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."