When his high school athletic career started, he was a football player; all five-foot-seven, 135 pounds of him.
I don’t know what the hell he was thinking, but his two years playing for the John Bapst Memorial High School Crusaders, in Bangor, Maine, nobody could measure his statistics. That’s because I can’t imagine he had many.
They also couldn’t measure his heart, though. That, I knew from experience, was far too big for any run of the mill measuring device from the fall of 1979.
His destiny would not be found on a gridiron, though. He had to step outside the lines to find that out with a certainty. Sure he could run and get knocked down — and Lord knows he would always get up — but he was much better when nobody was trying to take his head off and pulverize him into a purple puddle.
He was much better when he was running in circles. He was much better running across trails through the woods.
He was just much better running.
• • •
The envelope arrived on my desk at work on a Thursday. It was addressed to me personally, my name over an address that I did not recognize. Yet still the letter found me.
The return address I knew by heart — 100 Broadway, Bangor, Maine — home of John Bapst Memorial High School; the place I spent my first three years of high school, and made too many memories to count and embrace.
The letter was from a gentleman named Mel MacKay, who is the present-day head of school at Bapst. What he wanted from me, I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t graduate from John Bapst, so I knew he wouldn’t be reaching out for money.
The first paragraph summed everything up rather straight-forward and succinctly.
“Dear John, On behalf of the John Bapst Alumni Association, I’m pleased to inform you that your nominee, Jody Norton, ’83, has been selected for induction into the John Bapst Athletic Hall of Fame.”
My reaction was a smile and one solitary thought: “It’s about fucking time.”
• • •
Jody James Norton was my best growing up. He was the best man at my wedding and I was the best man at his. You know the story.
Him and his younger brother, Robbie, they were the brothers I never had. We grew up together, each of us one year apart, with Jody being the oldest, me in the middle and Robbie the youngest, and to this very day I love them both will all my heart and there isn’t a thing I wouldn’t do for them.
Athletically, we pushed each other through every game we played; out-rights wars of one-on-one-one basketball on a nine-foot day, relishing the day I finally beat Jody (he wasn’t happy) and Robbie finally beat both of us (neither of us we’re happy).
Oh the stories we could tell.
Time and life has pulled us all apart, sent us down different roads we never would have imagined possible, but the memories bind us together without question. That’s ever-lasting.
Jody was my brother then and he is my brother now. It’s that simple, really.
• • •
Somewhere back in time, more than a decade ago now, I heard John Bapst had rekindled it’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
The small school — which had gone from a Catholic school of God to a strictly private non-religious school by the time I got there — had a long and storied sports, and plenty of athletes to choose from. Thus, I thought, it was a great idea to rekindle the honor.
Yet when I saw the list of athletes that were being inducted year after year my heart sank. Not because they weren’t great athletes — many of names I knew and recognized — but it was the name that was missing that got under my skin.
Jody Norton wasn’t on the list.
Like I said, Jody’s athletic career at Bapst got off to an underwhelming start. He played football, he played basketball, and he was your typical under-sized talent whose drive and work ethic and heart made up for his physical misgivings.
In the spring of his sophomore year, though, Jody was bitten by the running bug. A little bit of success on the track during his sophomore year sealed his fate.
Putting one foot in front of the other and beating everybody else to the finish line was his thing.
By the time he was done, he was a state champion during his first full season of cross country his junior year and he set a state record in the 3,200-meter run during track and field. His senior year, he finished second in the state as an individual, but he pulled us lolly-gaggers along and somehow led us to a state team championship. He was also part of a state championship basketball team, too.
How does an athlete with that type of resume and that kind of leadership not make it on the first ballot? Especially compared to some of the names that were there who, granted, were good athletes, but never represented the school in any type of state championship format or rewrote any state recordbook.
Angry, I wrote a letter via the “nomination process” nominating my friend and brother as a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
This was more than 10 years ago, mind you.
• • •
Year after year, the names piled up — again so many names familiar to me and, yes, so many good athletes, but Hall of Famers? They were teachers’ kids, board members’ kids, financial benefactors’ kids … see where this is going?
Years later a teacher from the school — who had been there when we both attended — agreed with me about my disgust for the process. “The politics of a private school education,” he said.
But I’m not here to put down the Hall of Famers who have been honored. Like I said, there are so many good athletes on there, deserving athletes, too, but I know in my heart and in my mind (to which I have devoted my life to serving the world of high school sports) that my friend Jody Norton deserved to be a Hall of Famer before many of them.
He represented John Bapst Memorial High School with class and grace every time he stepped foot off campus, be it for an athletic event or a casual stroll through the city.
I’m sure he still carries that pride with him into his adult life. After a great college career at St. Joseph College in Standish (speaking of memories), he still lives in Maine, as the owner of Norton Family Chiropractic. He is married to a wonderful woman and they have a great son together, too.
He was a great runner and a great friend, a great brother and, probably, the first real-life person I looked up to athletically and respected. I wanted to be as fast as him, but I was in no way good enough and didn’t have the inclination to work as hard as him.
All these years later, I’m so proud of him and even though in my mind he always was one, finally, my best friend is a Hall of Famer.