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BATTLE FOR THE ROSE BOWL : UCLA vs. USC : Huskies Knocked Norton Down, but He's Not Out

November 17, 1987|TRACY DODDS | Times Staff Writer

Ken Norton, former heavyweight boxing champion, doesn't usually visit UCLA's locker room after football games, but last Saturday he made an exception. He was worried about his son, Ken Jr., who had taken a couple of pretty good hits from those huge Washington linemen.

It's not easy watching someone you love get hurt. The champ knew what he was doing when he kept his young son away from his fights.

When he was a kid, Ken Jr. knew his dad was one of the best heavyweights in the world--for a while, the heavyweight champion--but he never saw a fight. It was hard enough for him to see his dad come home hiding black eyes behind dark glasses, his face swollen in no particular pattern, his body moving very carefully around all the hidden aches and pains.

It can take weeks to recover from a fight, even a victory.

In that memorable fight in 1973, when Norton broke Muhammad Ali's jaw, you know Ali did some damage.

It's a tough way to become rich and famous.

So when Norton saw his son growing up with the same powerful physique, the same huge hands, the same strong jaw, the same competitive fire, did he buy him a pair of boxing gloves and enter him in the local Golden Gloves tournament?

Not a chance. He went through that hell so that his son wouldn't have to.

Norton didn't even let the youngster play football until he was a junior at Westchester High School.

Norton Sr. played football at Northeast Missouri State, so he knew the hazards of that game, too.

The young Norton stuck to basketball and baseball--and was good at both--until his dad judged him to be big and strong enough to hold his own on the football field.

Ken Norton Jr. is now one of the seven linebackers who are finalists for the Butkus Award, is leading the nationally-ranked Bruin defense with 108 tackles--he also has a fumble recovery, an interception and six broken up passes to his credit--and is on his way to the National Football League as soon as he takes care of a couple of postseason games.

He holds his own, wearing the same No. 41 his dad wore. Nobody is shoving Ken Norton Jr. around.

That staggering blow last Saturday?

It was a pinched nerve that numbed both of his arms and gave him a quick scare. He'll shake that off in a couple of days.

His dad was relieved to see that he was OK. And Ken Jr. was glad to see that his dad was able to make it down to the locker room. "It's good to see him getting out and doing some things," Ken Jr. said.

"I'll take Monday and Tuesday off, but I'll practice Wednesday and I'll be ready to play SC," Ken Jr. said Sunday morning. "Surprisingly, I feel pretty good. Sometimes, on the morning after, you stiffen up up and feel worse than when you got hit."

That's what the fighters say, too.

After sparing the kid the blood, sweat and tears of the ring, Dad finds himself sitting in the sun watching football at the Rose Bowl, seeing his son grimacing on the sideline.

Ironic? Not nearly so ironic as the tragic turn of events that left Ken Jr. agonizing over his father's health and well-being for months.

After all those years of protecting him from the pain of seeing cuts and bruises, the champ couldn't spare his son the agony of seeing him go through much worse in the aftermath of an auto accident Feb. 23, 1986. His Clenet sports car went over the side of the Vermont Avenue on-ramp of the Santa Monica Freeway.

When the Jaws of Life finally freed Norton from the crushed car, he had a broken leg, a broken jaw and bits of his fractured skull embedded in his brain.

He had to fight for his life, and he's still trying to regain his strength, his stamina, his speech.

"It was hard," Ken Jr. said. "I was able to handle it, but I have to say that it was very stressful."

Ken Jr. spent a lot of time at home after that, helping his father with the little day-to-day things. More recently he has been going with him to a local health club to work out.

There is a lot of love between these two. And the recovery process has brought them even closer.

The kid, it seems, is pretty darned tough after all. Maybe he could have handled the fights, too. And Pop Warner football.

But he's not questioning his dad's decisions.

Like his dad, Ken Jr. was born in Illinois. His mother and father were separated when he was just a year old and his father was still in the Marine Corps, just getting his boxing career started. The baby stayed with his father, and grew up barely knowing his mother as they moved from North Carolina to Kentucky to San Diego and finally settled in the L.A. area.

That could have become the story of a hard-nosed, street-smart little bully raised by his fighter-father. But Norton remembers a very comfortable, protected childhood.

His coach at Westchester High School once characterized him as, "a very gentle person, really."

Off the field Ken Jr., a psychology major is reserved, soft-spoken, rather introspective.

On the field, he's a leader. And he flies around like a wild man.

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