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Norton became a full-time player in 1990 when Solomon held out and was eventually traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But a serious knee injury sidelined Norton for the last two games of the '90 season, and the following spring Dallas drafted Michigan State linebacker Dixon Edwards in the second round, in case Norton did not bounce back from knee surgery.
Norton, however, returned for the '91 season—faster than ever, shaving his 40-yard dash time from 4.58 seconds to 4.54. "I knew I could have lost it all with the knee injury," he says. "I came back grateful that I just could play the game." Norton was used at strongside linebacker and middle linebacker during that season, when Dallas was still experimenting, still trying to find the right combination of players that would form its front seven on defense.
Norton's father, Ken Sr., once decisioned Muhammad Ali, and he wore the WBC heavyweight championship belt for two months in 1978. But there's no boxing bravado in Ken Jr., only a work ethic that Johnson suggests his younger players emulate. "My dad didn't like the boxing business, and he definitely wanted me to keep away from it," Norton says. "I've always had the feeling that you get nowhere without hard work. When I was in high school, even though I was better than everybody else athletically, I still ran on the beach every morning in combat boots. I guess the apple didn't fall far from the tree."
They came to Dallas from the netherworld that is the late rounds of the NFL draft. Gant (ninth round, Albany State, 1990), Lett (seventh round, Emporia State, 1991) and starting cornerback Larry Brown (12th round, Texas Christian, 1991) all sweated out the selection process and turned out to be terrific finds by the Cowboys. Lett's story is a typical one.
After a middling career at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss., Lett got one scholarship offer to a four-year school—tiny Emporia State, in Emporia, Kans. Although he earned All-NAIA District 10 recognition as a senior, pro scouts lost interest when he missed his last three games with a leg injury. "After I got hurt, I thought my pro football dream was over," Lett says.
But Cowboy scout Jeff Smith, who was at Emporia State that winter reviewing films of NAIA games, happened to sec Lett dominating a pickup basketball game. Knowing that Johnson loved big athletes—Lett was a spindly-legged 6'6" and 260 pounds—Smith filed a report on Lett, and Dallas defensive-line coach Butch Davis followed up on the report by looking at Emporia game film himself. It was a grainy and shadow-filled film, but Davis could see Lett get one sack, make nine tackles and force a fumble against Kearney (Neb.) State.
Lett had never eaten well at Emporia State, but at the Dallas training camp he dug in with both hands. The Cowboys were stunned to see a rookie, practicing twice a day in the Texas heat, gain nine pounds in one week. By the end of his rookie year, Lett had put on 16 more pounds, to 285, and now he goes about 290—a power forward with great quickness who muscled through offensive lines this season for 3½ sacks and 19 quarterback pressures. Johnson thinks Lett might someday become one of the league's premier defensive linemen.
Right now, though, that's too much for Lett, a shy giant, to contemplate. "I'm still in awe, playing on a line with Jim Jeffcoat and Charles Haley," he says. "Me playing with them—it's pretty amazing."
They came to Dallas as the cream of the college crop: third-round picks Jimmie Jones ('90) and Myles ('91), second-round choices Edwards ('91) and Woodson ('92), and first-round picks Robert Jones ('92), Kevin Smith ('92) and Maryland, who was the first selection in the '91 draft. "I may have been the top pick in the draft, but I wasn't really the top pick, if you know what I mean," Maryland says. "Rocket Ismail should have been the first pick, but he went to Canada."
A pretty humble attitude. "I came up humble," he says. "That's the way Coach Johnson likes his players. Humble. Blue-collar. No egos."