Ken Norton Jr. has come a long way.
And I don’t mean here to England to coach a football game this weekend.
He’s come on his football journey from Los Angeles to Dallas to San Francisco to USC to Seattle to Oakland and, this season, back to Seattle.
The son of former heavyweight boxing champion Ken Norton—the son of one of the few men on Earth to beat Muhammad Ali in the ring and maybe the only one to break Ali’s jaw—was an NFL linebacker who won three Super Bowls. That was while he was playing for the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers in the 1990s. He entered coaching in 2004 as Pete Carroll’s linebacker coach at USC. When Carroll got the Seahawks’ head job in 2010, he brought Norton to be his linebackers coach in Seattle, too.
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Norton helped make Bobby Wagner an All-Pro middle linebacker. He tutored K.J. Wright into a Pro Bowl weakside linebacker, Norton old position and status. Norton was on the Seahawks’ staff that won Super Bowl 48.
Five days after Seattle lost Super Bowl 49 the Oakland Raiders hired Norton in February 2016 to be their defensive coordinator. He did that for three seasons. He brought former Seahawks strongside linebacker Bruce Irvin with him to Oakland. Last season Irvin had a career-high eight sacks. Norton coached Kahlil Mack into the NFL’s defensive player of the year in 2016.
In January, Carroll called again. He hired Norton to replace fired Kris Richard as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator, during Carroll’s mass coaching purge this offseason.
Sunday, at Wembley Stadium down the M1 from the Seahawks’ suburban golf-resort hotel in the Hertfordshire countryside here, Norton and Seattle face the Raiders.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would do it all over again,” the 52-year-old Norton said of his past joining his present this weekend in the U.K.
He has fond memories of his three years with Oakland, calling the experience “amazing.”
“Oakland was very good to me,” he said. “The people were good. The fans were good. Being back in California (he went to Westchester High School in Los Angeles then played at UCLA) was good. And just the experience of running the system and taking the system to another place. Having a lot of problems I need to solve by myself, not having the main system with me.
“It was very, very beneficial for me and my growth as a coach.”
It was, of course, the first time in Norton’s career he didn’t have Carroll as his boss. His in Oakland was Jack Del Rio.
What did he learn away from Carroll?
“A lot. Oakland was very good to me,” Norton said again. “I’m very glad I went there. I met a lot of really good people. Had a really good experience playing ball, working with a certain staff, working with the head coach. I just learned a lot about ball. Learned a lot of tight situations. Had my first playoff game as a coordinator.
“So, it was a lot of good football, a lot of good coaching experience. It was very valuable for me.”
Now he’s coaching a Seahawks’ defense that is so changed from the one he left in February 2016 coming off consecutive Super Bowl appearances. He’s coaching nine starters who weren’t with the team when Norton coached Seattle the first time around. This Seahawks unit is struggling with producing the constant, attacking pressure on the line of scrimmage and quarterbacks Norton wants to have a mainstay. Frank Clark is Norton’s only proven pass rusher.
Wagner and Wright are the only two Seahawks on the active roster who were on the defense Norton coached in Seattle.
Those two revere him. They messaged their former coach during those seasons Norton was coaching Oakland instead.
“It feels amazing,” to have him back,” Wagner said this summer. “We went through a lot those first three years. Obviously, I paid close attention when he left, and we stayed in touch. So when I heard he was coming back, I just had a lot of joy, a lot of excitement, because I feel like we had a little bit of unfinished business. It’s just good to have him back, good to have that mind back.”
Wagner says Norton helped him with how to prepare and play in the NFL, even with his finances when he got his first contract in the league as Seattle’s second-round draft choice in 2012—and again in 2015 when the Seahawks gave Wagner a $43 million extension, months after Norton left for Oakland.
“He’s helped me as more than just a player, as a person,” Wagner said. “He has so much knowledge about the game, and every aspect of everything. How to handle your finances, you family, situations when you have some success.
“He kind of made me the reader I am today. He made us kind of do a book club my second year. So just always expanding your mind. Always challenging us: ‘Don’t let yourself get caught up in football, because football is only a short chapter. You don’t know how long you are going to play.’
“Just keeping your eye on something bigger, and being a good person.”
That’s not a bad legacy to have and leave.
Norton’s ability to relate to his players shows up in his relationship with Irvin, too. Seattle’s first-round draft choice in 2012, the round before the team drafted Wagner, is a formerly troubled kid who in January 2015 said “I’m supposed to be in jail or dead.” Norton helped raise Irvin in the NFL when he was also raising Wagner and Wright.
Irvin, now 30, has three sacks through five games of his third season with the Raiders. Norton is excited to see him on Sunday at Wembley. They last saw each other Aug. 30, when Oakland played in Seattle in a preseason game.
“Bruce and I stay in contact often,” Norton said. “He came over there and we worked very well together. When we were here previously, worked very well together.
“He’s an outstanding player and an outstanding man. It’s going to be great to see him again. It’s been a while since preseason since we saw him. He’s been really flourishing as a player. It’s really good to see him grow and flourish as a player. To see him and talk to him and catch up, it’s going to be very special.”