With only one good arm, Cowboys' Norton has one fine season

December 30, 1993|By Gary Myers | Gary Myers,New York Daily News

IRVING, Texas -- Ken Norton has taken playing in pain to a new dimension. He tore a biceps in his right arm on Halloween, rejected surgery until after the season, and just kept going.

He has become the Dallas Cowboys' one-armed Pro Bowl middle linebacker.

"For normal everyday things, the pain is not real bad. But playing football is not normal everyday, so that changes the whole aspect," Norton said yesterday. "At first, it was real painful. I had to learn how to deal with the pain, learn how to play with pain during the week going to practice.

"On Sundays, with the adrenaline flowing and the tape and the padding, I've learned how to forget about it, to the point now where I'm in pain more during the week than I am on Sundays. During the week, it's treat it and take care of it. On Sundays, I forget about it, it's time to play. I look forward to Sundays now because I have less pain."

Norton, who is the Cowboys' leading tackler and will be a key in stopping Rodney Hampton and the Giants' No. 1 rushing attack in Sunday's showdown, tore the muscle near the elbow taking on a block and making a tackle against the Eagles. He said doctors told him he could do no further damage by playing and could wait provided he could deal with the pain.

He chose to play. He gets his arm heavilytaped and padded before each game. And for the first time in his career, he pulls his sleeves down all the way in an attempt to hide all the extra protection he's wearing and not draw the opponent's attention to the injury. But it's hard to miss. Because of the tape and padding, he can't straighten out his right arm. It's almost restricted to an L-shaped position.

"It's awesome the way he goes out and makes plays as if he's not even hurt," Emmitt Smith said.

Last year, Norton led the Cowboys with 120 tackles playing outside. After the third game this season, Jimmy Johnson moved him to the middle. He leads again with 146 tackles and has earned a trip to his first Pro Bowl.

Norton said the fact he will be a free agent after the season was a factor in his decision to keep playing after the injury. He didn't want to hit the open market after playing only seven games. But postponing the surgery and the rehab until after the season went deeper than that.

"I felt I had to do it," he said. "I felt it was my duty to be out there -- especially if my legs were fine, my mind was fine, I just have to pull my arm along with it. I just have a passion for playing. A lot of people might have had it fixed right away. I felt this season would be very special for me and I didn't want anything to ruin it for me. I felt that I had a chance, moving to the middle, to do something very special. If my productivity didn't go down and I could play with pain, why not?"

Norton, now in his sixth season, had his coming-out party in the playoffs and Super Bowl last year. He had his first career interception in the NFC title game off Steve Young. Then he had a monster game against Buffalo in the Cowboys' 52-17 victory in the Big Show.

He had 10 tackles and a QB pressure that knocked Jim Kelly out of the game in the second quarter. In the fourth quarter, he returned a fumble 9 yards for the Cowboys' final TD. But perhaps his most important plays came in the second quarter when the Cowboys led 14-7. Buffalo had a first-and-goal at the 1. He stopped Carwell Gardner on first down and Kenneth Davis on third down. Then Kelly threw a fourth-down end-zone interception.

"With the playoffs, I was able to take it to another level," he said. "When the lights were on, I was able to perform. And, hey, that's just not the champ's son. He can play some football."

Norton no longer speaks to his father, former heavyweight champion Ken Norton, but never has detailed why. When they said on TV while announcing the Pro Bowl team that he was the champ's son, Norton said he thought, "Wait a minute. I'm in the Pro Bowl now. I should be done with that deal. It wasn't Ken Norton. It was the champion's son who made it. It will always be that way. But it doesn't bother me."

The injury has forced Norton to change his tackling style. "I play a lot smarter," he said. "It's more body positioning. It's almost like basketball, keeping your feet in front of somebody instead of stretching out. Now I put my body in front. Before, you kind of thrust yourself at them.

"I've learned this year, sometimes when you feel like you're handicapped or not at 100 percent, you play harder, you study harder, watch more film, get a little more excited before the game because you know you have to play harder to make up for your handicap. I've been able to be effective and have a real good season with this. It's kind of helped me in a way."

And as far as going into the free-agent market after surgery, Norton is not worried. "If I can play and make the Pro Bowl with one arm," he said, "imagine what I can do with two."

Johnson: Cowboys can drive away in 'new car'

Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson says the Cowboys "are like a 2-year-old car with a bunch of dents on it" going into Sunday's game against the New York Giants.

"If we win on Sunday, we come out of the game brand new, like a brand new car in the showroom," he said. "We can clear away the problems we had earlier in the season."

For that reason, Johnson calls the shootout in the Meadowlands "the biggest game we've had in the regular season since I've been with the Cowboys."

"It's not exactly winner-take-all, but it's winner-take-a-bunch," he said.

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