They are a different kind of team, in a different kind of battle, one that even the toughest days of the Rams’ impending training camp can’t match.
In a retirement home in Anaheim, the greatest Rams coach fights to find his memory.
In an apartment in downtown Seattle, his granddaughter fights to make sure the football world doesn’t forget him.
Chuck Knox, 84, suffering from dementia, spends his days in a pleasant cottage with wife Shirley, his striking blue eyes bright, his warm smile strong, but his mind faded, such that he recognizes few visitors and has little contact with old football friends.
Lee Ann Norman, 27, a former medical student who was mentored by her grandfather, spends her days figuring out ways to keep his spark alive and his legacy connected.
If you are a longtime pro football writer, chances are you have heard from her. A couple of years ago, even though she’s not a football fan and never even knew about that building in Canton, Ohio, Norman embarked on a relentless campaign to have Knox inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. She dug up emails and Twitter handles and eventually contacted every voter while enlisting support letters from several influential former football figures, including Dick Vermeil, Steve Largent, Joe Namath and Pat Haden.
It’s an uphill battle that would be attempted only by someone blinded by faith. Knox ranks 10th in career regular-season wins and is one of only three retired NFL coaches in the top 10 who are not in the Hall of Fame, but his chances are slim because he never coached in a Super Bowl.
“Her phone calls to me were so honest, so earnest,” said Peter King, a Hall of Fame voter who works for Sports Illustrated and NBC. “It felt like such a neat family thing.”
If you are in the sports book world, chances are you are also currently hearing from her. Norman is attempting to self-publish an expanded version of the 1988 autobiography “Hard Knox,” which was written with this columnist during the coach’s glory days with the Seattle Seahawks.
“She just keeps plugging,” Shirley said.
Finally, if you are employed by the Rams, chances are you will soon be hearing from her, as she wants to ensure that the team’s homecoming parade includes memories of the coach whose five consecutive division championships from 1973 to 1977 solidified their previous presence here.
“Pop-Pop has affected the lives of so many people, I just don’t want him to be forgotten,” Norman said.
She is one of the few people her Pop-Pop always remembers. When he was asked about her this week, clear recognition filled a voice that suddenly regained its homey western Pennsylvania edge.
“Ohhh, yeah,” he said simply, as if witnessing an undersized defender fight through a giant blocker, which, when one thinks about it, is exactly what she is doing.
Lee Ann Norman not only wears her love for her grandfather on her sleeve, but also has it permanently inked below her shoulder.
The numbers 193-158-1 are tattooed at the top of the right side of her back in honor of Knox’s career record, including playoff games.
“If I’m wearing a tank top, some guys will come up and ask if that is my prison record,” she said. “I say, no, my grandfather was a great football coach and that is what he accomplished.”
They have always had an indelible relationship, the stoic sideline leader and his free-spirited oldest of six grandchildren.
Lee Ann was born in Redlands in 1988 while Knox was living in Seattle coaching the Seahawks. Her family flew there frequently during the season, then would spend summers together at the Knoxes’ La Quinta residence. After Knox retired following his second Rams stint in 1994, she spent much of the rest of her childhood with him in the desert.
“Being the first grandchild, he was very protective of her,” recalled Shirley, who has been married to Chuck for 63 years. “They would do everything together.”
The first interactions between Knox and Lee Ann could be heard on a baby monitor. Knox would be admonished to let her sleep, but he would sneak in to talk to her, unaware that the family was listening in the other room. When she grew older, he insisted on buying her a first ice cream cone, it had to be vanilla, and they had to sing the “I scream” song together.
Once she was old enough to accompany him to the field, she became an influential part of his entourage. Visitors to his office would often find her lying on the floor playing with his watch and rings. Players would carry her into the locker room on their shoulders after games. She once wandered onto a hotel elevator in San Diego and he left a news conference to help find her. Another time, while halfway home after a celebratory postgame dinner, she shrieked that she had left her doll at the fancy restaurant, and Knox ordered his driver to return to pick it up.
Through Lee Ann, folks saw a different side of the tough Knox who is the only coach to lead the Rams to five consecutive double-digit-win seasons with a .782 winning percentage during those five years (54-15-1), a Rams record for any single coaching stint. He was known for simple philosophies known as “Knox-isms” and a run-based style called “Ground Chuck.”
“Chuck Knox was the best coach I ever had,” said former Rams guard Tom Mack, a Hall of Famer. “He always took the time to know each player well enough that he could talk to each player and hit their hot buttons. I never saw another coach like that.”
His Rams highlights included making James Harris the NFL’s first African American regular starting quarterback, and advancing to three NFC title games. His lowlights were losing in all three big games, twice to the Minnesota Vikings, including a 14-10 loss in 1974 that featured a phantom illegal procedure call against Mack nullified a Rams touchdown. He later created the foundation for the Seahawks’ greatness by leading them to their first playoff berth, and after nine seasons there he eventually was inducted into the franchise’s Ring of Honor.
Lee Ann never saw the frustration, only the joy, and shared that with her grandfather, spending long summers together in La Quinta riding around in a golf cart, tending to ducks, fending off coyotes, drinking date shakes, and talking about life. They never talked football. She never cared about football. It wasn’t until later, after she had graduated from California with a degree in molecular and cell biology and was attending medical school at the University of Cincinnati, that she had an epiphany.
“I started reading all these old stories about Pop-Pop and realized he wasn’t just a great grandfather, he was a great coach, and shouldn’t he be getting more recognition for that?” she said. “I thought, this is ridiculous. I had no idea what to do, but I had to do something.”
With a campaign that basically consisted of cold calls to strangers, she went to work on Hall of Fame voters and players, compiling a package of recommendation letters and statistics that she hoped would sway opinions. As one of those voters, Peter King receives lots of pleas, but none quite like this.
“After talking to her a couple of times I thought, this shows what an incredible family Chuck Knox has built,” King said. “There was so much love in her commitment.”
The campaign still didn’t land Knox a spot as one of the finalists, but Norman, who says she is currently seeking a new direction after leaving medical school, is still pushing. She has proposed a new book, and soon she’ll be be nudging the Rams.
Shirley Knox emphasized that the family is happy with Knox’s place in history — “We’ve had a great life, no complaints, no regrets,” she said — but acknowledges appreciation for her granddaughter’s persistence.
“I know Chuck is so proud of her,” Shirley said. “What she is doing means so much to him.”
Knox still occasionally wears a Rams cap. He is still called “Coach” by fans who see him when he visits local coffee shops. Everyone wants to know if he’s excited his old team is back in town, and he smiles and answers “yes” to all of them.
But he often saves his biggest smiles for visits from Lee Ann. The last time she was here, he gently touched her arm and said, “I love you more than anything, you know that.”
At that moment, they both relied on the Knox-ism, “What you do speaks so well, there’s no need to hear what you say.”
As if remembering everything, they said nothing.
Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @BillPlaschke