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Ken Norton Jr.



As a child, Ken Norton Jr. had watched his father beat Muhammad Ali. Inspired by the moment, young Ken knew what he wanted in life: to live the same kind of experience his father felt when he beat the greatest. As a football player, the big moments seemed to naturally come to him, like he was some sort of magnet. What he never could have foreseen was that he would be a key component in one of the fiercest rivalries in NFL history: Cowboys vs 49ers.

The Early Years



He was born on September 29, 1966 in Jacksonville, Illinois, just before his father became famous. As the son of professional boxer Ken Norton, he watched his father rise to fame and stardom. Young Ken was just four years old when his dad beat Muhammad Ali. Watching his father battle and beat the greatest inspired him in ways that his peers couldn't even imagine. From then one, he was determined to be great in a sport of his choosing.


He chose football. Or perhaps the sport chose him. With all of the big hits, big moments and gritty determination, the sport emulated the sweet science in more ways than one. In time, he would develop a habit of punching out the goal post every time he scored a touchdown in a tribute to his father. Norton starred as a running back at Westchester High School, averaging 8.8 yards per carry as a senior in 1983 and earned a scholarship to UCLA.



But despite his prowess toting the rock as a prep star, the coaches at UCLA saw potential in him as a linebacker. He proved to fit well within the unit, leading the team in tackles in both 1986 and 1987. As a senior, he was a first-team All-American and a finalist for the Butkus Award. During his time as a Bruin, UCLA won four bowl games: the 1985 Fiesta vs Miami, the 1986 Rose vs Iowa, the 1986 Freedom vs BYU and the 1987 Aloha vs Florida. After graduation, he was drafted in the second round of the 1988 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys.


Dallas



When Ken Norton Jr. was drafted by the Cowboys in 1988, he joined an organization that was quickly coming apart at the seams. After 20 years of dominance, the Cowboys fell back to earth, slogging through a disappointing 7-8 1987 season. 1988 was much worse as the team stumbled to a 3-13 finish. Hampered by a broken thumb, Norton hardly played as a rookie and split time with Jesse Solomon at weakside linebacker in 1989. By then a new regime had taken over as Tom Landry had been fired after 1988 and the University of Miami's Jimmy Johnson had taken his place.


Solomon held out through much of 1990, giving Norton the opportunity to start. Having seized upon the opportunity and impressing his coaches, they switched him between strongside and middle linebacker throughout 1991.


As he grew familiar with his new position, the Cowboys clawed their way to the playoffs. Even though they lost the Divisional Round to the Lions, Dallas ended the year inspired. Having been 1-15 two years earlier, they knew that they had a team primed for a championship run.


In the offseason, Jerry Jones traded for 49ers pass rushing dynamo Charles Haley. He was an immediate boost for a defense that was hungry for greatness but was lacking a true pass rusher. It was a dream season for a franchise that had been at the bottom of the standings for so long. But despite a league leading defense, no one on Dallas' defense was invited to the Pro Bowl. This only further inspired them further to reach the Super Bowl in Pasadena. All season long, they battled with San Francisco for home field advantage in the playoffs, but they ultimately fell short by a single game. The road to Pasadena went through San Francisco that year.


The two squads were on a collision course all year and when they met they left it all on the field. It was the kind of moment that Ken Norton Jr. had dreamt of since his father beat Muhammad Ali so many years before. Back and forth the two teams went with neither willing to give any quarter. Norton even picked off a pass from Steve Young in the 30-20 Cowboys victory.



It was a shift of power within the NFL as the 49ers had dominated the landscape for much of the 1980s. With the Cowboys having overcome them in the NFC title game and considering their vast amounts of talent and youthful exuberance, the sky was the limit.


Although Super Bowl XXVII was billed as a possible shootout between two of the best offenses in the NFL, the league's best defense prevailed over the Bills, forcing a Super Bowl record nine turnovers. Norton added to the flurry by scooping up the ball and rumbling into the endzone to put the finishing touches of the Cowboys' 52-17 victory.


Emboldened by their long-awaited Super Bowl victory, the Cowboys were even better in 1993. After beginning the year 0-2, they got out of their slump and earned the top seed in the playoffs, just ahead of the 49ers. The NFL took notice of the Cowboys' defense, inviting three to the Pro Bowl. That includes Ken Norton Jr. who managed to make 159 tackels, two sacks, a fumble recovery and an interception.


Once again, the 49ers and the Cowboys were on a collision course all year and once again, the Cowboys controlled the game from the start. After the 38-21 demolition of their hated rivals, the Cowboys took care of business in Atlanta the following week defeating the Buffalo Bills 30-13. It was beginning to feel like an annual tradition for Big D. But no matter how much one prepares, change comes for all.


The 49ers



Eddie DeBartolo was bey0nd frustrated. AS he rode the elevator alone with team president Carmen Policy, he vowed that his beloved 49ers would beat the Cowboys, bno matter the cost. Going into the first year of the league's salary cap, the 49ers had already made some financial maneuvering to have some cash in hand for an imprending influx of talent from the free agent market.


Some of the best defensive players in the league joined San Francisco that year. Marquee names such as Rickey Jackson, Richard Dent and Deion Sanders bolstered an alreay talented roster and fortified the defense to embarrassing proportions. But t he 49ers needed one more piece to really stick it to their most bitter of rivals. Seeing that Dallas' prized middle linebacker had yet to be signed, the 49ers scooped him up. This was not your ordinary rivalry. These were two squads whose whole reason for being was to beat the other in the NFC Championship Game. Nothing else mattered.


But sports is so much more than just rivalries. More often than not, sports teaches us about life. That's what happened on the opening night of the 1994 season. While the 49ers pummeled the Raiders, Los Angeles running back Napoleon McCallum suffered a gruesome dislocated knee. As Ken Norton watched him writhe in agony on the Candlestick Park grass, he suddenly realized just how fragile an athlete's life truly is. From that moment on, the game had a different meaning to him and he embraced it all the more, savoring every moment like it would be his last.


Once again, the two teams played out the regular season winning game afte rgame all the while looking across the standings at one another, dreaming of the cold January day that they would meet for supremacy in not only the NFC but the entire NFL. Again, for the third year in a row, they met in the NFC Championship Game, this time at Candlestick Park. Every yeras of this rivalry, the game had gotten bigger and bigger. By the time January 15, 1995 rolled around, the NFC Championship was bigger than it had ever been, even bigger than the Super Bowl. It was for moments like these that drew Ken Norton Jr. to football in the first place. He had dreamed of this moment.



It didn't disappoint. Norton's defense was all over his former Dallas teammates, forcing multiple turnovers in the first quarter alone while he commanded the middle, making six tackles before the game was over. Unlike the past two years, the 49ers controlled the game from start to finish, winning convincingly 38-28. Two weeks later, Ken Norton became the first player in NFL history to win three straight Super Bowls as the 49ers demolished the Chargers 49-26.


He never returned to the big game again, but the that he lesson learned from that fateful night of the 1994 opener rang in his ears. He knew that he couldn't stay a football player forever. By the time he retired in 2000, he decided to give coaching a try.


The Coach



Ken Norton Jr's. coaching journey began at USC in 2004 where he coached linebackers. Like his time in the NFL, he joined a program that was in the midst of a dynasty, winning a national title in his first year and narrowly losing another the following year. He stayed in Southern California until leaving with coach Pete Carroll for Seattle in 2010. While coaching linebackers with the Seahawks, Norton won another Super Bowl in 2013 and narrowly lost another the following year.


Oakland liked what they saw from the linebackers coach and hired him to be their defensive coordinator in 2015. While a Raider, he watched as Khalil Mack blossomed into one of the best defensive players in the league. He returned to Seattle in 2018 to become their defensive coordinator. While the Seahawks no longer had their vaunted Legion of Boom secondary, they were still an elite squad led by perennial Pro Bowler middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. After the Seahawks failed to make the playoffs in 2021, Norton left for UCLA where he continues to coach linebackers.



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