When Greg Norton awoke on the morning of May 6, 1989, life's next challenge seemingly stood solely in the form of the SAT exam that awaited him just a few hours later. This entrance exam provided another chance for him to allow his mother to realize the dream of seeing him gain a college education and then take his baseball talents to the Major Leagues.
Tragically, the educational challenges and introduction to Major League breaking balls proved much less traumatic than the experiences that were created by the events of that fateful morning.
While waiting for a friend to pick him up, Norton walked upstairs to check on his mother. There he found Helen Norton bruised and motionless. Around her neck rested a tie that her husband, Jerry Norton, used as a murder weapon.
"She was strangled to death with one of his ties," Norton said. "She was on the floor wrapped up at the base of the bed. I unwrapped her and checked her pulse."
Through the eyes of a 16-year-old kid rested a mother, who had been dead long before he entered her bedroom. When the investigators arrived, they found a botched attempt to stage a robbery and quickly deduced that this murder was an act of domestic violence.
Later that evening, Jerry Norton was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. While still grieving the loss of his mother, Greg bailed his father out of jail and then resided with him during parts of the next two years, simply hoping that the man who had taught him baseball and many other life lessons was indeed innocent.
Two summers later, Jerry Norton, a former Minor League outfielder in the Pirates organization, was charged with first-degree murder. Still with heavy evidence pointing toward the fact that a just ruling had been reached, Greg continued to chase and realize the Major League dream while holding out some hope that his father didn't commit this crime.
"I wouldn't say I'm a religious man," Norton said. "But I prayed that if I was going to lose one parent, I would get the other one back. It was staged as a robbery with some drawers and some jewelry boxes opened up. The front door was kind of pried open, which I didn't think much of at the time. So you're just kind of hoping that it wasn't your dad and that it was somebody else."
20 YEARS LATER
While sitting in his Hollywood, Fla., hotel room on Wednesday morning, Norton will initially have a tough time concentrating on the fact that he and his Braves teammates are in town to play a two-game series against the Marlins.
Whenever May 6 arrives, it's impossible for him to clear his mind of the event that sent his mother to the grave and his father to multiple California state prisons. Time has healed some of the initial wounds and created new ones that will be felt by his children, who are currently too young to understand why they only have one set of grandparents.
"As far as resentment, it's not something that I sit back and say, 'I hate my father,'" Norton said. "I can't say that I hate my father. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. I think my parents did a good job of raising me to be a good person.
"The resentment has to do with my kids. I'm sure I have some scars in certain situations. But what's hard for me is that my kids can't experience their grandparents. They love my wife's parents. But it would be nice to have it on both sides."
Norton's 4-year-old son, Jace, has already started asking his father about the names of his parents and 2-year-old Ciana will soon starting showing the same kind of inquisitive interest.
At some point, Greg and his wife, Jaena, know that they'll have to explain what occurred. But for now, they'll simply raise their children with the same kind of love that Helen Norton provided to her sons and the countless children that attended the day schools that she opened and operated in the Oakland area.
By attending the University of Oklahoma for three years before embarking on his professional baseball career, Norton honored the memory of his slain mother. But to take it a step forward, he now wants to give back to other children who are in a similar position to the one he encountered.
"I think Greg can have a huge impact with the kids looking up to him as a role model," Jaena Norton said. "He has never used his past as a crutch or to gain pity. I don't know where he gets his inner strength. But it would be good for him to show other kids that they can overcome their loss."
Through his foundation, Phillies left-handed pitcher Jamie Moyer created Camp Erin, a bereavement camp created for children who have lost a loved one. Jaena helped raised funds for this charity over the course of the past three years and accompanied Braves pitcher Tim Hudson's wife, Kim, to a camp that was held in Hampton, Ga., earlier this year.
Emotionally moved by what they witnessed, both Kim and Jaena returned to tell their husbands about a 7-year-old boy who had watched his mother die at the other end of a gun held by her boyfriend.
Some time this summer, Norton will help create a video that will allow these kids to understand that he overcame some of the same adversity that they are currently facing.
"It's something that I want to get involved with," Norton said. "I just want to help somebody or at least make them feel like there's light at the end of the tunnel. I have a story that shows that things can work out."
ADMISSION OF GUILT
When Norton made his Major League debut with the White Sox on Aug. 18, 1996, he didn't have the opportunity to share the moment with his parents, who had once envisioned raising one son who would play in the National Football League and the other who would play at baseball's highest level.
Instead, he shared the realization of his dream with an older brother, whose own dream had been derailed by his father's actions.
When Greg's older brother, Tim Norton, received word of his mother's death, he was participating in mini-camp as a backup quarterback with the New England Patriots. Within an instant, his NFL dreams were replaced with the reality that he needed to return to California to mourn with his fractured family and provide his young brother the consistent father figure that he'd lost with his mother.
"I have all the respect in the world for what my brother did," Norton said. "When I broke into the Majors at the age of 24, I thought about him being that same age when he sacrificed everything to help take care of me."
With the support of his brother, friends and educators at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School, Norton utilized athletics to get him through this traumatic period. Just two days after finding his mother dead, he chose to return to the baseball diamond and conclude his junior season.
"Sports allowed me to get away," Norton said. "When I sat around attempting to do my homework or sleep, my mind wandered. When I was playing, I could get my mind away from what had happened."
For more than 19 years, Greg held out a glimmer of hope that his father was indeed at the office as he had attested that morning. But this benefit of the doubt was erased this past December, when his father chose to admit his guilt to Tim. This admission came around the time that Jerry Norton was denied parole and found out that he'd have to spend at least five more years in the penitentiary.
It's been four years since Norton visited his father and he's not sure if he'll ever return. The gray area that had served as a sanctuary was destroyed with the admission of guilt that only solidified the belief that the act had something to do with his father's extramarital affair.
DEALING WITH THE CONSEQUENCES
Growing up in an upper-middle-class household, Norton never dealt with the financial issues that began to blossom following the murder. He began living off the Social Security checks provided after his mother's death and dealing with the debt that his father created when he started racking up credit card charges with the belief that he'd be found innocent.
With the signing bonus he received after being selected by the White Sox in the second round of the 1993 First-Year Player Draft, Norton took care of his father's financial debt. But there wasn't anything to remedy his brother's shattered dream or the reality that they'd never again have the opportunity to tell their mother how much they appreciated all that she'd done.
While reminiscing about his mother, Norton often listens to P.O.D.'s "Thinking About Forever". Its chorus reads:
I'm thinking about forever (missing you)
I know you're so much better (we made it through)
Now I know what it means to live for someone else
To give up yourself
Things have changed, at times it gets kind of strange
Your love remains the same
Do I make you proud? Mama, can you see me now?
"I listen to that every once in a while when I'm kind of down and out and kind of remember her that way," Norton said. "When I'm out at first base or in the infield anywhere, I'll always begin the game by writing my mother's initials with my kids' initials just kind of as a remembrance."
If Helen Norton were able to see her son now, she'd see the grown version of the son that she molded for 16 years. While saddened by the consequences, he never allowed the event to lead him into a world of drugs and alcohol.
During those early days after the murder, Bishop O'Dowd athletics director Mike Bowler saw Norton find escape through the same game of baseball that continues to provide him relief 20 years after his mother's tragic passing.
"The bad memories haven't tainted him," Bowler said. "We're very proud of what he has accomplished."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.