By Jeffri Chadiha | Published Sept. 13, 2016
Illustration by Albert Lee
LOS ANGELES -- Josh Norman sat on a small wooden stool inside the home locker room at the Rose Bowl in June. A collection of cameramen jockeyed for position around him as he played with his cellphone. A make-up artist assembled an assortment of cosmetics a few feet away, preparing for any last-minute touch-ups. Norman was getting ready to film a promotion for Adidas, but he also kept eyeing the burgundy Redskins jersey bearing the No. 24 hanging on a nearby rack. "This is the first time I'll ever put that one on," Norman said, referring to his official game uniform.
It's fascinating to watch Norman exist in an environment where he's clearly a megastar. After all, he's a former college walk-on who was selected in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft and, at one point, was benched by his former team, the Carolina Panthers. But there he was with aides catering to his needs: asking if he wanted some Gatorade or a quick rubdown from a massage therapist or a plate of barbecued ribs. Norman didn't even display much giddiness when he showed a visitor a cellphone video of him attending a soccer game in Paris -- he was invited to watch the French national team play this spring -- and casually mentioned that the man sitting beside him in the luxury suite was French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
Norman isn't simply excited about his currently elevated stature. He's treating it like something that was destined to happen, largely because he's spent so much time pushing himself to a place where people would celebrate his talents. When asked how much his life had changed over the last 12 months, Norman said, "Some people who are really avid football fans [might have recognized him], but others who are just casual fans wouldn't have had a clue. I could just walk up into any restaurant or walk on the street and be chilling. Now I gotta pick my times."
There isn't a player in the league who went on a wilder ride this offseason than Norman. Sure, Brock Osweiler stunned the Super Bowl champion Broncos by bolting to Houston in free agency, but that was his call. Norman, on the other hand, had been under the Panthers' control -- that is, until April 20, when negotiations on a new contract broke down and Carolina rescinded the franchise tag it placed on him in March. Suddenly an unrestricted free agent, Norman signed with Washington two days later for five years and $75 million.
The move was shocking simply because it's almost unheard of for a team to part ways with a first-team All-Pro cornerback. It's still something that mystifies Norman, even though he's excited about the next chapter of his life.
"What was done was done. But for a guy that lived, breathed and sweated Carolina," said Norman, who was born in Greenwood, South Carolina, and played at Coastal Carolina, "you think [the end] would have been a little bit more dignified. But at the same time, I'm not here to point blame ... I'm blessed with the opportunity they gave me, because it was my first organization. But at the end of the day, there's still a little sour taste in my mouth."
The Redskins ultimately gave the 28-year-old Norman everything he hoped to find in Carolina. His deal makes him the highest-paid cornerback in league history. He's joining a Redskins team that won the NFC East in 2015 and is in a good position to challenge for divisional supremacy again. Norman also has impressed his teammates with his sheer passion, as every play he was involved in during a preseason game against Buffalo was followed by histrionics that ranged from intense fist-pumping to jumping up and down obsessively, as if he just saved the Super Bowl.
That unbridled enthusiasm already has drawn ample praise from his peers in Washington. Tight end Vernon Davis said Norman "brings a swagger that is contagious," while safety Will Blackmon added, "It's a power move to bring in somebody who has great ability and is insanely competitive. People wonder if the stuff he does is for show, but that's how he is. He'll see somebody make a tackle across the field and he will be jumping and flipping around, because he's so competitive."
"He's one of the premier corners in the National Football League," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said. "He can match up with receivers. He can play inside-outside. He's got great ball skills. He's also a ballhawk, and you can't coach that. You really can't. There's a skill set that you have as a defensive back -- and he has the skill set -- but he also has the ability to get the ball back for the offense. And that's the most appealing thing."
Norman continues to operate with the same chip on his shoulder that allowed him to make a name for himself. When Gruden ended a recent preseason practice early, most of the veterans saw it as a chance to enjoy some well-earned downtime. Norman didn't appear in the locker room until 30 minutes after everybody else, as he spent that time honing his ball skills and perfecting his technique. As several teammates played shuffleboard or ping-pong, he ambled to his locker still wearing his helmet, his visor shading his eyes, but his focus clear to all who could see him.
Blackmon said that drive has earned Norman tremendous respect already: "Sometimes you don't know if a guy is going to work after getting a big contract, but he's been a student of the game." Norman expects to be equally tenacious on Sundays: "We've moved into the era [where] you can't touch guys at the 5 yards and you can't touch them here or there, [and] if you do, it's a flag. Whatever. We're going to play this game how it's supposed to be played -- straight physical ... If you don't want to see it, turn your channel."
Norman channeled that intensity into must-see TV during much of last season, when he clashed with some of the game's top receivers. He tangled with the Cowboys' Dez Bryant, Falcons' Julio Jones, Buccaneers' Mike Evans and -- most notably -- the Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. Norman remains so irritated by Beckham that when asked to assess the receiver's strengths, Norman would only say, "He's a dancing machine. That's all I got for him. [He] dances everywhere."
Norman's tenacity also comes from an obvious place: being a former nobody, a player who didn't inspire confidence, a guy some people wrote off before ever seeing what he really could do. Norman knows those labels all too well, largely because he had to march straight through them to become the Pro Bowl pitchman who was filming Adidas segments before someone drove Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson onto the set in a golf cart. After Norman finished his work, he pointed back at Peterson and said, "When you see a guy like that coming to the shoot, it's respect. You know you've kind of did something good in your sport."
The world Norman lives in today is a far cry from where he started. Growing up in Greenwood, he competed with the four other brothers his mother, Sandra, raised in that tiny town of roughly 23,000 people. (Sandra and Josh's father, Roy, separated when Norman was 11 years old.) The Norman boys played multiple sports, beat up on each other relentlessly and developed an edge in their youngest brother that remains sharp to this day. Make no mistake: Josh Norman wasn't backing down from anybody.
Norman was also a big-hearted creative spirit who believed deeply in the importance of family. He was the kind of kid who would give you his last piece of candy, and he was quick to defend his siblings. Norman's oldest brother, Renaldo, once wanted a pair of Air Jordan basketball shoes so badly that he infuriated Sandra by claiming she had the money to buy them and simply wouldn't. When Sandra bolted upstairs to contain her anger, it was Josh who followed behind her, all the while telling their mother that his brother didn't mean to be that harsh.
"He's definitely a family-oriented guy," Renaldo said. "Josh has the biggest heart [of] probably anyone I've met. He'll do anything for anybody in his family. He'll do anything that he can do."
That connection to family became critical as Norman moved deeper into his football career. A standout two-way player at Greenwood High, he wound up with no Division I scholarship offers. He could've played at Mars Hill, a Division II school in North Carolina, but Norman opted instead to move to Myrtle Beach, where he hoped to walk on at Coastal Carolina. Norman took some classes at nearby Horry Georgetown Tech while he slept on the couch in an apartment leased by his older brother Marrio, who already played for Coastal Carolina.
There were plenty of days when Norman ran sprints on the neighborhood streets and timed himself in the 40-yard dash, usually after working eight-hour days as a mental-health technician at Lighthouse Care Center of Conway. He brought that same spirit to the NFL after becoming a star at Coastal Carolina and finishing second in school history with 13 interceptions. Despite being an unheralded fifth-round pick, Norman spent his rookie season battling daily with former PanthersPro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith, who now plays in Baltimore.
Said Panthers outside linebacker Thomas Davis: "When Josh came in as a young kid, he wasn't very confident in his speed and ability and what he could do. It also didn't help that he was going against Steve Smith. The battles between Josh and Smitty were a lot like the ones Josh had with Odell Beckham Jr., just in a more respectful way. Josh didn't back down. And that ultimately made him who he is."
Still, Norman's early career was erratic, at best. The same guy who impressed enough to earn 12 starts as a rookie only played in seven games in his second year and was listed as inactive in five contests. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera didn't like Norman's penchant for freelancing. He wanted a player more willing to stay true to his role in Carolina's defensive schemes.
That year forced Norman to take a hard look at himself.
"I asked God, 'Is this truly what you want me to do?,' " Norman said. " 'To be here, be a backup, watching guys play in front of me that I know clearly that I'm better than? Like, this is what you want? Like, let me know, tell me.' "
The player that came out of that is the one that literally nobody saw coming.
Norman earned back the trust of the Panthers coaches in 2014 -- when he started 10 games -- and then announced himself to the rest of the world a year later. Fans outside of Carolina first heard his name when he scuffled with PanthersPro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton in training camp last year. Then Norman opened the season by returning two interceptions for touchdowns in Carolina's first four wins. It also helped that the Panthers rolled to a 15-1 regular-season record, with Norman starring on an elite defense.
Norman eventually made his first Pro Bowl after amassing 56 tackles, four interceptions, three forced fumbles and two touchdowns. "I was [returning] interceptions for touchdowns, and I think that's what really got the most pub," Norman said. "Everybody really opened their eyes [and said], 'Oh, who is this kid from Carolina now?' "
Norman played so well that it seemed a given he would cash in once his rookie contract ran out after the 2015 season. Carolina hinted as much when they gave him their franchise tag, which would've guaranteed him a one-year salary of $13.952 million for 2016 if he couldn't reach a long-term deal with the franchise. But once negotiations ensued, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman chafed at Norman's demands to become the league's highest-paid cornerback. By April 20, Carolina decided it couldn't reach a deal, and that it was better to let Norman walk (the team will receive a compensatory third-round pick in return).
Norman didn't know what hit him when he got the call from his agent, Michael George. He literally scurried back to the bedroom in his suburban Atlanta home and sat in the darkness for hours while trying to make sense of what happened. Renaldo Norman said Josh felt "like he got stabbed in the back," while Norman wondered why neither Gettleman nor Rivera called him directly.
"I put in all that work, all that time, all that energy to turn things around and do it the right way and this is how it ends," Norman said. "At least you could have given me a phone call. Geez, like, I had to call them! I picked the phone up, like, 'What's going on? What happened?' "
"When we tagged Josh [in March], we had every intention to get something done," Gettleman said. "But through conversations, we realized it was going to be impossible. I just kept thinking about what I could do with that $14 million, and you have to remember that the draft was cornerback-heavy (the Panthers selected three corners in this year's class). So you have those things working, and I just made the decision."
Norman remained shell-shocked by the move, until the Redskins started blowing up his cellphone. They were the first team to show interest in him, and their attack was full-on, once they had him on-site two days later: The team already had shipped him a jersey bearing his No. 24; his entire family traveled with him to Washington to support him during his visit; and, the franchise created an offer that was too good to pass up. (Norman hired another agent, Ryan Williams, to negotiate his deal with Washington after thinking about firing George, who ultimately continued as part of Norman's representation team.)
The money was important. So was the adoration. "I never went to college [as a scholarship recruit] or went to the NFL as a first-round draft pick," Norman said. "Even when I got to the NFL, I had to work my way up. And now, once I got freedom, man was it ever great to feel wanted, and loved upon. And you saw it: These guys right here are truly all in on Josh Norman."
Norman has savored that love ever since joining the Redskins. He's been inundated with media requests. He's accepted a job as an in-season analyst for FOX (a move the Redskins brass did indeed know about beforehand). He's also continued to annoy receivers around the league without lining up across from them. After he boasted about how Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas only caught one pass in Carolina's loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50, Thomas responded by tweeting a picture of his championship ring to Norman.
As much as Norman's antics can make people wonder about his personal agenda, there is substantial depth beneath the surface. That was clear at the end of Super Bowl 50, when he sat on the edge of a bench, his hands shielding the tears streaming down his face. Norman stayed there so long after his teammates left because he wanted to remember that pain. It's a stretch to say he will help the Redskins reach that level in his first season, but he also knows what it takes to achieve such heights.
Rivera still says that Norman's departure meant losing "the personality and identity of our pass defense." That's exactly what Norman hopes to create in a major market ready-made for a man whose star keeps steadily rising.
"What are they going to get from Josh Norman?" Norman said. "Everything you see on the TV and off. Because where it starts [is with] the work. Nothing more, nothing less. I am going to work when I've got [money] and I'm going to work when I don't have it. Either way, I'm not going back to where I once was. And that's what drives me."