RENTON, Wash. — When the Seattle Seahawks were on their bye earlier this month, Ken Norton Jr.’s wife took him to see The Spinners at a downtown Seattle jazz club. Angela Norton knew the special place the Motown-era R&B band holds in her husband’s heart.
It was all he and his dad used to listen to on those long road trips from Southern California to the Midwest.
Before Ken Norton Sr. conquered Muhammad Ali, his breakthrough in what would become a Hall of Fame boxing career, he was barely scraping by as a unknown fighter raising a young Norton Jr. as a single dad. He couldn’t afford plane tickets, so when his boxing schedule would take him away from their adopted hometown of San Diego for weeks at a time, he’d drive his son 2,000 miles east and leave him with his grandparents in Jacksonville, Illinois.
Some 50 years later, Norton Jr. vividly remembers sticking his head out of the window of his dad’s white Oldsmobile. He remembers the time they ran out of gas on the side of the road. And he remembers how they’d listen to the only tape they owned: The Spinners.
“It was just me and Dad at that time,” Norton Jr., 55, said in an interview with ESPN last week. “It was really, really special.”
Norton Jr. rode shotgun as his dad broke Ali’s jaw, then lost in two disputed rematches. As his dad compiled 33 of his 42 career wins via knockout and got KO’d by the likes of George Foreman and Earnie Shavers. As he briefly claimed the heavyweight title, only to lose it to Larry Holmes in a classic bout.
Among all the lessons Norton Jr. learned while living the ups and downs of his dad’s boxing career is one that has served him well in trying times like this disappointing 3-7 Seahawks season: how to handle the criticism that comes with being an NFL coordinator.
Entering Monday night’s game against the Washington Football Team at FedEx Field (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Seahawks have allowed the second-most yards in the NFL, a ranking that’s weighted by four straight games earlier this season in which they allowed 450 or more. They’ve allowed the seventh-fewest points, which reflects how — save for last week’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals and backup quarterback Colt McCoy — they’ve been one of the league’s better defenses since their early-season struggles.
With the Seahawks starting historically poorly on defense before turning things around for the second straight year, Norton Jr. has had to roll with plenty of proverbial punches from upset fans.
“He’s tough as nails,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who has known Norton Jr. since their days with the San Francisco 49ers in the mid-1990s, when Carroll was the defensive coordinator and Norton Jr. was an All-Pro linebacker. “He’s got a really deep belief in himself and his ability to get things done, and to communicate and all that, which he’s shown. He’s shown that by … the way these guys have been able to hang in there, hang tough, and make something special out of a group that at one time would’ve been thought couldn’t happen.
“Kenny is a fighter and he’s lived that life with his pops. He took a lot from that and it’s part of his makeup, it’s part of who he is and what he’s all about. He never strays very far from that.”
Hot dogs and hard-boiled eggs
Norton Sr. — who died in 2013 at age 70 — didn’t begin boxing until he was in the Marines. He enlisted in 1964 at 20 years old, studied Morse code and prayed he wouldn’t get deployed to Vietnam. As he wrote in his 2000 autobiography, “Going The Distance,” he was looking for a way out of 5 a.m. reveille when he briefly joined the football team, then reluctantly picked up the gloves, wary of messing up his good looks.
He was working and fighting at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when he met Norton Jr.’s mother, Jeanette. They married and divorced less than a year later after he was transferred to Camp Pendleton near San Diego. He made a meager salary in the Marines, received an honorable discharge in 1967 and didn’t make much more when he turned pro. According to the book, his first boxing deal paid him $100 a week, plus a share of any purses.
Father and son went from a one-bedroom apartment in San Diego to another in South Central Los Angeles. Needing to supplement his income to provide for young Norton Jr., Norton Sr. took a day job at Ford. Long days began with a 5 a.m. wakeup and a five-mile run. He’d take his son to the babysitter, go to work on the assembly line, then train at the gym into the evening.
Norton Jr. was about 5 or 6 when he sprinted out the door one morning, wanting to tag along on his dad’s run. His little legs couldn’t keep up, so his dad picked him up and ran the rest of the way with his son on his shoulders.
Neighbors and girlfriends would take turns watching Norton Jr. He’d listen for the rumble of his dad’s Harley-Davidson, eagerly awaiting his return from those long days of work and training. It would disappoint Norton Jr. when his dad would come home late at night, or sometimes not at all. Later in life, his dad told him why: He couldn’t always afford to feed Norton Jr., and he knew that if it got past a certain hour, the neighbors would.
When his dad cooked for him, it was often hot dogs and hard-boiled eggs.
“It was the only life I knew, just me and Dad,” Norton Jr. said. “He was gone a lot. But that was just the life, and we had a really, really close relationship because when he was the only parent I had, I was the only son he had at the time. It was a really strong bond.”
Their lives changed when Norton Sr. fought Ali in 1973.
The seventh-ranked Norton Sr. was a heavy underdog against the ex-champ. Broadcaster Howard Cosell openly bemoaned what he called the worst mismatch in boxing history, saying it should be a “routine exercise” for Ali. But Norton Sr. had given Ali more than he could handle during an impromptu sparring session three years earlier and knew he could beat him again.
By the time their 12-round fight was over, Ali’s jaw was broken and Cosell was hailing “unknown Kenny Norton” as the author of one of the sport’s most stunning upsets.
Norton Sr. hadn’t made more than $8,000 on any of his previous 31 fights, according to the book. He bought a house in Carson, California, with his $50,000 payday from the Ali bout. It was the first time Norton Jr. had his own bedroom. His dad bought him his first bike.
Six months after their first fight, Ali beat Norton Sr. in the rematch in a split decision. When Ali took the rubber match at Yankee Stadium three years later to remain the heavyweight champion, the unanimous decision was so controversial CBS aired a replay of the fight a few days later, with the three judges explaining their scoring. Norton Sr., and many in the boxing world, felt he was robbed.
“I thought he won all three of them,” Norton Jr. said. “Actually, we all won because we ate well after fight one.”
After losing to Ali in their second bout, Norton Sr. fought Foreman in Caracas, Venezuela, for the heavyweight title, suffering a second-round knockout. Then he rolled toward Part III with Ali by winning seven straight fights. One was at the old Seattle Center Coliseum — which is now Climate Pledge Arena — over local fighter Boone Kirkman. He beat Ron Stander at the since-demolished Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, which was right next door to where the Seahawks will play Washington on Monday.
According to Norton Sr.’s book, the Foreman fight was an ordeal not just because of the result but also a series of stressful situations, including a rumor his parents — whom he had flown to Venezuela from Jacksonville — were going to be kidnapped and held for ransom.
That experience left him drained. The third Ali fight left him feeling cheated and demoralized. His last bout nearly killed him: Gerry Cooney continuing to pummel a semi-unconscious Norton Sr. while the referee was slow to stop the fight. He wrote in his book his fight doctor told him he was four seconds from being killed.
If his dad could handle adversity and scrutiny that followed while the whole world watched, Norton Jr. grew to realize he could, too. But in the moment, he felt those losses in his own way.
“All through the school life, if he won a fight, I was everybody’s friend and everybody wanted to know who I was,” Norton Jr. said. “But if he got knocked out or lost a fight, it was, ‘I hate that guy. Your dad sucks.’ Early on, going through grade school, your identity is kind of caught up in the wins and losses and your friends and things like that, so it becomes pretty tough.
“And it’s everybody. It’s the principal, it’s the teachers, it’s the kids that turn their back on you when it’s a loss and they’re hugging you when it’s a win. It’s a pretty strange way to go through it.”
In 1978, the WBC declared Norton Sr. the heavyweight champion after forcing Leon Spinks to vacate his title. His first title defense came three months later against Holmes. The Norton family had grown by then. He was remarried to Jackie, who had a son named Brandon from a previous marriage and gave birth to daughter Kenisha in 1976.
The closest Norton Jr. ever got to seeing his dad fight in person were the times he’d tag along at the gym. He’d hold the spit bucket in the corner while Norton Sr. sparred in the ring. But he never let Norton Jr. attend any of his fights, not wanting his son to take up the sport himself or to see his dad get hit. He didn’t even want him watching on TV.
On the night of the Holmes fight, 11-year-old Norton Jr. was at home watching Kenisha when he snuck a peek at the TV. It was just in time to catch an epic finish. In what is considered one of boxing’s classic rounds, Norton Sr. and Holmes slugged away at each other in the 15th and final round, trading nonstop punches to bring the crowd at Caesars Palace to its feet. Norton Sr. was staggered when Holmes landed a left uppercut in the closing seconds, but he kept his feet and kept fighting, two spent champions leaving everything they had in the ring. Holmes won in a split decision to take Norton Sr.’s title.
“It really was a turning point for me as a young man,” Norton Jr. said. “I was searching for an identity and I found who I was by watching him fight that 15th round. It was a war. It’s one of the best rounds of all time. That round really showed me who he was and … it really made me understand the type of person I am and I have to be as I go into trying to make my way in life as far as my attitude, how I’m going to approach it, who I’m going to be and what my values are going to be.
“I knew who I was at that point and I didn’t mind being called his son anymore. I really understood it was time for me to do my thing.”
There’s a famous photo of Norton Sr. visiting Ali in the hospital the day after breaking his jaw. Ali is lying in bed, with Norton Sr. standing over him and looking down through sunglasses.
Shades were a necessary staple of Norton Sr.’s postfight wardrobe because of how the shots to the face would leave his eyes sensitive to light. He’d often have his midsection wrapped up to protect cracked ribs. The body blows often caused him to urinate blood.
“We’d just have to care for him,” Norton Jr. said. “To the world he’s just a fighter that night that everybody wants to cheer and bet on. But for us, that’s your dad at home, not doing well, pretty beat up. You’ve got to mend him and love him back to health. And then he’s back out there just to bring food home. He let me know early on that fighting was a tough life and he didn’t want that for me.”
Norton Sr. had been retired for five years when, in 1986, he was involved in a near-fatal car accident. He wrote in his book he was extracted with the Jaws of Life and taken by helicopter to a Los Angeles hospital, where he had skull fragments removed from his brain during a life-or-death surgery. He also had a broken jaw and a broken leg.
Norton Jr., who was attending nearby UCLA at the time, became his dad’s caretaker at 20 years old. He’d feed him, bathe him, dress him — everything his dad couldn’t do on his own while bound to a wheelchair.
“My whole life, he was taking care of me,” Norton Jr. said, “and then I just naturally took on the part of taking care of him at that point.”
‘I didn’t want to let him down’
Norton Jr. remains the only player in NFL history to play for three straight Super Bowl winners: the Dallas Cowboys in 1992 and ’93, the 49ers in ’94. His dad had been a fixture on the Dallas sideline before games early in his pro career, always able to instantly pick out his son amid the mass of white jerseys.
But when Norton Jr. and the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl, 90 minutes from his dad’s Orange County home, Norton Sr. wasn’t in attendance. The two had become estranged. Norton Sr. wrote in his book it began as a dispute related to his son’s engagement. Their silent feud became a national story, one of sports’ best-known father-son duos not speaking for more than two years. It ate them both up inside.
Norton Sr. wrote in his book family members eventually helped broker a truce. Father and son gradually repaired their relationship. A few weeks after they got together for Norton Jr.’s 29th birthday, he intercepted two passes against the St. Louis Rams and returned both for touchdowns.
He celebrated by throwing combo punches at the goalpost padding, a la his dad.
“That was all about him,” he said. “I was just very thankful.”
There are some memories children have of their parents no amount of time can erase. All these years later, Norton Jr. can still picture the way his dad looked at him when he was a young boy.
“You can just see the look in his eye that I was special to him,” said Norton Sr., a father to Brittney, Sabrina and Ken III. “That made me want to be special. I didn’t want to let him down. So I think I learned how to look at my kids that way, to let them know that they’re really special and I really love them. He looked at me like he really cared, and he did things and he said things and he lived his life that way, that he was going to set an example for me. So I had to make sure that I carried on his legacy in that way.”