Something is calling to you. Your eyelids snap open and there it is, clear as a signal bounced off a satellite. Former heavyweight champion Ken Norton is young again, whole, strong. It's the second round of a 1973 heavyweight title fight in San Diego. Blood is seeping from Muhammad Ali's mouth; Norton has broken Ali's jaw. The crowd roars. Dr. Ferdie Pacheco is saying, "Ken Norton has one of the most perfect bodies I've ever seen of any athlete in any sport." Norton goes on to win the fight by a decision.
Then, suddenly, you think about that stupid movie Mandingo. Acting the role of a slave in the antebellum South, Norton stood by with his thumb in his mouth while the mistress of the plantation had the umbilical cord of their newborn child sliced so the baby would bleed to death. Then Norton, er, Mandingo died a horrible death in a giant kettle of boiling water. And that was that. This is what you remember when you think about Norton—Muhammad Ali's broken jaw and an embarrassing movie. The curtain comes down quickly after that.
It's picture day at Spaulding Field on the UCLA campus, and the football team is dressed out in spanking new blue-and-gold uniforms. Some of the most perfect bodies of any athletes in any sport are running around beneath gold helmets. No. 41 has his back turned. Seeing the outline of the body, you'd swear it is Ken Norton. In fact, it says NORTON across the shoulders. Norton did wear No. 41 when he played football, but that was 25 years ago.
Of course, it couldn't be Norton because on Feb. 23, 1986, he drove a Clenet sports car over the side of the Vermont Avenue on-ramp of the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles. The car hurtled down an embankment and came to a crashing halt, totaled. The fire department needed the Jaws of Life to get Norton out. He was nearly in sections. He had a broken leg, a shattered jaw and a fractured skull. Two teeth were knocked completely out of his head. Bits of skull were lodged in his brain. And his face—you could not even recognize it as Norton's. So if this isn't Ken Norton in Bruin blue-and-gold, who is it?
When No. 41 turns around, the mystery is solved. This is Ken Norton Jr., the prizefighter's son, 6'2", 230 pounds of senior All-America inside linebacker, hard as a brick, a candidate for the Butkus and Lombardi awards. He is such a natural that he earned a UCLA football letter as an 18-year-old freshman.
"Kenny was so very gifted," says coach Terry Donahue, "he could have been a tight end, a running back. He's a more versatile athlete than our top tailbacks, Gaston Green or Eric Ball, and I take nothing away from them at all. When Kenny was a freshman, all the coaches on the staff wanted him in their group."
Running back coach Ted Williams was in charge of the UCLA linebackers during Norton's first three years. "When he came here, the greatest need was at linebacker," says Williams. "Ken was good enough to play tailback. Still is. But when we brought the freshmen in, he tested higher than anybody in his class in agility, elasticity, speed and strength combined. All we had to do was see him take his pass drop. When the quarterback drops five steps, a good linebacker will be 10 yards back. On his first drop, Ken got 18 yards back. Terry looked at me and said, 'Hey. We've really got something here.' "
For the second straight year, Norton has been voted a captain of the defensive team by his fellow players. Last year he led the 7-3-1 Bruins in tackles with 106, many of them the kind of punishing, wrestling-style takedowns that Norton calls "sized-up hits." He leads UCLA again this season and has paced the Bruins to a 4-1 record and the No. 5 ranking in the SI Top 20.
"You know what my fantasy is?" he says. "I envision Ryan Knight turning the corner on the USC sweep. I'm there every time. I jump over the lineman and then...when you get a really good, sized-up hit, it's like riding on a cushion of compression. It fits. There's no pain. The air explodes out of the pads. It's a solid sound, and the crowd feels it and goes 'Ooooo....' "
It has been said that linebackers must be a little uncivilized, but the thought of another one whose idea of Utopia is the smell of blood through a broken nose is almost enough to make you root for the nerds.