Ken Jr. didn't warm to stepmother Jackie till he came to see she'd always been at his side.



After the Bruins crushed San Diego State 47-14, UCLA fans gave Norton a big hand.