July 26th, 2013

Billy Reed: Norton

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor


Billy Reed: Norton
The Miami Dolphins made Rick Norton the AFL's No. 2 draft pick in 1966/ photo from complex.com

The injury that ended Rick Norton’s college career — and changed the history of University of Kentucky football — came in the surrealistic setting of the Houston Astrodome, the nation’s first domed stadium. It happened on Nov. 13, 1965, when Norton was desperately trying to engineer a comeback against the Houston Cougars.

The Wildcats came into the game with a 6-2 record and a secret promise from the Cotton Bowl — then one of the nation’s four major bowls — that if they defeated Houston and Tennessee in their final two games, they would be invited to Dallas to play then-unbeaten and top-ranked Arkansas on New Year’s Day.

The Cats were so confident they could get the job done that they voted against accepting an invitation to the Gator Bowl after whipping Vanderbilt 34-0 on Nov. 6. Although Norton voted in favor of taking the Gator Bowl bid, most of his teammates sided with coach Charlie Bradshaw, who knew he was on the cusp of a major breakthrough in his controversial attempt to rebuild UK football.

A former player and assistant under coach Paul “Bear” Bryant — who had taken UK to the Sugar, Orange and Orange bowls during his tenure from 1946-53 — Bradshaw succeeded Blanton Collier after the 1961 season and implemented an offseason training regimen that was so harsh — and so ignorantly enforced by his zealous assistants — that more than 70 players quit before his first season.

Nevertheless, the victory-starved UK fan base — and most of the state’s media —- saw Bradshaw as the second coming of Bryant and rallied around his 1962 team, which came to be known as The Thin Thirty because of the number of scholarship players who had stuck it out.

The furor over Bradshaw’s techniques didn’t prevent him from recruiting most of the top prospects from an extraordinarily rich crop of 1962 high school seniors in Kentucky. Although Rodger Bird of Corbin, Rick Kestner of Belfry, Sam Ball of Henderson and Norton of Louisville Flaget could have gone almost anywhere, they bought into Bradshaw’s crusade at UK.

“I didn’t realize so many had left,” Norton once said in an interview with author Russell Rice. “When I got there and began to talk to the ballplayers, I was shocked. I don’t think people knew what was going on.”

Apparently Norton — who died on July 25 at 69 —- didn’t read Sports Illustrated, which had sent a reporter to Lexington early in 1962 and published a scathing indictment of Bradshaw’s brutal tactics. Or, if he did, it didn’t make any difference. When Bradshaw came calling, Norton was leaning toward signing with Georgia Tech. But he eventually caved in to pressure from UK alums in Louisville.

In those days, freshmen weren’t ineligible for varsity competition, so Norton quarterbacked the freshman team, known as the Kittens, while the Thin Thirty struggled to a 3-5-2 record in Bradshaw’s first season. A classic drop-back passer with a strong arm, Norton was being compared to Wildcat great Vito “Babe” Parilli, the quarterback of Bryant’s best teams, well before he took a snap for the varsity.

Because the Wildcats still were short in numbers due to the mass exodus during Bradshaw’s first year, Norton’s sophomore team could do no better than 3-6-1. But in the second game of the 1964 season, Norton’s junior team went to Jackson, Miss., and upset the top-ranked Rebels 27-21.

Suddenly it looked as if Bradshaw was finally going to be vindicated. But then the Wildcats lost four in a row and finished with a disappointing 5-5 record. Obviously, the 1965 season was going to make or break Bradshaw. 

Throughout the season, Lexington was a favorite destination for scouts and agents from the warring pro leagues, the established NFL and the renegade American Football League. No team in the country had more pro prospects than UK, and the dogfight between the two leagues meant that signing bonuses and salaries were higher than ever. 

Heading into the Houston game, Norton was generally regarded as the No. 1 quarterback prospect into the nation. Halfback Bird was being coveted as a two-platoon back, Kestner and Bob Windsor were highly regarded receivers, and Ball and Doug Davis gave UK the best pair of offensive tackles in the nation. In addition, junior back Larry Seiple was impressing the scouts as both a runner and punter. 

The opportunity to play in the Astrodome was almost a bigger deal than the game itself. Built by Judge Roy Hofheinz, it was advertised as “the eighth wonder of the world” and had been home to the Houston Astros during the 1965 baseball season. The week before the game, nobody gave more interviews than UK play-by-play announcer Claude Sullivan, who had visited the Astrodome during the summer in his role as the Cincinnati Reds’ play-by-play man.

In football, the Astrodome was home to both the AFL’s Houston Oilers and the University of Houston Cougars. It was such a daring concept that everybody in the country wanted to see it. In the late 1960s, it was home to a myriad of events ranging from a Judy Garland concert to Muhammad Ali title fights to the historic 1968 basketball game between UCLA and Houston, the first college game to be televised nationally in prime time.

It turned out that Houston was the worst possible team for UK to play at that crucial point. Coming out of the lily-white Southeastern Conference — the league’s first blacks, Nat Northington and Greg Page, were UK freshmen — the Wildcats were ill-prepared for the integrated Houston team’s speed. In the SEC, the Cats had seen nothing like Warren McVea, the Houston rocket who was a threat to score every time he touched the ball.

Although they led 21-16 at halftime, the Cats were in trouble. The Cougars ripped off 22 unanswered points in the second half. At the time of his knee injury, Norton was desperately trying to pass UK back into the game. When he went down, he had connected on 19 of 23 passes for 373 yard and two touchdowns, one of them a 75-yarder to Seiple. 

Without Norton, who had taken almost every snap, the Wildcats were no match for Tennessee. Backup Roger Walz — father of current University of Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz — got the start but was ineffective, forcing Bradshaw to turn to sophomore Terry Beadles, who had spent most of the season playing safety on defense. The Vols won 19-3 and suddenly UK’s decision to turn down the Gator Bowl looked pretty dumb.

Norton’s injury didn’t deter the Miami Dolphins from making him the No. 2 draft pick overall (behind Jim Grabowski) in the 1966 AFL draft. It was such a foregone conclusion that both Norton and Bird were going to the AFL that the NFL didn’t bother to draft either. Indeed, Bird ended up going to the Oakland Raiders as the 10th pick in the AFL’s first round. Ball, Windsor, Davis and Kestner opted for the NFL, where the Baltimore Colts made Ball the 15th overall pick. 

Unfortunately for Norton, the Dolphins were a bad team, a far cry from the bunch that won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1972 and ’73, and he never really had the opportunity to be surrounded by good players. After a sub-par four seasons with the Dolphins, he played for the Green Bay Packers of the NFL in 1970 before retiring and returning Kentucky to enter business. 

He eventually got into state government and was appointed to various positions, most notably executive director of the Kentucky State Racing Commission in the 1980s. Mostly he lived off the glory of his UK career. His injury in Houston came just after he had surpassed Parilli’s career passing records. 

Although most of Norton’s records have been surpassed by ensuing UK quarterbacks, most notably Tim Couch, he’s still remembered by veteran fans as one of the best passers in university and league history. He and his classmates never were really able to overcome the depth problem that Bradshaw created by running off so many players in his first year. 

Had Norton not been injured in the Astrodome, the Wildcats might have rallied to beat Houston. But even if they hadn’t, they surely would have drubbed Tennessee to finish at 7-3. That might have been good enough to get them into a bowl, given the star power on their roster. And a bowl at that time might have put Wildcat football on a completely different track. 

As it turned out, however, Bradshaw was fired after losing seasons in 1966, ’67 and ’68, and the Wildcats didn’t get to a bowl until coach Fran Curci took them to the 1976 Peach Bowl.

 

 

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