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Hank Norton: A life of football and fly-fishing

Metaphorically Speaking

by Amy Rose Dobson

Hank Norton

Football and fishing are the only two things on Hank Norton’s mind when I meet him for an interview. From being a high school football coach at Powhatan County High School in the 1950s to heading the football coaching staff at Ferrum College for 34 years, Norton is an expert on the ins and outs of the game. No wonder he was elected into the Virginia Hall of Fame a few years ago. 

It is fishing that now takes up most of Norton’s retirement, though, and when we sat down to talk he was still recovering from a weekend fly-fishing trip. Despite the sore muscles, it still wasn’t like him to cancel on me. In fact, before our interview several people told me he was one of the nicest people I would ever meet. After spending the afternoon with him I can see why.
There is a poem with the line “a diamond is a brilliant stone that holds the world’s desire/but a flint holds fire.” It seems that could apply to playing football.

Norton: If you are looking for a football player, you would look for a more hardened person. I think of some of my best players and many of them had it rough. One of them made the team because his principal wrote me a letter saying that all the kid needed was a chance. He gave everything on the field. He took all that and applied it to life. Now he is a very successful businessman.

Does it have to be built-in or can you teach someone flint, so to speak?

Norton: You can build character. I don’t think you can ever have a great player or a great team that hasn’t been pushed to a point where they are saying, “Can I live through this one more minute?” You have to be driven to the point where you’ve been there and lived through it so when it shows up again you know you can handle anything. I would always want my players to know that they were tougher than the other team. To ever be great, you have to have been to that place.

You’ve seen the game change tremendously since you started coaching.

Norton: Boy, has it. The last drop kick I every saw was in 1954. But, the biggest rule change has been the definition of holding. You couldn’t extend your hands at all. Now it is a reach and grab. We used to say that football is fists, face and feet. Meaning, you came in there with your face first, then your fists, then your feet. Football was so much tougher. You also didn’t have the weight training you have today. I bought the first weights at Powhatan. Our kids were pretty strong to begin with because they were rural kids and they got their muscles the hard way. Country strength, we called it.
It was a tougher game and this was before all the extra padding and facemasks. It must have been brutal.

Norton: Don’t forget about the shoes. Players wore screw-in cleats. In those days if a cleat came out and somebody got cut, he got cut bad. Players couldn’t buy those shoes in a store. A salesman would drive out and have them on display in the back of his car. They cost between $7 and $15 dollars. Kangaroos were the most expensive brand. I knew if a kid paid for shoes then I had him. They weren’t going to quit on me quick.
Did your coaching style have to be tough too?

Norton: I would probably be ranked as a tyrant. The ones who know me would say that, but they appreciate it now. Football is a dictatorship through necessity. It is a team sport and all of us are going to pay the price. We don’t vote on what time we are going to practice. You be there at 2:58 or we lock the door.
Is discipline the most important thing?

Norton: The thing about sports is there are so many factors that come into play. You can look at two people and one guy is better than that other guy, but why is it that the first guy isn’t successful. The difference between winning and losing is really a thin thread.
How does someone make sure they are on the right side of the thread?

Norton: You win on defense. I loved the NCAA basketball championship back in March. That was such a great defensive game that any coach would appreciate. All most people will watch for is whether or not the ball went in the basket. But the little things are what I saw. Like not giving the other guy a step. Not even a half a step. It shows you how much they studied and concentrated to go out and play that game. It is so hard to lose, especially like that.
You taught your players many things, but what did they teach you?

Norton: You have to be somebody who will work. It’s life. If you are going to teach your children anything, teach them to work.

About the author: Amy Rose Dobson is a freelance writer who divides her time between Urbanna and Northern Virginia in search of interesting people with a story to tell. She writes for several national publications and has found the best part of the job is hearing the story behind the one that runs in print. This gave her the idea for a column about how people apply metaphors to their lives, and thus this column was born. 

posted 06.13.2010

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