CHARLOTTE – Robin Edwards Russell, a professor in the theater department at Coastal Carolina, gravitated to Josh Norman the first day he walked into her class. She sensed in him a combination of charisma and innocence. Norman had quiet determination, sweet shyness and a giggle that made her want to hug him. Norman began his college years without a football scholarship, as a major in dramatic arts. Russell knew instantly he cared about the craft of acting more than the potential rewards.
“That’s what was so charming about him,” Russell said. “There’s nothing worse than some idiot who thinks, ‘I’m going to major in theater because I want to be a star.’ He wanted to major in theater and be on stage and tell a story.”
Norman’s stage has changed, but he still has a story to tell. Sunday evening, Norman will line up alongside the rest of the Carolina Panthers defense against the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC championship game, the pinnacle of a season that’s minted Norman as perhaps the best cornerback in the National Football League. The list of wide receivers he’s turned into ornamental hunks reads like an All-Pro ballot: Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, Mike Evans, DeAndre Hopkins, T.Y. Hilton. He will try this week, on his biggest stage yet, to add Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald to his resume.
“I really can’t wait,” Norman said, glancing at a clock inside the Panthers’ locker room.
Norman reached his current perch despite meager prospects at every level. No major schools offered him a scholarship out of Greenwood High in South Carolina. He languished until the fifth round in the 2011 NFL Draft. He did not become a full-time starter until just this season, his fourth, which he began by fighting franchise quarterback Cam Newton in training camp.
Norman’s theatrical bent remains. In his locker, Norman keeps a Transformers figurine and a Superman movie placard. Norman views playing cornerback as an art form, every bit as much as acting. Both disciplines force exposure and demand courage. Both require a feel for when to freelance and when to stay on script. He still thinks he was the best actor in his class.
“That’s just something I always had a knack for,” Norman said. “It’s just my personality. There’s nothing like it, being on stage and acting like somebody else and just having fun doing it. Just being a character.”
Teammates note Norman’s bravado, whether in the form of his cage match with the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham or his daring sack of Seattle’s Russell Wilson last week, when he vacated his zone to rush the passer. Some of them know he started college as a drama major. To them, it makes sense.
“That sounds about right, actually,” Panthers safety Roman Harper said. “Josh is an enigma. Everybody wants to know what Josh is. He’s a different guy, man. He knows who he is, and he’s very confident in who he is now, more confident now than he’s probably ever been.”
From the start, Norman traveled a difficult and atypical path. As a senior at Greenwood, Norman was the only two-way starter on a state title team that included, coincidentally, Cardinals defensive back D.J. Swearinger. Georgia showed initial interest, but backed off over fears about Norman’s speed.
Norman’s older brother, Marrio, played football at Coastal Carolina. He slept on Marrio’s couch for months and took classes at nearby Horry Georgetown Tech, with an aim to walk on at Coastal. He still believed he’d play football.
“Much like he is with the NFL, he had a plan,” said Shell Dula, Norman’s high school coach. “He knew what he wanted to do. He had a goal in mind, and he knew what it was going to take to reach that goal. He never veered.”
As a walk-on at Coastal, Norman did not feel bound by the time constraints of football. It allowed him to log long hours in the theater department, acting with improv groups and building sets. Even though he never performed in a full-blown play, his talent was apparent.
“He was very capable of transforming on stage,” Russell said. “Hell, he’s transformed into a superstar. You could still that little bit of Josh in there. He’s like a little boy who just wants to play. I could never believe he was even a football player half the time. He wasn’t a big badass. There’s so much sweetness in him.”
Shortly after Norman walked on the football team, Coach David Bennett told his assistants, “Good gosh, we got a jewel here.” Norman became a standout in a year and earned a scholarship. The time he devoted to football made the demanding theater department schedule untenable. To his disappointment, Norman switched majors to communications.
“The football field became his stage,” Bennett said. “That was his theater. You get him off the field, he’s a sweetheart. He’ll laugh, joke, smile. But when he puts a helmet on, he’s Mr. Hyde. He’s not Dr. Jekyll anymore.”
At Coastal, Norman chatted up rival coaches during games. Opposing quarterbacks avoided him with such uniformity he would slip and fall on purpose in order to bait them into throwing his way. On orders from their coach, the Chanticleers wore black shoes and black socks. Norman showed up for one game in white shoes and white socks, the only one on the team to break protocol. When Bennett commanded him to change into black shoes and socks, Norman replied, “Man, I’m trying to make a statement tonight!”
In the NFL, Norman’s independence has been both an asset and a hindrance. Panthers Coach Ron Rivera demands specific technique, and for his first two years Norman drifted toward individual style. He took chances and used inconsistent footwork. He had confidence, perhaps before it was justified.
“You did see that when he first got here,” Rivera said. “He did have that chip on his shoulder. He felt like he had something to prove. I think he’s done a great job. It’s been a tough road. He’s done some really good things. I think a lot of it has to do with his personality and who he is, and he understands that, and he plays to it.”
Things changed for Norman, Rivera said, in the middle of last season. Norman’s contract, in the final season of his four-year rookie deal, called for Norman to play for $1.5 million. In the summer, the Panthers offered Norman financial security in the form of a two-year deal worth roughly $7 million per season.
Bennett saw reports about Norman’s contract negotiations and, through friends in the game, discovered the numbers being discussed. Bennett called Norman with advice.
“Ask for nine, and meet in the middle at eight,” Bennett told Norman. “I love you and I want to see you play with the Panthers rather than end up in Cleveland or somewhere.”
Norman resisted. He would turn 27 during the 2015 season, which would put him in prime position to sign a lucrative contract, perhaps for the only time in his career. The sleeping on couches, the toiling at an FCS school, the waiting on draft day – all of it funneled into one decision. Hadn’t he always blazed his own path? Hadn’t he always thrived on faith in himself? Norman turned the offer down.
“Coach, we’re going to get more than that,” Norman told him. “I’m going to prove I’m one of the best corners in the league, and the best in the league are making a lot more than that.”
When Norman becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer at age 27, his bet will pay off. He figures to sign one of the most lucrative contracts at his position, likely on par with the deal Darrelle Revis signed at age 30 with the New York Jets last offseason: $70.1 million over five years, with $39 million guaranteed.
Norman still returns to Coastal Carolina’s campus to see old friends and coaches. On each trip he, he makes sure to visit Russell. (She jokingly called herself his “white momma.”) They talk about old classes and make inside jokes, and eventually the share the same interaction.
“Have you made it yet, Josh?” she asks.
“I’m trying,” he replies, and now he is almost, finally, there.