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Like Father, Like Son
Ralph Wiley
October 12, 1987
Linebacker Ken Norton Jr. of UCLA is one hard hitter, as was his dad, the ex-champion
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October 12, 1987

Like Father, Like Son

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

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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.

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