A letter, with a vintage photograph, arrived on my desk a few days ago from, perhaps, the most unforgettable character to come through Georgia in the football troubled fifties when little was right with the world until the decade was about to slide into a forgettable past.
After breaking the drought versus Georgia Tech on Grant Field in 1957, there was promise for ‘58, but the Bulldogs again wallowed in ignominy, winning four games with what had to be the best 4-6 team in college football.
That team was the Fran Tarkenton/Pat Dye sophomore team, its highlight coming when Tech was dominated between-the-hedges, 16-3, a thumbs-up-two-in-a-row victory, which caused tumultuous celebration to sweep over the Classic City and the state. Things would be favorably different a year later when J. B. Whitworth, Coach Wallace Butts’ Erskine Russell, was the glue and inspiration that brought The Little Round Man his fourth SEC title and a third Orange Bowl invitation.
Norman was ineligible for the championship season. Due diligence was never a King accomplice. Had that been the case, he would have walked the campus an honor student. Class, to Norman, offered the same appeal of showing up for a root canal. He set a classroom attendance standard that Jake Scott would have envied. Norman and Jake hold the all-time Georgia record for classroom antipathy even though both were capable of star student laurels.
Eligibility for Norman, more often than not, rested on whether or not he could get into a professor’s desk—via cloak-and-dagger espionage, except his only weapon was a flashlight--and abscond with a copy of an upcoming test. As a consequence, he only lettered as a sophomore in 1958 ending his career prematurely. Nonetheless, looking back, he says, Georgia was the best of times.
Norman was the son of a preacher man. The only difference between him and the prodigal son was that Norman never repented and returned home to stay. Like Hank Snow, he was always moving on. He actually had a respectful and genial rapport with his dad even though Norman was like the wayward wind, he was restless. He was born to wander. He, forever, lived on the edge. No man was ever afflicted by wanderlust more than Norman.
For those who are unaware, there may have never been an athlete with rawer talent to wear the Red and Black. “I have been around some great athletes,” says Fran Tarkenton, “but he is the most unique I have ever met.”
In high school Norman lettered in four sports: football quarterback, basketball point guard, baseball catcher and track quarter miler. He could have lettered in swimming and golf if he could have fit those sports into the schedule. Coaches, given to trying “to run him in the ground,” never could. He could stay out all night and indefatigably “run all day” the next afternoon at practice. His skills were remarkable. He could master anything, including playing the piano and defending a buddy in a bar room melee. He never was inclined to start fisticuffs, but he was the best at closing a confrontation. If a fight broke out, Norman was the last one standing.
When Gary Player, whom Norman was introduced to by a mutual friend when the South African golfer came to Atlanta on business, invited the former Bulldog to come work on his ranch near Johannesburg, he didn’t have to ask but once. That was 1965 and came about through a real estate developer, Bob Witcher, a friend of Norman’s who had gotten to know Player. Witcher went over to join Player in a business venture and encouraged Norman to come join him and Player. It only took a plane ticket to close the deal.
Norman stayed four years in South Africa and eventually got into the pool business. He was making good money, bought some property and was settling down if that could be possible. His social life with Gary and his wife, Vivienne, was as stimulating as the choice South African wines they drank. The Players invited him to their parties and socials. He often found himself enjoying a drink by their pool with all sorts of celebrities and golfers such as Bob Charles of New Zealand. When boxer Rocky Marciano came to visit Gary, Norman hosted the heavyweight champion on a series of tours. Gary introduced Norman to Bobby Locke, who won the British Open four times.
“I got my handicap down to 2,” Norman says. “I would play 20 to 30 rounds a year with Bobby. Gary still says Bobby was the best putter he ever saw. Locke hooked his putts. It was uncanny, but it would be a mistake to bet against him. Fortunately, I usually was his partner.”
Spending time in South Africa changed Norman’s life. “It was an unbelievable experience,” he grins. “Gary was really good to me. We still talk a couple of times a year and exchange Christmas cards.”
When Witcher experienced visa complications, he decided to embark to Australia where he had another business opportunity. Again, he invited Norman to come along, but this time the invitee was reluctant. Norman’s company was making good money. In fact, for the times, it was “big” money. With customers aplenty, he didn’t want to leave, but finally yielded to Witcher’s persuasion.
Before heading “Down Under,” however, they rented an over-sized land rover and decided to take a four- month tour of Southern Africa which is a big swath of the continent. They drove north through Botswana, Rhodesia (before it became Zimbabwe), Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique. Then they took a boat, via the Seychelles to Pakistan and India. Next they flew to Nepal and its capital city, Kathmandu, subsequently to Bangkok and finally to Brisbane, Australia, his new home.
Nothing ever worried or fazed “the Norman,” but now ameliorated by age, he pulsates gratefully when he realizes how endangered he and Witcher often were. There were nights when he slept on the roof of the Land Rover to avoid hungry crocodiles. Furthermore, Africa was beset with revolutions. They missed all cross fires, but no travel agent would have booked such a trip.
Apartheid was hanging on in South Africa, but the die was cast. It would continue a little longer but white flight was taking place with abandon. Rhodesian Prime Minister, Ian Smith, was like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike—but it would be a matter of time until the dam gave way. Smith was a friend of Gary’s. He once took Norman to Salisbury to play golf with the prime minister.
When Gary hosted Jack Nicklaus for a golf event and a big-game hunting excursion, Norman played nine holes with the Golden Bear. It is logical to suggest that if the Pope had ventured to South Africa, he likely would have had an opportunity to interact with Norman, but only if he brought along a six pack of Peroni.
Norman became anchored in the heart of Queensland and entered into the pool business again. He added supplies and accessories to his operation. Money was flowing, his company flourished. Press him, a man never prone to exaggeration, and he confirms that his company was worth over a million dollars. For a man given to leaving home for the day with $2.00 or $2,000 in his pocket, but returning flat broke, Norman was living large.
Life was good and life was fun, but he began to miss home. Mostly, he missed his son Michael. Michael was the off spring of his marriage to Gaye Boardman whose brother Jim, was a teammate of Norman’s at Georgia. Those who remember Gaye will tell you that she had supermodel good looks which led to this question. “How did you mess that relationship up?” Norman chuckles sanguinely, “Just being Norman.” He has never been reluctant to blame himself for any of his shortcomings.
Returning to Atlanta in 1975, Norman went to work with his friend Don Leebern, also a former Bulldog teammate. Their business relationship lasted 20 years. “Don kept me from starving,” Norman says. “I’ve never had a better friend.” Leebern has an endless inventory of “believe it or not” Norman King vignettes. Like the time at a popular downtown Atlanta restaurant, “The Mousetrap,” which featured piano music during happy hour. “The piano player took a break and Norman (who plays the piano by ear) took his place,” Don remembers. “He soon had the place rocking. When the regular piano player returned, they booed him unmercifully. They wanted Norman to play again.”
Jimmy Orr, Bulldog halfback who led the SEC in pass receiving his junior year, acknowledges that Norman “was super talented receiver,” remembers that during two-a-day practice in the fall, Norman would hitchhike to Atlanta for lunch (or perhaps a clandestine tryst), and hitchhike back for the afternoon practice.
I have heard most of the stories about some of the more colorful occurrences in Norman’s life. It was time for him to set the record straight.
His father was a Baptist minister, and I had always heard that Norman once threw a beer party in his dad’s church. “Not exactly but close,” he laughed. Seems that he was at the parsonage one day while his parents were out of town. Some of his buddies, beer in hand, dropped by. Norman was cajoled into an impromptu piano recital.
There was a slight problem. The only piano was the one at the church which they found locked. Norman, being Norman, located a window which allowed for them to slip inside. Soon a half dozen more buddies joined the fun, all with their favorite beer. The chairman of the finance committee rode by the church, saw unfamiliar cars and became curious about what was going on. He commenced to bang on the door. The concert was quashed post haste. They escaped the way they came in. Nobody was caught. Nothing was ever said, but the story became entrenched in the “Legend of Norman King.”
What about the original “walk off” homer? Seems that he had an issue with the overbearing Murphy High baseball coach. Only this scenario could come about with “the Norman”. A day or two after the coach raked him over the coals about something Norman considered trivial, Murphy was playing an inconsequential game as the season was coming to a close. Murphy, came to bat in the bottom of the 9th inning, three runs behind. The War Eagles loaded the bases. Who is next to bat? None other than Norman who powers a fast ball out of the park. The stadium went berserk. Norman begins to trot around the bases. When he steps on third, he leaves the stadium, getting even with his coach. That was the city of Atlanta’s first recorded “walk off” homerun.
When his UGA class reached its graduation juncture, Norman became eligible for the NFL draft. The Buffalo Bills signed him in the spring of 1961. In an exhibition game in August, he caught two touchdown passes against the Denver Broncos. It was obvious that he would make the team.
By now you know if something could go awry for Norman, it would. After practice one day the next week, he was minding his own business when a teammate got into a confrontation with a big mouth at a bar. Big Mouth summoned a couple of buddies to take care of Norman’s teammate. Bad decision. The quick-fisted Norman soon had them sprawled out on the floor. Remember “the Norman” seldom started a fight. He only finished them.
Bad news followed, however. The cops came and the newspapers had a field day. Norman, whose luck, more often than not, was favorable, was fired by the Bills. The proprietor of the bar happened to be a good friend of Ralph Wilson owner of the Bills.
Would he do the same if he had it to do over with again. “There ain’t much to you if you don’t help you buddies when they are in trouble,” he laughed.
Norman was always laughing and having fun. During his time at Georgia, he would hitchhike to Daytona for the summer, taking a small bag with a minimum of clothes. He wore a bathing suit all day long. He was a life guard who won all the swimming contests. He was forever “rode hard and put up wet.” The girls loved him and the guys loved him too. He was never a trouble maker, but was never reluctant to come to the aid of a friend.
Now retired and playing golf three or four days a week, he has been taking radiation for throat cancer but remains upbeat. “I am happy to say that I am living and happy,” he said recently with a hoarse chuckle. “Still trying to enjoy life and play a little golf.”
Norman didn’t return my call after the first couple of overtures for this story. When I asked him why, he, Norman being Norman, said: “Didn’t recognize your number. I have to avoid bill collectors.”
Ask any of his teammates from the fifties to name their most unforgettable character, and it would be the guess here, they all would choose Norman. And as I sign off, I can assure you, he gets my vote. Further, be assured that what you find chronicled here is certainly not an unabridged summary.