Flashback: Punter gave Packers a lift

Jerry Norton had been in Green Bay for only a day during the late summer of 1963. The nine-year veteran had been brought in by coach Vince Lombardi to relieve wide receivers Boyd Dowler and Max McGee of their punting duties and Norton was just getting the feel of his new community.<p>

Little could he realize how much he was already known in Green Bay.

That day, Norton realized he had left something behind in Dallas and he drove to a Green Bay department store for a replacement. While he was at the cash register, Norton asked the checker if he could write a check.

"Sure, Jerry," Norton was told by a man he had never seen before.

And to think Norton had been in Green Bay for less than 48 hours.

"They knew everybody up there!," Norton reflected 40-some years later. "People just kept up with everything."

Green Bay is that kind of community.

As for Norton, he was some kind of player.

For the two seasons Norton played in Green Bay, he was one of the more accomplished punters the Packers ever had, averaging 44.7 yards per punt in 1963 and 42.2 in 1964, his final season in the NFL.

This former defensive back for the Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys – he led the league with 10 interceptions in 1960 – also saw time during his short stint in Green Bay in the secondary. He occasionally spelled either Willie Wood and Jesse Whittenton at the safety positions, meaning he still got his No. 23 jersey soiled on occasion.

While Norton's time in Green Bay was productive, though, it was also unlucky. He joined the Packers just after they had won their first two NFL championships under Lombardi in 1961 and '62. And he retired just before the Packers started their historic run of winning three straight championships from 1965-67.

Norton was destined to leave Green Bay with plenty of memories, but not a championship ring that he could slip onto his finger.

"I would have liked to have won one," the 72-year-old Norton said. "See, I had retired (after the 1961 season), then I came out of retirement and played one year for the Cowboys and then they sent me on to Green Bay and I played two years there and retired again.

"I was ready to get out of it, but I guess I could still play because after I retired, Don Shula called and wanted to come out there and punt for them (the Baltimore Colts). I told Don, ‘Don I made up my mind. I am not going back.'

"I had seen so many guys go back and try to hang on and hang on and hang on and then get cut and I didn't want that to happen, so that's the reason I retired."

While a man who frequently tackled the great Jim Brown in the open field saw his role drastically reduced with the Packers, he was still at the top of his game. His 44.7-yard punting average in 1963 ranks second in the Packers recorded history to Craig Hentrich's 45-yard average in 1997.

"I mostly tried to kick out of bounds," Norton said when asked what his punting strategy was. "You know, I would angle it across the field. I tried to kick it inside the 20-yard line. Nowadays, they've got more interest in hang time. Until about 10 years ago, when they started putting hang time on punts, I never even thought about hang time."

In Norton's day, coaching wasn't nearly as comprehensive as it is now. Norton didn't receive strict instructions from a special teams coach with the Packers and was pretty much free to take off and run at his own discretion.

"I had a habit of running with the ball every now and then," Norton said.

In 1964, he gained 24 yards after deciding to run after receiving a punt snap. But once in 1963, he took off to run following a bad snap and stopped short of the first down, which led to his only run-in with Lombardi.

"About the only time he said something to me was one time there was a bad snap and I ran with it,'' Norton said. "He said something about it and I said, 'Well, it was either that or get the punt blocked!'

"And then when they showed the pictures the next Tuesday or whenever they looked at the pictures, he saw it."

Norton doesn't recall ever being subjected to Lombardi's notorious short temper, but he certainly saw it on enough occasions.

"He'd yell at that tight end (Ron Kramer) and it would just go in one ear and out the other," Norton said. "It didn't even faze him. There were some out there he would chew out, scream and holler at. But others, he wouldn't do that because he knew if he did it, it would just devastate them.

"He treated every one of them as an individual. He knew who he could holler at and what to say to them and how to say it. It was my observation that he would try to get in your head and figure you out. It was either black and white. There wasn't any gray. You were either right or wrong."

When Norton joined the Packers in 1963, they were trying for a third straight NFL championship. And even though they were without the services of Paul Hornung, who was suspended that season for gambling, the Packers almost edged the Chicago Bears for what would have been their fourth straight Western Conference championship.

But even though Hornung returned in 1964, the Packers slipped a little. With the rusty Hornung setting an NFL record for futility by making just 12 of 38 field-goal attempts, the Packers lost three games by three points or less, tied another and finished with a disappointing 8-5-1 record.

"They were kidding him when he was having so much trouble," Norton said. "I think Dowler or somebody said that Paul was back there with a gun to the side of head and that he was going to shoot himself. And Jim Taylor said, ‘Don't worry. He'll miss!'"

By 1965, Don Chandler was brought in to replace Hornung as a kicking specialist and the retired Norton as a punter. Norton retired to Dallas with his wife, Jean Anne (the two will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in January) and their three children where he went to work for a lighting business.

Norton, an accomplished handyman, still remains busy by manufacturing controls for automatic windows in his home workshop and selling them to a company called BTX. When he looks back on his football career, he can do so with a sense of pride even though he was never fortunate enough to earn a championship ring as a member of one of the great dynasties in NFL history.

He was a Pro Bowl safety for the Eagles in 1958 and '59 and the Cardinals in 1960 and '61. He finished his career with 35 interceptions and a 43.8-punting average and is the only player in NFL history to intercept four passes in a game twice.

As a member of the Cardinals, Norton intercepted four passes against the Washington Redskins Nov. 20, 1960 and against the Pittsburgh Steelers Nov. 26, 1961.

He can also tell his seven grandchildren what it was like to be coached by Lombardi and to try to tackle Brown in the open field.

"Well, if you hit him low, it wasn't a big problem," said Norton when asked how he tackled the Cleveland Browns' Hall-of-Fame fullback. "But if you hit him high, hell, he'd drag you four or five yards. I mean, he was so strong that he would just drag you."

More than anything, though, Norton remembers the good times he experienced as a player during a far more innocent and care-free time.

"I think that we had more fun than they do now," he said. "We all ran around together and did things together, cut up and had a lot of fun. Nowadays, from hearing people talk, when practice is over, they're gone in all different ways."

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