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SPLIT PERSONALITIES
Leigh Montville
January 09, 1995
When the Nortons, Ken Sr. and Ken Jr., go head-to-head, even the strongest family bonds can be broken
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January 09, 1995

Split Personalities

When the Nortons, Ken Sr. and Ken Jr., go head-to-head, even the strongest family bonds can be broken

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"I remember sitting at home and staring at a chair," the father says. "I'd say, 'Chair,' to myself, making it my goal to someday be able to get up and walk to the chair. I couldn't tell anyone else about it, because I couldn't speak. I'd just say it to myself. 'Chair.' They said first that I wouldn't live and then that I wouldn't walk or talk. I was just determined. I had that athletic training, getting off the canvas. I drew strength from the head, from the heart, from God. I wound up doing all the things they said I wouldn't do. One of the doctors was so amazed that he wanted to take me with him around the country when he gave lectures. An exhibit or something. But I didn't want to be any exhibit."

He went back, of course, to the son's games. He remembers one early game—remembers it just now, this minute—when he was being helped down a corridor and Keith Jackson, the ABC commentator, came toward him. Jackson stopped and started talking about the son, about what a fine young man the son was and what a good player. The father remembers trying to reply. He had never met Jackson but had always liked his work. The father remembers all the words gathering in his head, all the things he wanted to say. He remembers that the words just wouldn't come out of his mouth.

The son was a help during all of this. He did many of the things for the father that the father had done for him so long ago. He bathed him. He helped him from one room to another. He pushed him for long walks in a wheelchair. He also kept playing football. The father would be bundled for the games, sit for as long as he could in the sun and then retire to the parking lot, where he would listen to the games on the car radio in the shade. The son played so well that he was drafted high in the second round (the 41st pick overall) by the Dallas Cowboys.

"I don't want to talk about that," the son says when asked about the days after the crash. "It's all been written. It's all been done before."

The 49er publicity department informs interviewers that the son doesn't want to talk about the father. The subject is out-of-bounds.

So easy. The father is an inspiration for the son. The son is an inspiration for the father. The story should not be written once, it should be rewritten as many times as possible, kept in libraries for fathers and sons to read and read again in as many forms as possible. Triumph over adversity. All of that good stuff. Bands should play, and the father should be shown walking and talking as well as he now does, and the son should be shown nailing some poor soul with a straight-on hit. That's how it should be. So easy.

The father cried in front of a television camera. He did not think he would do this, but he did. The split, the rift, the—what's the proper word? Disagreement?—between the father and the son became public before the Super Bowl in 1992. The son mentioned the problem at one of the press conferences by the Cowboy players, and the scurrying began. Was it true that the father was not going to the game, even though it was being held at the Rose Bowl, less than a two-hour drive from his home in Laguna Niguel? How could this be? The cameras arrived at the father's house.

The father was all right at the start, talking to a reporter from a local station, but the more he talked about his son, the sadder he became, and the tears started to come. He is not sure how long he cried, but when he stopped, he looked up and the camera was still rolling.

"Let me say this," the former heavyweight champion of the world said to the reporter as he regained his composure. "If any of this crying gets on TV, I'm going to be very, very angry. Do you understand me? Very, very angry."

"More people called me about that interview," he says now. "They said they saw me talking, and then my face started to get real solemn, and then the interview ended in the middle. 'What happened?' they wanted to know. 'You were cut off in midsentence.' The guy was true to his word. He didn't show me crying."

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