Ken Norton Jr. didn’t have what some might call a normal upbringing.
His father, Ken Norton Sr., was one of the best heavyweight boxers in the world from the 1960s until the early 1980s.
Norton Jr. didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps but he packed a punch in his own right.
Gangster move by Ken Norton Jr wearing a shirt honoring his dad, who was a boxer. pic.twitter.com/D7dMZbvGlY
— #Random49ers (@Random49ers) May 12, 2023
As a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, Norton was an All-Pro, a three-time Pro Bowler, and a three-time Super Bowl champion.
He retired and became a coach, teaching the next generation of linebackers how to play the position.
This is the story of Ken Norton Jr.
A Boxer’s Son
Ken Norton Jr. was born on September 29, 1966, in Jacksonville, Illinois.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) September 29, 2022
Not long after he was born, Norton’s parents divorced and Norton Sr. took full custody of his son.
“When Jeanette and I got divorced, there were no hard feelings,” said Norton Sr. in 1987. “No real hard feelings. I took Kenny because he was my son, and I loved him. She’s a good lady, but she could not have loved him more than I did. I learned to change diapers, feed him. I didn’t have to learn to love him.”
At the time, Norton Sr. was a boxer, but he had yet to win a major fight that would put him on the map or put good money in his pocket.
Norton Jr. was still in elementary school when his father worked a shift at a Ford auto plant in San Diego and then trekked to a local gym to work out and spar with opponents.
“There were some rough times,” the father says. He laughs. “I wouldn’t have wanted to buy one of those Fords I was making during the day. I hope someone else was checking them down the line. We never really were at poverty level, but we were close to it. We ate a lot of cold hot dogs. I’d bring home a package of hot dogs and open them up, and we’d eat. Hot dogs. Bologna. Boiled eggs. That was our diet.”
In late 1972, Norton Sr. fought Henry Clark on a Muhammad Ali undercard and won by knockout in the ninth round.
That led to a big enough payday that the boxer bought him and Junior a house in Los Angeles.
His win over Clark meant that Norton Sr. was scheduled to fight “The Greatest” himself, Ali.
He quit his job at the Ford plant and trained like a maniac.
Rest In Paradise to Boxing GREAT! Ken Norton Sr! He was one of Muhammad Ali's toughest opponents! Rest well, LEGEND! pic.twitter.com/NIjopQyYsk
— Yusuf Yuie ✨ Black Joy (@YusufYuie) September 19, 2013
On March 31, 1973, Norton Sr. broke Ali’s jaw in the second round before handing The Champ only the second loss of his career.
Just like that, Ken Norton Sr. was the NABF heavyweight champion of the world.
No Boxing for Norton Jr.
Despite the fact that he was on top of the boxing world, Norton Sr. did not want his son to follow in his footsteps.
“I never allowed him to see me fight, not in person, not even on television,” said Ken Norton, the father. “I never wanted him to see me get hurt in the ring. I didn’t want to leave him with a scar.”
Although Junior didn’t see his father’s fights, he observed what it took to become the best and tucked away the lessons for later.
“I never saw him fight,” said Ken Jr. “He made sure of that. But I’ve seen my dad wake up at four in the morning to run. I saw what he had to do. I saw you had to hurt. You had to sacrifice. Eat certain things. Have a certain attitude. Be a certain way. It was drilled into me early. He didn’t like how dangerous it was, how hard it was. He said it just wasn’t a good life.”
Junior Chooses Football
Norton Jr. stayed away from violent activities for most of his young life and played sports like baseball and basketball.
That changed when a new coach was hired at Westchester High School in Los Angeles where Norton Jr. attended.
The coach roamed the halls of Westchester looking for players, saw Norton’s imposing physique, and asked him to join the team.
Norton Jr. was intrigued and told the coach he would need to speak to his father.
“I had forbidden it until he was a junior in high school,” said Norton Sr. “I wanted his bones to be set before he tried it. Heck, the boy was a fine outfielder. But he was thinking football.”
After his conversation with the coach, Norton Sr. gave his blessing and Norton Jr. became a bruising tailback for the Comets.
Ken Norton Jr. back in High School at Westchester in Los Angeles. pic.twitter.com/XL6w205rYq
— Football History by SGPN (@FootballSGPN) April 23, 2022
Westchester didn’t win a game in Norton’s junior year.
However, he could pack a punch as a running back, and because of his father’s fame, opponents assumed that Norton could deliver a literal punch when needed.
“I suppose, overall, it helped,” the son said. “I know it kept me out of some fights. There always was one guy, maybe one guy on each level of school, from grammar school to junior high to high school, who started something, but mostly the name kept me away from trouble. I also was pretty big, and athletics came easy. Sports were pleasant. It’s pleasant to be picked first all the time.”
During his senior year, the Comets improved to 4-4-1 and Norton busted loose for 800 rushing yards (on 8.8 yards per carry) and also played linebacker on defense.
He was named an All-LA City fullback and caught the interest of major college programs throughout the West.
Norton Becomes a Bruin
Eventually, Norton winnowed his choices to UCLA and USC and became a Bruin to be closer to home.
Having found success as a running back in high school, Norton looked to be the second coming of University of Georgia star Herschel Walker.
The UCLA coaches, on the other hand, had other ideas.
“When he came here, the greatest need was at linebacker,” Norton’s UCLA position coach, Ted Williams, said in 1987. “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.”
When head coach Terry Donahue informed Norton of their plans to put him at linebacker, Norton was upset.
— UCLASRH (@UCLASRH) June 1, 2016
Norton Sr. talked to Donahue and came away agreeing with the coach.
“Kenny was so very gifted,” said Donahue, “he could have been a tight end, a running back. When Kenny was a freshman, all the coaches on the staff wanted him in their group.”
Norton took to the position right away and earned a varsity letter his freshman year.
Captain and Caregiver
After a productive sophomore season in 1985, Norton became a UCLA captain as a junior in 1986 and led the team with 106 tackles.
Not only was he a leader on the field, but Norton also led by example off the field.
In February of 1986, Norton’s father was on his way home from an event when his car crashed.
— NFL Legends (@NFLLegends) December 16, 2021
The man who had fought Muhammad Ali three times and lived to tell the tale nearly died that day.
“I can’t remember anything about it,” Norton Sr. said in 1987. “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.”
Instead, he was bound to a wheelchair and had to learn to rely on others.
Norton Sr. had remarried in 1977, but Junior became a second caregiver, helping to wash his dad and take him on walks.
“I was like an infant, couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk,” said 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.”
Eventually, Norton Sr. was able to walk and talk on his own and make a full recovery from his accident.
With his father on the mend, Norton Jr. returned to UCLA for his senior year.
The Bruins went 10-2 and beat the Florida Gators in the Jeep-Eagle Aloha Bowl.
Norton was named a captain for the second time and was named the program’s defensive MVP with 125 tackles.
— Mark Schipper – 5th Down CFB (@5thDownCFB) February 26, 2022
During his Bruins career, Norton had 339 total tackles and became an All-American in 1987 as well as a finalist for the Butkus Award.
In 1998, UCLA inducted Norton into its Hall of Fame.
Norton Becomes a Cowboy
With the 41st overall pick in the second round of the 1988 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys selected Norton.
If he had been picked by the franchise a decade earlier, Norton would have joined one of the premier teams in the league.
However, by 1988, Dallas was a shell of its former self.
As Norton missed a majority of the season with a broken thumb, coach Tom Landry was in the midst of the final year of his career.
— 🏒🎮Toy-Collector-Brothers🎮🏈 (@ToyHunterBros) July 21, 2021
The Cowboys went 3-13 and new owner Jerry Jones fired the long-time coach in 1989 and hired his old Arkansas Razorback teammate Jimmy Johnson.
Dallas also invested heavily in the 1989 NFL Draft and took the likes of Troy Aikman, Daryl Johnston, Mark Stepnoski, and Tony Tolbert.
All four would eventually lead the team to the highest of heights, but the raw rookies and their new coach could only get one win that season.
That represented the lowest win total for the franchise since a zero-victory season in its inaugural year of 1960.
Dallas Climbs to a Super Bowl
The same year the Cowboys went 1-15, Norton split time with veteran linebacker Jesse Solomon, started 13 games, and had 87 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
In 1990, he became a full-time starter and racked up 119 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and three fumble recoveries.
Dallas improved to 7-9 with rookie Emmitt Smith rushing for 937 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Then, in 1991, the Cowboys added Russell Maryland, Alvin Harper, and Leon Lett in the draft and the franchise returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1985.
Norton had 94 tackles that year and followed it up with 120 in 1992 when Dallas went 13-3.
Better yet, the Cowboys went from one win to the Super Bowl in just four seasons.
— Sohe (@SoheCoop) September 29, 2022
During the postseason, Dallas beat Philadelphia and San Francisco before meeting the high-powered Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII.
The 11-5 Bills proved to be no match for Norton and friends.
Buffalo scored first, but after that, it was all Dallas in a 52-17 blowout.
5⃣1⃣ days til Cowboys vs Bucs ‼️#KenNortonJr #CowboysNation
Dallas Cowboys LB Ken Norton Jr scores a Touchdown in Super Bowl 27 and makes a huge goal line stand earlier in the game#DallasCowboys #NFL #Football pic.twitter.com/HTb8hKxlom
— Dallas Cowboys Collaboration (@mailman_phil) July 20, 2021
Another Super Bowl in 1993
In 1993, Dallas and Norton started out losing their first two games before reeling off seven straight wins.
During a Week 9 contest against the Eagles on Halloween, Norton made a tackle and ended up tearing the bicep muscle on his right arm.
After the game, the Cowboys’ team doctor gave the linebacker a choice.
“You can have the surgery right away. The muscle will be as good as it’s ever been, but you’ll be out for the season,” said the doctor. “Or you can wait until the season’s finished. We can’t guarantee anything then. If you wait for the operation…do you know how, when you leave a piece of meat on a counter for a couple of days, the meat becomes hard and brittle on the outside? That’s what will happen to the end of your muscle. It will be much tougher to reattach. It’s your choice.”
He took a day to mull it over then decided to play through the pain.
For the rest of the season, Norton delivered a career-high 159 tackles along with two sacks, a fumble recovery, his first NFL interception, and a selection as a second-team All-Pro.
His son, Ken NORTON Jr was a great NFL linebacker for Dallas & San Francisco. He won 3 superbowls pic.twitter.com/yMYTUfAyKu
— Old School Panini (@OldSchoolPanini) September 19, 2013
He was only able to raise his right arm to his shoulder and he couldn’t lift his daughter with his arm.
However, the Cowboys fed off Norton’s leadership and returned to the playoffs, and blitzed through their opponents for a rematch with the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII.
The final score was much closer than the year before, but Dallas won back-to-back titles with a 30-13 win.
Norton could have had arm surgery after the Super Bowl, but he had been selected for his first Pro Bowl and chose to wait.
“I could have had the operation after the Super Bowl, but I wanted to go to the Pro Bowl,” he said. “That had been a goal of mine for a long time.”
Norton Becomes a Niner
In the spring of 1993, the NFL implemented its free agency system.
For the first time ever, eligible players would now be free to sign with a team of their choice.
Norton and the Cowboys won the Super Bowl that year and then Dallas decided to let him walk as a free agent.
It wasn’t long before the San Francisco 49ers snapped him up and added Norton to a roster bursting with talent.
The 1994 Niners made a number of high-profile signings in an effort to return to their first Super Bowl since 1989.
Most dynamic teams ever assembled, top to bottom!
Loved Ken Norton Jr & Tim McDonald (7 season in SF missed 1 gm combined) pic.twitter.com/5nwc0O9Jwx
— Rumblin’Bumblin’& Stumblin’49 🇺🇸 (@chans206) February 17, 2017
With Steve Young quarterbacking, and a loaded offense and defense overpowering opponents, San Francisco went 13-3 and beat Chicago in the playoffs.
Norton met his former team, the Cowboys, in the NFC Championship and helped the Niners get past their nemesis 38-28.
Then, for the third year in a row, Norton played in a Super Bowl.
The San Diego Chargers couldn’t keep pace and were blown out in Super Bowl XXIX, 49-26.
Norton became the first player in NFL history to win three consecutive Super Bowls and remains the only player to have done so to this day.
So Close, Yet so Far
In 1995, the Green Bay Packers prevented the Niners from repeating as world champs during the divisional round.
Despite the loss, Norton had a stellar year, compiling 96 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, and three interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
His stats led to a first-team All-Pro nod and Norton’s second Pro Bowl appearance.
After a 127-tackle season in 1996, Norton bagged 96 tackles,1.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, and a third Pro Bowl selection in 1997.
— Niners History (@NinersHistory) October 15, 2022
The Niners advanced to the NFC Championship Game in ‘97 but lost to the Packers for the third consecutive postseason.
In 1998, the team lost by two points to the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round.
Norton wasn’t selected for the Pro Bowl despite 115 tackles and two sacks.
Then, after seven straight seasons of playoff football, the Niners won just four games in 1999 followed by six wins in 2000.
Norton started every game both years and had combined totals of 173 tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery, one forced fumble, and nine passes defended.
Once the 2000 season concluded, Norton decided 13 years was long enough as an NFL player and retired.
During his career, Norton had 1,272 combined tackles, 12.5 sacks, 13 fumble recoveries, a dozen forced fumbles, nine passes defended, five interceptions for 127 return yards, and two pick-sixes.
• 3x Super Bowl Champion🏆🏆🏆
• Only player in NFL history to play on three consecutive Super Bowl championship teams
· SB27 & 28 with DAL
· SB29 with SF
• 3 Pro Bowls
• 1x First-Team All-Pro pic.twitter.com/D2yRVvthaw
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) September 30, 2020
Norton was a two-time All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler, and won three Super Bowls in a row, the only player to accomplish such a feat.
Norton couldn’t stay away from football for very long.
In 2004, he joined Coach Pete Carroll’s staff at USC as the linebackers coach.
The Trojans won the national title in 2004 and contended for the next few seasons.
While coaching the ‘SC linebackers, Norton taught the likes of Lofa Tatupu, Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews III, and Rey Maualuga.
Carroll left the Trojans in 2010 to lead the Seattle Seahawks and Norton went with him.
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) September 30, 2019
For the next five years, Norton oversaw the development of Seattle linebackers Bobby Wagner, Malcolm Smith, KJ Wright, and Bruce Irvin.
While he was in the Pacific Northwest, Ken Norton Sr. passed away on September 18, 2013, due to complications from a number of strokes.
At the end of the 2014 season, the Seahawks advanced to Super Bowl XLVIII and soundly beat the Denver Broncos 43-8.
It was Norton’s fourth Super Bowl win.
After a three-year stint between 2015 and 2017 as the Defensive Coordinator of the Oakland Raiders, Norton returned to Seattle in 2018 as their coordinator.
— Tracy McDannald 📎 (@Tracy_McDannald) October 11, 2023
He was then fired after the 2021 season and was hired as the linebackers coach at UCLA in 2022 where he remains today.
Norton is married to his wife, Angela, and the couple have three children.