SAN FRANCISCO — On the day the Raiders fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., linebacker Bruce Irvin tweeted a one-word, all-caps response. It was along the lines of “bullcrud.”
On Friday night, dressed to the nines and occasionally dabbing away tears, Irvin put his feelings just a tad more eloquently.
“I look at you not only as a coach but as a friend, as a father, as an uncle, as a step dad — as everything,” he told Norton in a moving tribute. “I just thank God for bringing us together. This is forever, man. I love you.”
Norton, who has since bounced to the 49ers and then to the Seattle Seahawks in a head-spinning span, responded: “Bruce, you are the reason why I coach.”
The occasion was the fourth annual Coaching Corp Game Changer Awards at the Fairmont Hotel. The star-studded charity gala allows Bay Area sports stars to salute their biggest influences.
Matt Chapman of the A’s and Chris Wondolowski of the Earthquakes chose their fathers. DeForest Buckner of the 49ers and Warriors assistant Jarron Collins saluted their high school coaches. Jeff Samardzija of the Giants honored his Notre Dame football coach, Tyrone Willingham.
The oft-funny, oft-emotional banquet will air on NBC Sports Bay Area on Tuesday at 9 p.m. and midnight. It re-airs on Wednesday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Irvin’s tribute came with a hint of awkwardness but also delved to the heart of his fiery response to Norton’s firing in November.
The Raiders axed Norton after his nearly three seasons in Oakland. At the time, the Raiders defense ranked 21st in the league in points allowed. The 49ers hired Norton on Jan. 8 to serve as an assistant head coach with additional linebacker responsibilities. But a week later, with the 49ers’ blessing, he left for a loftier role as the Seahawks defensive coordinator.
Wherever Norton is, however, it’s clear he has a permanent home in Irvin’s heart. The linebacker told the story Friday of how the coach saved his career.
In 2013, back when both were with the Seahawks, the two had a life-altering conversation. Irvin, in his second season, had slipped hopelessly on the depth chart after Seattle signed veteran defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. “It kind of put me on the back burner,” Irvin said, “so I was kind of feeling down on myself.
That’s when Norton approached Irvin in the players’ lounge and asked him switching positions to linebacker.
“And my exact words were: ‘I ain’t smart enough. There’s too much thinking,” Irvin recalled. “I barely know how to spell linebacker, let alone play linebacker.”
He was insecure about his brainpower, having dropped out of Stephenson High (Stone Mountain, Georgia), as a junior and getting his GED instead. Irvin had been fine with his job description as a rush defensive end — “see ball, get ball,” as he put it — but playing linebacker required quick thinking, communication and disciplined film study.
But in their milestone conversation, Norton told Irvin to snap out of it.
“Do you hear what you’re saying?” the coach told him. “Don’t let anybody else in this building hear you say that. You can do anything and I’m going to guide you every step of the way.”
Irvin instantly relaxed.
“So that was the turning point for me,” he said. “I realized that he really cared about me, not only as a player but as a person.”
If the other Seahawks linebackers were meeting at 7:30 a.m., Norton would tell Irvin to get there at 6:05 a.m. In those extra sessions, Norton shared his wisdom from his career as a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys (1988-93) and 49ers (1994-2000).
But Norton also delivered life lessons to a player with a checkered past. Norton on Friday recalled once asking Irvin about his elaborate dreadlocks; Irvin replied that he wore them to represent his past.
“He came in the next day and he’d cut them off. He had a nice regular hairstyle,” Norton said. “I said, ‘Why’d you do that?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m going to cut off all the things that I’ve been doing and the life that I was living before. I want to be a new man.”
Did it work? This year, the Raiders nominated Irvin for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for his philanthropy and community impact. In May, the kid with a GED is going back to get his degree at West Virginia University.
“He’s changed my life in so many ways,” Irvin said on Friday night. “When I came into this league I was a lost young kid. He molded me into a man. He molded me into a guy who believes in himself.”
There’s nothing bullcrud about that.
— If you’re interested: The Coaching Corps was founded in 2012 with support from Walter Haas Jr. and his wife, Evelyn. The organization trains coaches “to foster persistence, optimism, self-regulation and empathy in kids.” The website is www.coachingcorps.org
— Among the night’s highlights was the speech by Serena Limas, the Coach of the Year winner from the Boys and Girls Club of Ramona Gardens. The speech got a standing ovation, and the first guy out of his seat bursting into applause was former A’s ace Dave Stewart.