“With Kenny, there’s got to be a couple of punching bags in the weight room,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said over the phone.
“There’s got to be a speed bag in there. A lot of his drill work emphasizes quick, violent hands, bouncing, being light on your feet. Kyle will be thinking, ‘Are we teaching boxing or football?’”
Kyle is 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. And Kenny is Ken Norton Jr., the former Pro Bowl linebacker for the 49ers and Cowboys, the former defensive coordinator for the Raiders, the new assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach for the 49ers and the son of former heavyweight champion Ken Norton.
Saleh and Norton Jr. worked together on the Seahawks from 2011 to 2013 when Norton Jr. was their linebackers coach and Saleh was a defensive quality control assistant. Saleh worked under Norton Jr. Now, Norton Jr. works under Saleh.
“Kenny gets the players to perform at a very high level on game day,
Saleh said, “and a lot of it has to do with the way he teaches, very motivationally. And a lot of his teaching is through boxing, both technically and mentally.”
“Does boxing figure into your and Norton’s shared philosophy of football?” I asked.
“For him it does,” Saleh said. “I can’t fake it. I use golf as a reference.”
“Are you a good boxer? How’s your left hook?”
“I went into the boxing ring one time. I was on the floor by the end of the first round and I never stepped back in the ring. My cousin, though, he once had a fight ready for Hector Macho Camacho. Hector pulled out at the last second.”
Saleh’s cousin is Tarick “The Arabian Prince” Salmaci.
“What was the motivation for bringing Norton Jr. onto the coaching staff?” I asked.
“The motivation is Kenny knows our system inside and out,” Saleh said. “The presence that he’ll bring, the ability to relate to the players. His players absolutely love him. They’ll run through walls for him. It’s his delivery, his ability to teach and the genuine care he has.”
“Whose idea was it to bring him on?”
“Kyle spearheaded the whole thing. He knows Kenny through (Atlanta Falcons head coach and former Seahawks defensive coordinator) Dan Quinn. For Kyle, having Kenny around can even help out the offensive side of the ball. The things Kenny can do go so far beyond X’s and O’s. Kenny is a fantastic X’s and O’s guy, obviously — he was a coordinator in this league. But, his value from a presence and from a speaking standpoint go far beyond all of that.”
Let’s pause. Norton Jr. recently spoke to NBC Sports Bay Area, and here’s what he said about joining the 49ers:
“Since I became available, (Saleh) was the first call that I really received. And I really appreciate that. He just made it clear that they have a young player, (Reuben Foster), very talented, can do a lot of special things, and there’s no person that he’d like to teach him than myself. We started with that as the initial conversation, and then it went on to the head coach and general manager. We kept the conversation going, and this is where it ended up.”