RENTON, Wash. — They are remarkable. They are unstoppable. They can't be beat.
Ken Norton Jr. will gather his Seattle Seahawks linebackers before Saturday's playoff game and remind them of this, raising his voice like a corner man in boxing, and for good reason. It's a strategy he knows well, and an homage to his dad.
"Boxers need to be extremely confident. If you've got any insecurities, you're going to lose," Norton said this week. "It's the same way in football. You've got to break them down, but then you've got to build them up. You've got to make them feel on game day that they prepared so well they can't possibly lose."
It's worked well so far, as the linebackers are key playmakers in Seattle's defense, which allowed a league-low and team-record 231 points this season. Even as the offense has struggled lately, the defense has been unwaveringly consistent heading into a divisional playoff opener against New Orleans.
Despite the success, this has been Norton's most trying season, either as a player — the former UCLA star was an All-Pro linebacker who won a combined three Super Bowls with Dallas and San Francisco — or as a coach. He lost his father four months ago; Ken Norton, among the greatest heavyweight boxers, died Sept. 18 after suffering several strokes near the end of his life.
The younger Norton spoke to The Times this week about how his father shaped his life, and the bittersweet feelings of his first season without his dad.
The elder Norton was a Marine and single father who made the rigorous and bruising rise from being Joe Frazier's sparring partner to world champion, with all sorts of highlights along the way, including breaking the jaw of Muhammad Ali in a 12-round split decision over the flamboyant champ.
"He's always been my Superman," said Norton, speaking publicly on the topic for the first time since his dad's death. "He showed me how to be a man, always been there as a father, showed me that I can be successful with hard work and dedication. He was very demanding on me, making sure that I grew up with a certain amount of respect and dignity, and understand that the Norton name means an awful lot."
The elder Norton didn't allow his two sons, Ken and Keith, to go into boxing, nor did he let them watch his fights. ("He didn't want us to see him get hit or beat up," Ken said.) But that doesn't mean the boys always followed the rules.
In 1978, when Ken was 12, he was baby-sitting his sister at home while their dad was defending his WBC title against Larry Holmes in what turned out to be a classic fight. Young Ken couldn't resist taking a look at the TV.
"The fight was just taking too long, so I ended up peeking in the room and seeing the 15th round," he said. "I was like, 'Wow, my dad's pretty special. He's bouncing around, moving, shaking. Taking hits, giving hits, taking a punishment, dishing it out.'"
The elder Norton lost that fight in a close decision.
"The older I got, I really began to appreciate his sacrifice, his triumph, his struggle, what he was able to accomplish and at the same time being a father. It made me want to make him proud. Made me want to do something to make him happy, where he could say, 'That's my son.'"
Norton shared that story with his Seahawks linebackers, a message to them about the importance of training for the five-month fight that is the NFL season. He leans heavily on boxing principles in coaching his players.
"With Coach Norton, it's all about the hands," Seahawks linebacker Heath Farwell said. "We do a lot of hand work in our individual drills, hand-fighting. It's like boxing — footwork, hips. We're always trying to pick his brain about his dad, but he doesn't talk about it much, just like he doesn't like talking about his own playing career."
Farwell said Norton is like a big brother to the Seahawks linebackers, both because of his own illustrious playing career and the way Ken and Angela Norton have opened their Seattle-area home to the players, inviting them over for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals and the like.
It's a warmth Norton says he got from his dad.
"He was gentle, great personality, laughed a lot," the son said. "He loved people."
The younger Norton, who escapes into his own world at Seahawks headquarters by drumming away on a speed bag upstairs, said his dad is never far away.
"He's always with me," the coach said. "I've got him. On game day, he's in my heart. I've got his spirit with me."