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NOTE: Got word of Norm’s passing last night and it hit me like a punch in the gut. I have known Norm for almost 20 years, his grandchildren Kenzie and Mattie played softball with my daughter Brittney and his daughter Kelly was Brittney’s coach and, later, was the coach of my youngest daughter Maggie.
I had to pull off the side of the road when I heard of his passing. It’s the kind of news that makes one not think straight. I gathered my thoughts on a curb somewhere between my school where I work and my home. That’s the kind of reaction one gets when you realize a coaching legend has put down his clip board and left the locker room for the last time.
But Norm was much more than a coach (as you will see from his story below). Norm gave me tons of coaching advice, more than I could ever use. But he was also a husband, a father and a grandfather. It dawned on me that he shared one huge trait with my own father – no one ever said a negative thing about Norm. If you knew him, you liked him.
Heck, you loved him.
My father’s words will forever echo in my thoughts. I can hear his voice clearly even though the sound of it can only be found in my memories. In time, I have come to understand that he never left. He is in me and he is in my children. That is the true miracle of immortality.
There are no easy words of comfort for the Patton family. I only hope time will help them on their journey.
I had the honor of sitting down and talking with Norm and Sandra last June about their life, knowing his true story had to be put down on paper somehow. Here is that story once again:
“Was today worth it?”
That’s the question Sandra Patton asks her husband Norman every time they leave a chemotherapy session.
It’s a difficult question asked countless times by spouses of people fighting cancer. It’s a question only a few can answer. I suppose it’s a question with no right or wrong answer.
But we do know all the days prior – all the days filled with ranching, parenting, coaching and teaching were more than worth it. Not only were they worth it to the Patton family, they were worth it to the rest of us. Isn’t that the very definition of success?
“I’ve said this many times but if I had the chance to do it all over again I would do exactly the same things,” Norm explained. “I would marry the same woman, have the same kids, coach at exactly the same schools.”
“It’s not that we are different or special,” Sandra added. “We were lucky. We were blessed.”
Born on July 1, 1939, Norm Patton grew up on a ranch in Pleasanton, New Mexico. It was a hard life but it prepared him for the reality of working to support a young family whether it be working an oil rig on a river in Alaska, teaching and coaching in Colorado, feeding hungry players in his own kitchen or working his own cattle.
Norm was a standout athlete at Cliff High School. His season record for made free throws (209) stood as the best mark in New Mexico history until it was broken in 2011. His record for free throws made in a career (464) was held until 1995. As fate would have it, it was the grandson of his high school coach (Brian Shock) who eventually passed Norm on the list.
Norm was also the starting shortstop at Cliff and he ran track. He was a sprinter. “Anytime I passed 200 yards I would just quit,” Norm said in his usual quick wit.
Norm played basketball in the days when freshmen were not allowed to play varsity in college so he turned down a scholarship to New Mexico State and followed Bruce Larson to Eastern Arizona instead. But, as luck would have it, Larson left to coach at Weber State but Norm honored his commitment to Eastern Arizona.
“New Mexico State told me I could play on the freshman team,” Norm explained. “But I had a full 30-game schedule available at Eastern and they had just finished a successful season.”
One of the few curves in Norm’s life came that freshman season. An injury to his knee with only two weeks left on the schedule basically ended his dream of playing at New Mexico State. Even though he played the next year, Norm never felt the same.
Meanwhile, his courtship of Sandra Ray led to a marriage in the fall of 1959.
“I was a cheerleader at a rival school so we knew about each other,” Sandra offered. “My father sold Fords and his father bought Fords from us.”
Norm interrupted Sandra’s recollection of the courtship with a quick, “Ah heck Andy, she chased me!”
The lifelong partners enrolled at New Mexico State and their first daughter, Lori was born in 1960. Kelly was born two years later while they were living in Alaska. Norm accepted his first coaching job in Bayfield, Colorado soon after graduation.
‘The football team went years without winning a game and years without even scoring,” Sandra recollected. “The crowd went crazy when we scored for the first time.”
Bayfield was 1-9 in the two years prior to Norm’s arrival and the team was outscored 18-213 in 1962. His 1963 squad scored 81 points. He turned the program around to a point where the team went 8-1-2 two years later.
“That was a great team,” Norm remembered.
Norm and Sandra mowed and lined the field and Sandra had to stand on the hood of their car to film the games. Hard work.
“I was making only $3,700 a year in Colorado but I was offered a job for $5,500 a year at Marana,” Norm said. “Do you know how much that meant?”
Had Colorado paid more, the Patton story would be vastly different but Norm took this curveball and hit it to the gap and he his still running the bases.
Vickie was born and then Patricia came in 1967. The family of four daughters was set.
Norm picked up his master’s degree from the University of Arizona in1968 and went to work at Marana were he was first an assistant football, baseball and basketball coach before taking over the boy’s basketball team.
Norm coached Marana to three state basketball championships: 1969 (24-0), 1970 (24-5) and 1972 (25-0). He had a 158-35 record at Marana and was named Coach of the Year twice. His 1969 squad was part of Marana’s incredible year of state championships that included football, baseball, track and basketball.
With the Marana School District being so spread out, Sandra would often cook home meals for a few of the boys and many felt at home because they had no where else to go.
Pima came calling in 1973 and Norm became the first basketball coach at the junior college. He spent seven years teaching and coaching at Pima with his 1980 team winning the conference title.
“We had a heck of a team and some great players,” Norm said. “Kenny Ball led Tucson to a state championship and signed with Arizona but he quit and started working on the railroad. We brought him to Pima but Chuck Goslin was our first major recruit.”
Goslin was a standout guard at Rincon and the Tucson Citizen named him Player of the Year in 1975 on a team that included Pueblo’s Randall Moore, Sabino’s Mike Callaway, Canyon del Oro’s Brian Jung and Dave Henson of Rincon.
Norm took a year of from coaching to recharge his batteries and that’s when Central Arizona came calling. It turned out Sandra knew Central’s athletic director from her New Mexico days and George Young obviously knew of Norm’s exploits.
Norm started coaching in Casa Grand in 1981 until he retired 13 years later. He won conference championships in 1984 and 1992 and region championships in 1982, 1984 and 1992. That 1992 team took sixth place nationally.
All the while, Norm and Sandra worked cattle in Marana with their partner Ted DeSpain for almost 50 years.
Lori Patton graduated from Marana in 1978. A longtime educator in Marana and Catalina Foothills, Lori is now at the Gregory School. Lori has been recognized several times for her teaching.
Kelly Fowler graduated from Marana in 1980. Fowler has coached Canyon del Oro to two state softball championships and was a major part of three more titles before returning to the program this spring.
Not drawn to basketball, Kelly played tennis and pitched for Marana. She would eventually go on to build the nationally-known Desert Thunder fastpitch organization, winning a national title in 2012.
Kelly’s husband Lance Fowler won a state basketball title at Willcox in 1979.
Kelly’s daughter Kenzie was a two-time Gatorade National Player of the Year and a four-time NFCA and EA Sports first team All-American. Kenzie won three state championships and had 1,449 career strikeouts in 685 innings and 14 no-hitters in a season. She is arguably the best high school athlete in Southern Arizona history.
Kenzie went on to play at Arizona and is currently making her way through the broadcast ranks.
Kelly’s younger daughter Mattie won three titles at CDO and was named Gatorade Player of the Year before moving over to play for Nebraska where she has earned multiple academic awards.
Vickie Patton graduated from Marana in 1982. Vickie led Marana to a state basketball championship in 1982, earning All-American status. She played for UC-Irvine before transferring to Arizona where she eventually earned her degree.
Vickie enrolled at NYU where she earned a law degree. Described by Norm as “the real deal,” Vickie is the lawyer on record for many environmental issues with many of her arguments heard by the Supreme Court.
She is the general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund in Colorado,
Vickie’s daughter Sandra Freeman is 16 and is a top swimmer in Boulder. Ranked 14th in the state, Freeman is currently on the road swimming in major national events. Vickie’s son Grant is the lone male of the family and he competes in golf and swim along with basketball and track.
Patricia Patton Shearer, graduated from Marana in 1985. Patty won two state basketball titles at Marana and would later coach Catalina Foothills to the their 1997 state championship.
Patty went on to coach at Nebraska-Omaha and held that position until 2011. She moved over to become a coordinator of Recruitment and Academic Support Services in the Goodrich Scholarship Program where she works with college applicants with difficult family circumstances.
Patty’s daughter Baylie Shearer is a top setter and the 14-year-old is also competing at national events.
“Patty and Vickie broke a lot of barriers when they were younger,” Sandra explained. “They played with the boys in basketball camps but they all did something.”
Norm found recruiting at Central much easier than at Pima for many obvious reasons. Central had dorms and a meal plan. While Norm was able to offer anything Arizona could, his final years at Pima got to the point where he was forbidden to make long distance calls to recruit players.
A gentle man now, Norm had a tough side to be sure. He once left a player behind in Casa Grande because the star player missed the team bus to a game in Yuma. The player found a way to get to Phoenix where he got on a flight to Yuma and made it by halftime. Norm did not play him but he gave him a ride back to Casa Grande.
It was a different era but all those day were worth it.
Truly a team, Norm and Sandra rejoice in having all the grandchildren visit at Christmas time in what Sandra calls “lovely chaos.”
“Since we became a family all four girls have come home every year except for once,” Sandra fondly added. “The grandchildren demand it.”
According to Norm and Sandra, the grandchildren are the icing on the cake.
On a personal note, I have known Norm (or Norman as Sandra calls him) for about 18 years. I know all too well what the Patton family is going through since my father suffered with cancer for almost a decade. I’d like to thank the family for welcoming me into their home to talk to Norm. I believe it helped me a lot more than I could ever imagine.
Everyday is a blessing.
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Andy Morales was recognized by the AIA as the top high school reporter in 2014 and has been a youth, high school and college coach for over 30 years. His own children have won multiple state high school championships and were named to all-state teams. Competing in hockey, basketball, baseball and track & field in high school, his unique perspective can only be found here, on AZPreps365.com and on the pages of the Vail Voice and the Tanque Verde Voice. Contact Andy Morales at AMoralesMyTucson@yahoo.com