KEN NORTON IS NOW FIGHTING BACK : Former Champ Is Learning to Talk Again After 1986 Car Accident

Times Staff Writer

When Jackie Norton met her husband Ken on a blind date several years ago, she was pleasantly surprised.

"He was not at all what I expected," she says. "Kenny didn't fit the stereotype I thought of a fighter. There's something about a fighter that looks like a fighter."

Or walks like a fighter, or talks like a fighter.

Hearing that, Norton would get upset.

He would challenge her, "What does a fighter look like?"

Whatever it is, Jackie still says, "Kenny doesn't have it. He's very sensitive, very shy--and very funny."

She speaks in the present tense. After 50 fights--even after that final, 54-second thrashing at the hands of Gerry Cooney in 1981--Norton was still all of those things. He made a clean getaway from the game, his features and his faculties intact.

But wait a minute, a stranger might say, what about the slow gait, the slurred speech?

Well, life played a very cruel trick on Norton, a blow well below the belt.

On the Sunday night of Feb. 23, 1986, Norton's Clenet sports car crashed off the Vermont on-ramp to the Santa Monica Freeway, leaving him with a fractured skull, jaw and leg, and absolutely no recollection of what happened.

Investigators determined that neither drugs nor alcohol were involved. Norton was known as not much of a drinker, anyway. For a time, there was speculation that another car had crowded his off the ramp, but there were no witnesses and no evidence of that was ever found.

But in one violent instant, his life was changed.

"He was well-blessed, up to the accident," Jackie says. "Ken didn't get into boxing for the traditional reasons. He came from an upper-middle class family. He went to college. He got into boxing when he was in the Marines to stay out of Vietnam.

"The ironic part is that the blow to the head affected his speech. People think it's from boxing, but it's not."

As Norton says, now he talks "how 98% of people expect an ex-fighter to talk."

Even without his jaws wired tight, Kenneth Howard Norton remains a modern-day Man in the Iron Mask, trapped behind a facade of fate's making, screaming to be heard and understood. It's me in here, he pleads.

But instead of crying "foul!" Norton decided to concentrate his energy on a comeback--not like two other former heavyweight champions and adversaries, Larry Holmes and George Foreman, are trying to come back, but a comeback that would just return him to a facsimile of what he was when he left the ring.

Lying in the hospital for three weeks, stitches traversing the top of his head from one ear to the other where his skull was split open, the magnificent physique wasted away 43 pounds, "right before our eyes," Jackie said.

Now he lifts weights, which he never did before, and has regained about half of the weight he lost with a dedicated training program limited only by the severity of the trauma to his right leg, which was broken above and below the knee.

Norton would like to run, but he knows he is lucky to walk. Above all, he wants to talk.

"It bothers me to speak like this because it's so much different from what I was," he said in an interview at his home in Laguna Niguel.

Jackie: "When he's rested and on medication, he's OK. He's doing a lot better."

Norton: "Some days my voice, like now, is kind of husky. Some days it's plainer."

Until he got his broken jaw unwired several weeks after the accident, Norton had no idea he would have a problem.

"No one did," he said.

His first words sounded like a foreign language, and because the right side of his body was numb, he couldn't even write notes.

"It upset me that I couldn't communicate," he said. "To me, when I talked it sounded clear, but not to anybody else."

He tried speech therapy.

"I got bored with it," he said. "We didn't do anything different. It was easier to come home and read aloud to myself and tape it and play it back. It helps a lot more. Now I'm coherent. I know best what will help me. I think I do, anyway. I can tell I'm getting better."

He monitors himself when he talks.

"I don't just talk anymore. I can't sit and have a conversation with anybody--even my kids--without listening to myself. It's kind of a conditioned reflex now."

Jackie: "Kenny used to say, 'Jackie, it's like I'm watching everything on television.' "

Norton: "Like a dream. Now it's better. Each month it becomes more real. Even now it's not perfect. I'm aware that we're sitting here talking, but I look around . . . I don't believe it 100%."

Seated at the bar separating the kitchen from the family room, he said, "I haven't had a drink since I got hurt."

No one needs to throw a benefit for Ken Norton. He said in 1985 when he and his former manager/business partner, Jack Rodri, opened the Ken Norton Personal Management Agency--with Eric Dickerson as the only client--that he had tripled his money since retiring.

Now, in separate legal action, Norton and Dickerson are each suing Rodri for mismanaging their business affairs.

But Norton and his family appear comfortable in a large new home in the exclusive South Peak section of Laguna Niguel.

They moved there from their former home near Marina del Rey about a year ago so Norton could pursue his rehabilitation with fewer distractions.

"I just wanted to get us out of Los Angeles--that rat race," Jackie said.

If that sounds as if she has taken on more responsibility . . .

"She took it on, and she will not relinquish it," Norton said. "My wife now handles almost everything. I get a weekly allowance. Before I used to give out the allowance. If I come back too soon, (she says) 'What'd you do with it?' "

Jackie is the mother of Norton's younger children, Kenisha, 11, and Kene Jon, 6. His oldest son, Ken Jr., the UCLA linebacker, is from his first marriage; and Brandon, 17, is from Jackie's first marriage.

The ordeal of the last two years "has made us a lot closer, in some respects," Norton said. "They were very supportive, very uplifting. If I had no one, I wouldn't have come back as quick . . . plus my belief in the Man upstairs. I believe that if God hadn't wanted me to live I would have died in the accident. From what I hear, I should have died."

A year of his memory is only scattered fragments, like a tape that has been erased.

"Eleven months I don't remember . . . 11 months afterward and maybe 2 months before," Norton said. "It's just gone."

Jackie said, "He was a little frustrated because he didn't know what happened. You tell him he was in a crash, and it just didn't register. By the time everything started settling in and he finally realized that he'd been injured, he couldn't walk, his mouth was wired shut . . . "

And because he couldn't write and could barely talk through his teeth, his demands were sometimes misunderstood, even by Jackie.

"Every time I asked for water I got ice water. Can you imagine ice water on that metal? I haven't forgotten that."

Jackie: "I'm still hearing about it."

He also recalled "my son (Ken Jr.) taking me to the shower once at the house, in the back room."

Jackie: "He had to dress him, undress him, sit him in the shower. He almost had to take a shower with him."

Norton: "It didn't bother me. It meant a lot to me, that my son would help me that way."

Last season, Norton tried going to a UCLA game at the Rose Bowl.

"I watched maybe half a quarter when, with the sun rays, I'd go blind--I couldn't see anything--so I'd leave. The first year I'd listen on the radio. Couldn't go. This year I went to every game."

But he wasn't in Hawaii Friday when UCLA beat Florida in the Aloha Bowl.

"I wanted (to go to) the Rose Bowl," Norton said.

Just another frustration with which to deal, but Norton is anything but bitter.

"He's a con act," said Eileen Verdugo, the administrator at the Saddleback Chiropractic Facility and Rehabilitation Center, which Norton frequents. "Every time he comes in he makes wisecracks about how he can't talk. Sometimes he leaves us in stitches. He's really upbeat, and he's really come a long way."

One of his therapists, Dr. Janice Kowalski, said, "What we're trying to do is balance the right side of his body that suffered most of the trauma with the left side. He had a significant loss of coordination in his right side. The trouble is he can't get the signals from his brain down to his leg to tell him where it is."

Norton is treated with a helium neon laser--kind of a space-age acupuncture process.

"Instead of using needles, we use the HNL to stimulate certain pressure points," Kowalski said. "It balances the flow of energy in his body."

Norton has some numbness in the leg, but "it was completely numb before," Kowalski said. "The man is dedicated. They didn't even think he would walk. He is now lifting the full stack of weights (with his legs)."

"Eight hundred pounds," Norton said, proudly. "I'm a lot stronger than I used to be. I never worked with weights before. Since the accident, a lot has changed. Ninety percent of it is uphill."

He plans to open a franchise gym in Orange County. And he has been able to drive himself wherever he wants to go for about eight months, which is earlier than he was supposed to begin driving; although he says, "We went to Palm Springs about five times that I don't remember."

And although he doesn't remember the accident, he finds he is now gun shy behind the wheel.

"They've done that highway (to Palm Springs) different now, with that board in between (the opposing lanes), and I'm afraid now of driving in that lane. It bothers me."

A couple of weeks ago, Norton drove into Los Angeles to see his longtime minister, Dumas A. Harshaw Jr. of the Trinity Baptist Church on Jefferson Blvd.

"Once when I was real bad my wife took me to him because I wanted to see him," Norton said. "But I'd forgotten all that. So last week I wanted to see him again. He was surprised to see me."

Norton said his current regimen isn't quite like training for a fight.

"But the discipline is the same--and not giving up, to keep working."

He hasn't spent much time feeling sorry for himself.

"My wife said when I first became coherent I did. I've forgotten it. She said it made me mad at everybody."

That phase after the accident passed quickly. Now Norton tries to be optimistic but realistic.

Jackie said that Norton told her once, "Maybe if I hadn't had my accident, I'd try a comeback."

She scoffs. Norton has always been sensitive about his age. The Ring Record Book gives his birth date as Aug. 9, 1943, which would make him 44. Holmes, who will try to regain his title from Mike Tyson next Jan. 22, is 38. Foreman, with five victories against journeymen in his comeback, will be 40 next month.

Norton said, "When Larry and I fought, I was 38."

But since that was on June 9, 1978, Norton now puts himself at 47.

Oops.

Jackie never saw Norton fight--not even the memorable 15-round bout in which he lost the title to Holmes on a decision.

"I was on a plane to Las Vegas during the fight to meet him afterward," she said. "I timed it that way.

"Ken had always lied about his age, anyway, but they were saying he was too old, his legs were going, and Larry Holmes then was 10 years younger than Kenny."

Norton: "Not 10 years. More like seven."

Jackie: "You trying to lie about your age now?"

Norton, to the reporter: "Don't tell how old I am."

He laughed.

"My goal is to be 100%. The way I'm going now, I'm never gonna make it, but anything close is good. I've been trying to walk for like, what, two years? In a sense, I'm ahead of schedule, because I started walking way before anybody thought I would, (although) not to my standards.

"That's how I run my life in general: Set the goals high. Then when you come close, you surpass what you would have done.

"I couldn't walk. I was in a wheelchair for a long time. Then I was on the walker for a long time. Then the cane. I couldn't use crutches because my balance was so bad. I can't walk fast. By March, I want to run. It may not be fast, but it will be a fast jog.

"At first they thought I might die, and if I didn't die, I wouldn't be coherent. Then they thought even if I could talk, I'd be a cripple. Now I'm talkin' and walkin' and I can even chew gum at the same time."

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