The father wanted a better life for the son. Isn't that a parental imperative? Doesn't every father want to raise a younger, smarter, more successful version of himself, someone who won't feel the same bruises and bumps along the way? The son never saw the father fight in person. The father wouldn't allow it.
"What happened, a new coach came to my high school for football," the son says. "We had never had good teams, always finishing at the bottom of the league, a lot of times 0-11. The new coach was very enthusiastic. He went around the school looking for kids who should come out for the team, kids who weren't already playing. The name a lot of people told him was mine. The coach came to me and asked if I would play football. I told him he should talk with my father."
Football was another game that the father did not particularly favor. He had played, and he had seen the things coaches do. Why send a kid into all of those collisions when his body had not developed fully? Why play for someone who teaches a kid to plain a helmet square on someone else's numbers, neck injuries be damned? The son was now a junior, though, and almost as big as the father. He had worked out on Nautilus machines at a gym, developing a textbook set of muscles. He already was a very good basketball and baseball player. The father talked with the football coach and liked enough of what he heard. The son became a tailback for Westchester High. The son loved it.
The team still was lousy, winless the son's junior year, but he was a terror. There were all the usual inspirations—the competitiveness of the games, the adolescent emotions flowing like perspiration from every pore—but he also had his name. Ken Norton Jr. Strangers thought he had been raised in some Hollywood hothouse, the pampered child of a pampered star. They had no idea. He remembered the cold hot dogs and the worn sneakers, facts of life. He remembered that his father went off to work and came home with bruises all over his face. That was natural. The son grew up as tough as anyone. Understand? He was proud of his father's name and strangled by it at the same time.
"I suppose, overall, it helped," the son says. "I know it kept me out of some fights. There always was one guy, maybe one guy on each level of school, from grammar school to junior high to high school, who started something, but mostly the name kept me away from trouble. I also was pretty big, and athletics came easy. Sports were pleasant. It's pleasant to be picked first all the time."
The Westchester record jumped to 4-4-1 in his senior year, and the college coaches came in greedy waves. He chose the ride offered by UCLA, the local school, over the one offered by USC, the other local school. He wanted to be close to home. In his mind, he was going to be a great Bruin tailback. In the coaches' minds, he was going to be a great linebacker. He had the coaches talk with his father. They explained that they thought his son was the best athlete on the team and could fill an immediate need at linebacker. The father agreed. The son agreed. He was a letter-winner as a freshman.
The family had expanded over the years, because the father had married Jackie Norwood, and she had given birth to a girl and then a boy, and she already had a son from a previous marriage, so there always was a crowd at UCLA games. The father wore a cowboy hat, and the son could see it from the field at the Rose Bowl. The father went to every home game.
"You're reliving your boyhood through your son," Jackie told the father.
"Yes?" he replied. "So, what are you trying to say?"
The accident on Feb. 23, 1986, the winter of the son's sophomore year, was an unwelcome break in a run of happiness and success. The father still does not know what happened. He was going home from a fund-raiser for Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, and something obviously went wrong on that Vermont Avenue onramp. The accident changed the father's life faster than the win over Muhammad Ali had. He went from a robust, athletic, handsome man, an actor in B movies and on television, to a survivor who was partly paralyzed on his right side and couldn't talk. His face was a mess. His memory was knocked out of commission. He spent a month in the hospital after he was returned to his bed that first weekend, and he embarked on a long recovery that still isn't finished.