Panthers' Josh Norman has stage presence brash enough to annoy and dazzle
The first time many casual NFL fans heard Josh Norman's name, it came after a tussle with one of the most famous players in the sport.
Norman was the guy who had the temerity to get into it with Cam Newton in training camp. The cornerback who walked on at Coastal Carolina went toe-to-toe with the former No. 1 overall pick.
"I'm not going to let this guy do this on me," Norman explained to Yahoo Sports, when asked what happened that August day. "I got fed up. Enough is enough. I was locked in. I undercut [his throw] and ran it back. I stiffed-armed him, trying to stop him. I didn't want him to tackle me. We had a conversation. Just like men."
But … it was Cam Newton, the franchise.
"If my grandma and I were playing basketball," Norman concludes, "she would not be winning. I would take her to the hole."
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Norman has always had a way of announcing himself, of taking the stage. The athletic director at Coastal, Matt Hogue, remembers that Norman made three interceptions in one game and when he caught the third, he held up three fingers on the way to the turf. He had the move planned, just like earlier this season when he checked with a league representative about his end zone celebration against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers even before the game began. He picked off Jameis Winston early in the first quarter, returned it for a score, and did what he said he would. That play, which came early in the Panthers' so-far undefeated season, has been a highlight in a breakout year for Norman. He is a candidate for defensive player of the year, with four interceptions, two forced fumbles and two touchdowns. Newton's dominance and dabbing have defined the season, but Norman has kept announcing himself to old fans and new.
Even his communications professor at Coastal has a Josh Norman story. It happened last year, during a bye week.
"I go in to the lecture hall, get the computer going," says Linda Kuykendall. "Call the roll. I start lecturing. When I lecture, I walk. And I am thinking, 'Who is that person?' Finally I walk up to this young person, and I say, 'Are you sure you're in the right class?'"
"He jumps up and says, 'It's me!' And it's Josh."
She wasn't all that surprised. "He has that drama about him to begin with," Kuykendall says. "That's part of him."
It's so much a part of him that he minored in theatre at Coastal. He took a stagecraft class, a yoga class, a tap class, according to Kuykendall, who was his academic adviser.
"I couldn't really do theatre like I wanted to," Norman says. "I couldn't go to all the plays, because I had football. I had to take one over the other. I had to minor. My first love is football, but second, real close, is acting."
Norman is a natural in interviews, making eye contact and punctuating his zingers with a chuckle. Other athletes stick to the one-game-at-a-time script; Norman rewrites the script every time. When he got invited to do an interview with Jon Gruden, Kuykendall texted him to remind him not to gesture too much with his hands.
"If you do not articulate your words," she wrote, "no one's going to hear you. Josh, please, slow down."
It is his hands, though, that help make it work on the field. Norman is not especially tall or fast: he's 6-foot, 190 pounds. This is part of why he was a fifth-round pick in 2012 after walking on at Coastal. But physically he's fearless, sticking to top receivers like Dez Bryant and Julio Jones. His secret is feel.
"I have soft hands," he says. "I'm able to touch people and get away with a lot more. If I'm touching you, I can feel where you're going. I can see with that. Once I'm able to feel where you're going, it's like having two sets of eyes."
All of his eyes and hands are working; Norman's late interception in the season's third game saved that win and made way for his team's 11-0 start. The Panthers have won 15 straight regular-season games dating back more than a calendar year, and Norman's ascendance has played a fairly large role. It was early last season when coach Ron Rivera decided to take the reins off Norman and "let Josh be Josh." During a game against the Baltimore Ravens, a 38-10 blowout loss, the coach told the cornerback, "Get in and don't come back out."
Norman feels that changed the trajectory of his career.
"I had to try to conform to what they wanted, and it just wasn't working for me," he says. "I'm glad coach said that. [Otherwise] I don't think I would have been the player I am now. He let me be the player I wanted to be."
A little more than a year later, the Panthers are the only unbeaten team in football and Saints coach Sean Payton is telling reporters, "There's not a corner having a better season than he is right now."
It's been his blend of theatrics and grit that's got Norman to the big stage. Norman always imagined himself a star like Newton, but he was always the little brother of Marrio Norman, who persuaded Coastal coaches to give Josh a look even though he didn't have offers. "He's not going to stop until he rolls over and dies," Josh says of Marrio, who has spent time in the Arena League. "Most people tap out. He doesn't." The same could be said of Josh. Though his Greenwood High coaches marvel and rave about his success, they still say the sharpest and toughest defensive back on Norman's team was D.J. Swearinger, now with the Arizona Cardinals.
No wonder he picks movie characters to play before every NFL game; Norman was never the lead role.
"He was just a skinny little kid when we first got him," says Greenwood High defensive coordinator Kevin Addis. "There's like five Norman kids, and had you asked me which one would be a pro athlete, I'm not sure I would have said Josh."
That's just it: Norman has had to announce himself at every step, whether in a school of 1,400 students or in a class at Coastal or on Thanksgiving, when he rode in Dez Bryant's pocket all afternoon – the non-stop talker getting non-stop feedback from the breakout corner.
"He loves to jabber," says Sparky Hudson, assistant principal at Greenwood. "Especially in high school, it's not nearly as accepted. There were times when the other guy would be thinking, 'Please, shut up!' But he'd mess people up now. He'd get 'em tore up. He'd get 'em so mad, they'd lose focus."
Funny how that worked out: the guy who nobody minded, suddenly in everyone's head.
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