The son reached out to make a tackle. This was last season, the ninth game of the year, against the Philadelphia Eagles. Who knows what happened? He was at a bad angle, twisted a wrong way. Something like that. He had hold of the ballcarrier, but he was violating some basic law of physics: Instead of falling down or staggering, the ballcarrier kept moving; instead of letting go, dropping an impossible task, the son hung on to the ballcarrier's body. The biceps in the son's right arm was ripped from the bone.
He remembers the feeling mostly as a muscle cramp. There wasn't any cartoon sound, any sudden stab of incredible pain. A cramp. He went back to the bench, and the Dallas Cowboys' doctor explained what had happened. The muscle had ripped away and bunched into a knot high in his arm. The doctor said it was like a window shade that had rolled up in a hurry. The son had the arm taped and finished the game.
"You have two choices," the doctor explained later. "You can have the surgery right away. The muscle will be as good as it's ever been, but you'll be out for the season. Or you can wait until the season's finished. We can't guarantee anything then. If you wait for the operation...do you know how, when you leave a piece of meat on a counter for a couple of days, the meat becomes hard and brittle on the outside? That's what will happen to the end of your muscle. It will be much tougher to reattach. It's your choice."
The son thought for a day and said he would play. He felt that the mental pain of not playing would be worse than the physical pain he might experience. There was nothing he could do for the injury, no therapy, no pharmaceutical treatment. The initial feeling, the cramp, never left. Sundays were the best days, because the adrenaline, the excitement, took control. The other days were worse. The injured area became swollen. He could not do the easiest things around the house. He could not carry his eight-year-old stepdaughter to bed. The muscle was still a knot at the top of his right arm.
He played the entire season. He couldn't intercept a pass. He couldn't lift his arm higher than his shoulder. Curiously, he played as well as he ever had. The injury forced him back to the basics of football, moving his feet, getting into position to make a tackle, lowering his head and making sure he put his entire shoulder on the ballcarrier. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl. He went from that game to Hawaii, where he played in his first Pro Bowl.
"I could have had the operation after the Super Bowl, but I wanted to go to the Pro Bowl," he says. "That had been a goal of mine for a long time."
He had the operation in February, after the Pro Bowl. The son, Ken Norton Jr., also can be a stubborn man.
The story should be so easy. The son of a former heavyweight champion of the world is an All-Pro linebacker, now playing with the San Francisco 49ers, in the first year of a six-year, $9.6 million contract. There have not been many father-son combinations like this in American sports, two athletes so successful in two different games. There should be pictures of the two of them on the covers of magazines, face next to face—two versions of the same smiling face, 20 years or so apart. There should be endorsements. Same name. Same face. Same success. There should be...joy.
The father raised the son by himself. That was what was so different. He wasn't some absentee dad, some visitor for weekend walks in the park or trips to Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm. When his first marriage broke up in 1967 and his son was only 14 months old, the father took custody. He was the single parent in the single-parent household. They were voyagers on the same trip, the father and the son. Nobody else.
"I raised him from when he was wearing diapers," the father says. "I changed those diapers. There weren't any Pampers around, any of that. I washed the diapers. I stuck my hands in the poop. No man I knew was doing what I was doing. Not one. People couldn't believe it. I was a pretty good-looking guy, but I'd meet women, and when they found out I had a son? Forget it."