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Latria Graham | January 13, 2016

The Dark Knight unmasked

The Panthers’ Josh Norman makes his world the stage

Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Latria Graham

The Dark Knight Unmasked

The Panthers’ Josh Norman Makes His World the Stage

It’s an unusually mild Monday morning on August 10, 2015, and the Carolina Panthers training camp practice at Wofford College is over for the day. Thousands of Panthers fans head towards their cars, sunburned and dried out by the Carolina sun, in need of shelter but satisfied with their autographs and brushes with people they normally only see on TV. Adults wonder aloud about where they parked, kids marvel at the size of their idols — “Newton is sooooo huuuuge” — and everyone is ready for a nap.

There is one player left on the field.

Photo: Latria Graham

In this sea of black, turquoise and white mixed with the soft green grass, everyone seemed partial to a particular player. There were Luke Kuechly jerseys. There were Cam Newton, Luke Olsen and Bene Benwikere fans — hell, even a couple of Graham Ganos — but there were no jerseys for the man still on the field practicing. Later in the week, you could tell when his family was in town, as they would be the only people sporting jerseys with the No.  24.

Still the man remained, helmet on, pads in place, catching tosses from the ball boys, who were giddy at the chance to help a professional work on his craft.

A few stragglers hung around, hoping for more magic, for another brush with greatness, watching the man pull footballs out of the air with astonishing speed, clutching them to his chest before tossing them back.

Fifteen minutes later the man sinks his knees into the forgiving grass, and positions himself flat on his back before motioning to the ball boys to recommence throwing. This time they decide to switch up the tempo — harder, faster, wild throws, safe bets, and everything in between.

He ends every practice at training camp with this particular drill, catching balls on his back. Today would be no different. Perhaps, however, it was more important today, after the scuffle with the team’s quarterback, Cam Newton.

It was the first indicator, the only notice to the entire league that this season the Carolina Panthers would be a force and that cornerback Josh Norman, relatively unknown outside Charlotte, would become more than just No. 24.

It was a simple play, the kind practice is made of, the kind seasons are built on and, perhaps, the kind that make careers.

The drill started out like any other. Starters lined up, helmets on, pads, 7-on-7 in the 90-degree heat of the South Carolina sun. It wasn’t even noon yet, but it was hot enough for what was about to happen. Just watch.

There’s the snap and Cam Newton holds the ball the way quarterbacks do when they’re looking for an opening.

The ball lets loose from his hand, spiraling towards its black jerseyed intended target before a flash of white extends its reach and pulls the ball close to his chest.

Interception.

What happens next wasn’t part of the drill.

Norman pulls the ball close and heads for the end zone — if this was a game, he would be poised to score. Newton gives chase, red no-contact jersey trailing behind him. There’s a push, a stiff arm, and then both men push some more. It only takes a second for Newton’s helmet to come off and then both men are on the ground.

Video: Charlotte Observer

Two years Norman’s junior, 5 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier, Cam Newton’s supposed to be a different class of fighter. As a $100-million-dollar franchise quarterback, he’s supposed to be in a different class all together. Demigod tussles with mortal, the media will say. First round draft pick vs fifth round pick.  Superstar v. role player.

That doesn’t matter, not to Josh Norman — in his mind it a clash of Titans, or rather Batman vs. Superman, a year before its scheduled release. He likes a challenge, and two smart, hot talking athletes trying to make one another better gets him up. His job was simple: square off, run the route, anticipate, make the play. He made the play.

But that’s not what the viewers saw. They wouldn’t see what really happened until the regular season started, that this year is different, for Newton, for Norman, and for the Panthers, too.

The footage of the aftermath is all over the internet, a scrap of red buried at the bottom of a pile of black and white, as teammates try to sift through the melee. And as they peel the bodies off, they reveal a team, and a new target of attention.

The media would soon give their take. Norman’s Twitter feed would explode with people calling him a variety of things thug, gangster, goon — a second-rate nothing of a cornerback.

It didn’t matter. The man kept working. He used his helmet to insulate his thoughts and block out anything that might obscure his focus. Do the work, he told himself.

Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Later in the season, they’ll call him clairvoyant, but that’s because they didn’t see him put in the work that made it so.

Back at practice, relying on instinct and spatial awareness that sometimes appears supernatural, Josh Norman continues to pluck balls out of the air. The contact is so rapid you can hear the smack of the ball against his gloves. Sometimes, his eyes are closed — knowing without seeing. Anticipating instead of reacting. He never misses.

Later in the season, they’ll call him clairvoyant, but that’s because they didn’t hang around practice long enough to see him put in the work that made it so. Deadline reporters will tell you he came out of nowhere. That’s not exactly how he sees it. Norman’s been playing this game a long time - this is his fourth year in the league, and third, really, as a starter — and nothing about the way he plays is an accident — - not the drill and not even the calling out of his own quarterback. Norman knows, more than anyone, that his fate is his own, no one else’s and he entered the 2015 season feeling both underpaid and underappreciated. So what he wanted, and who he wanted to be, he would have to take between his own two hands.

When asked later about his end of practice routine he pauses and flips through the rolodex in his mind, wanting to credit the right veteran. “I’m always looking for ways to get better.”


The five Norman brothers live vicariously through one another. Four of the five participated in sports at the professional level, and they often watch one another’s plays and offer constructive criticism. They are notoriously, viciously competitive (their mother has a video of them singing “We Are the Champions” in three-part harmony after a Thanksgiving game of Taboo to prove it), but the fact that as children they had to go back to the same house and sleep under the same roof of their double-wide trailer isn’t lost on them.

It is perhaps the only thing that kept them from being sports cannibals, threatening to consume one another, drunk on adrenaline and athletic delusion. They know that at the end of the day it’s the Normans against the world. “We’re five strong” says Orlando. It’s been that way since they were children, running barefoot through the grass on the 35-acre homestead they called home. This is where they cut their teeth and cut their limbs on branches and brush and brambles. In a large clearing between the road and the front door is where they held their races, arms pumping, legs focused, slicing through the landscape imitating the horses that their father let them ride.

The five spent every moment they could outdoors, tossing balls until the lightning bugs signaled that it was time to come inside. On rainy days when they couldn’t go outside they tied socks around their knees to lessen the thud, and played football in the house, much to their mother’s bemusement.

They know that at the end of the day it’s the Normans against the world

All five boys within five years of one another, Marrio and Renaldo would take one side, Orlando and Josh on the other. Phillip, the youngest would always hike the ball and took turns playing for each team, three-on-two, the defense always at a disadvantage. Each Norman remembers those halcyon days, before the threat of serious injury and malice. Before there was money on the line. Before things got complicated and the world expected things out of them that perhaps, just perhaps, it wasn’t its place to ask for. This was before musings about the ethical complexities of simulated combat or worries about actual brain damage.

It is these moments, when ecstatic celebrations did not yet end in fines for excess, that Josh Norman most appreciates. There are elements of that world he misses — riding the tractor with his grandfather, eating a Southern breakfast of biscuits and liver mush with his grandmother. Even now, these memories override the dark façade he projects today, using that shield before his face to protect the memories, so fragile, that he carries them around inside of him like precious glass.

It was a world before iPhones and Twitter and being constantly, chronically attached to the media that could mold or shatter a career.


Years of playing both sides of the ball with his brothers showed up in tangible ways. Running track in high school changed Josh from being “real flat-footed” to a prospect.

Norman was the only two-way player on the 2006 Greenwood High School team that won the South Carolina state championship, an offensive lineman’s attitude wrapped in defensive clothing.

After winning state, there were no Division I offers — none of the Greenwood players had any. The University of Georgia offered Norman a scholarship contingent upon his SAT score, but he didn’t make the necessary threshold, and the Bulldogs passed.

He took the SATs again and beat the standard. It didn’t matter, though.  The scholarship was gone. Raw talent wasn’t enough, and coaches couldn’t see the commitment and dedication, not encapsulated in a test score.

The delay left Norman wanting.

This is not how the story is going to end. Not on a couch in Myrtle Beach.

He trained while he worked out what he was going to do. He moved in with his brother Marrio, who was studying and playing at Coastal Carolina, until he could form a long-term plan.

During the day, he went to class at Georgetown Tech, and worked part-time at a mental health facility. At night he ran sprints in the road in front of his brother’s condo, each footfall pounding character and discipline into his frame, catching his breath in ragged clips before running the drills again. When it was time to rest he took up residence on his brother’s unremarkable chocolate-colored couch — comfortable enough for a couple of hours, but not comfortable enough to linger too long.

This is not how the story is going to end, he thought. Not on a couch in Myrtle Beach.

The next year he would walk on at Coastal Carolina. His first game his freshman season he made an interception, and by the end of the season he had nine pass breakups and two picks.

By his senior year, he had the numbers: a Big South Conference-record 35 career pass break-ups, 13 career interceptions, ,fifth on the NCAA’s career passes defended list (48), sixth in pass breaks. All this, all that, all league, All-American the first player from Coastal Carolina and only the second from the Big South Conference to play in the Senior Bowl.

Still, analysts were all over the place about his prospects. The numbers at the combine, do they lie? A 4.66 in the 40-yard dash, 14 bench-press reps, a 33-inch vertical, 7.09 second 3-cone drill marks and an unimpressive 4.23 second short shuttle time. Solid, nothing stellar. Pro Bowl potential? Hmmmm.  Eventual starter - likely, eventually. Just a solid prospect from small-school Coastal Carolina, second round, third, maybe fourth.

He went to New York City with his family and waited for his named to be called.

Nothing happened.

Never questioning his fate, but biding his time, Norman and his family flew back to Myrtle Beach and decided to eat dinner at Red Robin. That is when he got the phone call. Panthers, day two, round five.


Training camp is over and the season has started. It is early September, and after an exciting victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, and winning three of four preseason games, the Panthers’ fan base is quietly optimistic. Norman is back in Charlotte, living in the shadow of Bank of America Stadium.

He is seated at his dining room table, leaned over a plate of peach cobbler. He sips a homemade Arnold Palmer and sets the glass on a coaster — of his face. No false idols here. Nothing made of flesh is sacred. Still cautious after a concussion he acquired during a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he sits in the dim light and answers questions. He admits that his most recent head injury isn’t as bad as the one last season that forced him to sit out for two games, as if this is consolation to anyone that knows the impact of this brutal sport.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Mitigate the risk. Play smart. Don’t add your body to the pile just for fun. Marrio taught him these lessons the hard way. They played football together at Coastal Carolina for just one game, against North Carolina A&T, brothers in pursuit of the same distant dream.

Midway through the contest, Marrio’s ankle was crushed. Their mother was there, and knew her son’s season was over. One Norman handed off to another. Josh took Marrio’s place on the field and finished the game. They won and he understood: football can either be a platform or a graveyard for dreams.

Why play? Why play at a college that isn’t Division 1, where scouts rarely come to the games and few players make it into the draft, let alone go on to play in The League?  What is the point?

There are some things you feel destined to do. The quest is bigger than football, perhaps even bigger than yourself. What happens when talent meets hard work? Who can I be? He had to find out.

A portion of the answer came on that day in training camp.  Another came after the first game of the season, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, when he discovered hundreds of missed messages and his voicemail box was full. More came two weeks after that, when Norman made the game-clenching interception on a pass that was meant for Brandin Cooks of the New Orleans Saints. His twitter feed is suddenly full of memes — in one he is catching a rocket for a ride into outer space.

His family is perhaps the only group in America already familiar with the man everyone else is finally seeing on screen. While at Coastal, Josh once made a catch just like that, somersaulting in the air, defying gravity, rotating mid-leap to snatch the ball from the grasp of the intended receiver. Marrio knew Josh was a once in a lifetime player before he became a Chanticleer, but that play cemented the idea that his brother was a once in a lifetime phenomenon.


It’s the middle of October, and Norman and the undefeated Panthers are having one hell of a ride. He’s had four interceptions, two returned for touchdowns. He was named the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Month in September and Defensive Player of the Week the first week of October, the first Carolina corner to earn the honor since Ricky Manning Jr., and that was in 2003.

“I was in Jacksonville, and man, I went crazy,” Renaldo says, speaking of his brother’s interception in week one, his first career touchdown. “I was running up and down the stadium steps, unable to keep it together.”

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Josh consumes the retelling of the event hungrily, voraciously even, unsure that this day would ever come, not sure how long it will last, and enjoying the lingering moment.  Norman knows there is no loyalty in the NFL — his contract tells him that, the one he turned down before the start of the season, the seven million-dollar offer to replace the initial, non-guaranteed, 4-year, $2.3 million contract he signed when he was drafted, the one he signed before everything.  He knows the business:  he could be traded, injured, or if doesn’t work out and he watches too many receivers show their back to him in the end zone, simply be cut from the team. In the end, he bet on himself.

Things are different now. Suddenly everyone wants a piece. The same people saying he was a fool for passing up seven million now praise him for his wisdom — he will be a free agent at season’s end.  Those that called him a thug before now stand in line to gain his favor.  The next interview has to be pushed back — he can’t help it — to take a meeting.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

He has his first real battle with the Fame Monster. For those that don’t know what that is, it’s the one thing that can derail a player from reaching their peak potential. It’s different for everyone — sometimes it’s money, drugs, women … or in Josh’s case right now, the opportunists that want him to buy into the hype, to let them make him a superstar. There is talk of making a reality television show but his life that already feels like one.

At the next interview there’s a book from a sports agency on his coffee table. They’ve created a fat volume with his image on the front, and all of the opportunities they believe they can offer him between the covers if he leaves his longtime agent Dave Butz and signs with them. Sitting on the edge of his seat he looks fatigued by it all, tormented by concepts that slip through his hands like BBQ smoke — too heady to ignore but impossible to contain. Someone that he’s never met wants to write a book about him. His phone buzzes constantly until he reaches in his pocket and holds the power button, powering down, if even just for a little while.

He waves away talk of the NFL rankings, his accolades and his impeding contract. He just wants to to breathe, and take the season one game at a time, reacting without thinking, knowing without seeing, believing. The contract will just have to wait. Everything, now, just needs to wait.

He knows where he thought his loyalties lay, but … with more opportunities maybe he could make a difference in lives that the media thought held little value. He could have an avenue to what he wants to do after football — acting.

Does he switch management? He never says. He wants to stay a Panther, of that he’s sure, but he admits that is the one thing that’s not up to him. He was raised in the Carolinas, and played college ball here. His family is within driving distance. Yes, you can get Vienna sausages in Oakland or Chicago, but it just isn’t the same without the yellow stoneground grits to go along with them.  “I could be traded tomorrow and I would have to get on a plane and leave all of this here until somebody could pack it up and deal with it.”

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

How does he deal with the uncertainty? One game at a time. Pray. Do the work. The rest will reveal itself in time. Right now he is the stuff of legends. Two years before, America discovered Richard Sherman when he spoke out loudly after a game, and then suddenly became hyper-visible.  This season, the same thing has happened to Norman.  He stood up to his quarterback and now EVERYONE is watching.

But Richard Sherman filled in the gaps of his own story and now sells soup to grandmothers on daytime TV, warm and fuzzy.  Norman has not.  To most, he remains dark, face behind his shield, mysterious, unknown, more Batman than Bruce Wayne.

Myths (and misinformation) take root and sprout. We have to create lore for our gladiators, and when the ascension happens as fast as it did for Norman, things are bound to get a little tangled up.

When his creation myth is brought to his attention, that trademark Norman smirk is his only response. All of the brothers have the smirk — as if they can mask the pride of their discipline by keeping their mouths closed. It appears to be their way of reckoning, of attempting to remain humble. Omissions and fabrications add to American myth making — craft the story, give them a performance. Who was he to take away their entertainment? “Win the crowd and you win the day,” he quipped.

And now, a few questions for the man behind the myth:

He’s obsessed with Batman? Definitely true — memorabilia hangs on the wall behind him.

He role-plays different characters on the field — from Spartacus to The Dark Knight? Also true.

He wears contacts that paint his entire field of vision red? The smirk. No comment.

That he pantomimes riding his horse, Delta 747 when he makes a big play? Often.

That he’s an adrenaline junkie who likes to drive race cars and jump from airplanes? Mostly true.

That he sleeps in a chamber, like Superman? Well, not exactly like Superman, but there is a chamber.

That he fears nothing? Of course it’s more complicated than that, but with God who can stand against you?

The myth-busting session is short and he gives clipped answers — he knows this type of work is part of the business. He didn’t even have a Twitter account until an impostor said noxious toxic things under his name. Then he was forced to go through the motions of getting verified and figuring out what to say for himself, @J_No24, but when he took control with his own two hands, he began to appear. Even modern day gladiators have to watch what they put out into the universe. Of course, before this year very few paid attention. During training camp, he had around 10,000 followers. At the start of the season, the number ballooned to 25,000. Now almost 90,000 people follow him, wondering whether they’ll get Josh Norman or The Dark Knight. It’s an uneasy resting place. Still he enjoys the poetry of it all, the strategic narrative drama played out in iambic pentameter merging with the din and clamor of the game.

He’s not scared of the media attention; he realizes that every reporter has a job to do. Even as he stands surrounded by microphones, peppered with questions, he just tries to give them something else, something neither accident nor act. As a communication and dramatic arts major at Coastal Carolina, he understands the art of the well-placed teaser, the tension of a cliffhanger. The melodrama — the smack talk, the fines, it’s all happening on the biggest stage a drama student could ask for, and he uses that to his advantage. If he is acting, it is method acting, taken to its highest level.

It’s just he’d rather be interacting with fans or sifting through DVDs at his local Best Buy. He makes little eye contact and stares at his hands… until he gets to Batman.

Oh yes. Batman. Batman is his favorite. Here is where Batman, aka The Dark Knight comes in, using his strength, his will — no superpowers here — to do good, to overcome, for others, for his city. What is it they say in the movie? He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector.

The melodrama — the smack talk, the fines, it’s all happening on the biggest stage a drama student could ask for, and he uses that to his advantage.

It is still early in the season and Josh Norman is hungry. The world was telling him no, and he refused to take that for an answer. If football was a war without death he would not resolve himself to being a footnote, if he could help it. In a sense, he picked up the pen in his own hand and chose to write his own story, in longhand, crafting a part for himself that only he can play, fully aware of his new role.

ESPN Sportscenter comes calling. Bruce Wayne answers, and Norman appears on the show decked out in his Sunday best. He looks at home there, in the studio. He can’t manage the trademark smirk — he has to smile. For a moment — just a moment, it seems the 27-year-old seem like he has accomplished everything he could ever want. But there is more.

There was another part of Norman’s training camp routine that the average fan might have missed, something telling that will not be missed in the future. After all of that work, no matter how hot it was, or how long he’d been at it, Norman signed autographs afterwards until the last fan went home. He signed in the corners, away from his teammates and spent time with the fans that otherwise wouldn’t get much face time pressed up against the fence that leads from the field to Wofford’s dorms.

Why?

Norman counters that sometimes other teammates don’t see the little guys by the fence. It’s not their fault: Norman has trained to see what most people don’t, on and off the field. He credits his parents with that. His father is a minister at a prison complex, and his mother is a registered nurse. Their professions taught him that that every life deserves a certain amount of dignity, and that the poor and damaged were still rife with potential. His faith taught him that a saint is just a sinner who fell down, and got up. So he takes his time with the fans, answering their questions, no matter how invasive, posing for as many pictures as they request. He is resolved even when his legs tremble from fatigue, and when his handlers tell him it’s time for the next meeting. Just one more autograph, one more picture. He considers himself fortunate to be in his current position.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Still, even as he does so, he never takes his helmet off.

He knows what it’s like to meet an icon. “When I got to meet Zlatan Ibrahimović (the Swedish striker for French club Paris Saint-Germain) I had the same tingly feeling that little kids get when they meet me.”

Zlatan Ibrahimović makes Josh Norman stare up in wonder like a little boy meeting Batman? He knows what that feels like, to be recognized by someone he never thought he’d have the chance to interact with. Norman flashes that electric smile the cameras love to capture when they can.  His excitement can’t be diminished to his trademark smirk, and he spends more time talking freely about Ibrahimović than he does Batman, which is a pretty big deal. He’s an avid soccer fan, and often squares off against his brother Phillip in the game FIFA 2015 to decompress.

He relaxes when he talks about soccer, about his brothers, and about Greenwood, the South Carolina town that is home. About things that aren’t football. It’s easier to talk about the woods, and the way he feels when he’s riding horse, Delta 747. It’s easier to describe the deep green foliage of the Norman homestead, with pine trees so tall they threatened to tickle heaven — at least they did when the Normans were little.

Even though everyone is well past grown, the pecking order of their youth still exists — from oldest to youngest: Renaldo, Orlando, Marrio, Josh, then Phillip. “Aww man, those guys still make me sit in the back when we go places.” The brothers have made it clear: it doesn’t matter how much you’re worth, you’re still the little brother.

“They used to call us the bottom feeders, we could never get enough” Phillip recalls. Always underrated, underestimated, undervalued. Forever the underdog. Even as the Panthers surge through the season threatening to go undefeated, coach Ron Rivera admits that his team is treated like they crashed the party. It seems nobody expected them to end up in this position and the Panthers are treated as a happy accident instead of the collision of hardworking individuals, aligned with the divine. It was as if they hadn’t earned the potential to be legends — they just got lucky. Norman knows better  —   and fits right in.

There’s the constant push and pull. When a reporter calls him “the next Richard Sherman,” Norman is quick to correct him.

“I’m not the next Richard Sherman — there’s a Richard Sherman. I’m Josh Norman.”

His tone articulates things that players aren’t allowed to say in the NFL: black bodies aren’t interchangeable, and writers should not get comfortable creating lazy parallels. To him comparisons begets conformity, which isn’t far from cliché, and before you know it you’re a stereotype, a caricature of your former self, crafted in someone else’s image instead on being the man of standards that your parents nurtured.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
I’m not the next Richard Sherman — there’s a Richard Sherman. I’m Josh Norman.

That’s the hitch though when it comes to describing phenomena, there’s got to be something close, something familiar to compare it to. When comparisons fail, when metaphors and similes lose their value, what words can capture the soul-stirring exalted moments of poetry in motion.

How do you create the linguistic equivalent of a meteor shower, of a comet?

There is an uneasy balance, he concedes. God has a plan. If there’s anything the meandering journey to the top has taught him, it’s that discipline and patience pay off.

His actions have made him a trending topic on Facebook more than once. He talks hot and sounds mean, building a reputation for standing up what he believes in. During the November Salute to Service game against the Green Bay Packers, he wore red, white and blue cleats with the words “proud” and “brave” emblazoned on the side. He explained the reasoning behind his shoe choice and later donated the shoes. He was fined over $5,000 for violating the No Fun League’s uniform code.

He’s not afraid to clap back at critics on Twitter or in interviews, whether it’s about the Confederate flag, or an opponent’s grandstanding. He was taught to absorb the criticism. Reflect. Work Harder. Keep Pounding — that mantra is the Carolina Panther’s motto, and on social media it’s usually displayed with a hashtag. He’s been proving analysts wrong since college, when scouts wondered via the internet if Norman could make the transition from small school star to the big leagues. There’s a thin line between being confident and being arrogant. It comes from being underrated for so long. A terror on the field, slim, agile and lethal to any offensive player he covers, but underneath all of that, despite everything that is happening, even as he reaches out for more and catches bullets blindly, he keeps a hand in Greenwood.

To understand the Dark Knight, you have to go there, to his place. What does the Dark Knight say, anyway? It sounds like New Testament verse, a calling:

People are dying … what would you have me do?”


Renaldo and Orlando remember the early days, when their parents used to shoot basketball at Stockman Park, attempting to outdo one another, practicng until the sun went down. Their mother, Sandra, ran track in high school and their father, Roy, played baseball.

It’s impossible to talk about Josh Norman’s dreams and not talk about his hometown.

All five of the Normans believe they were destined to play sports, and each of them has played at the collegiate and semi-pro level. The eldest, Renaldo played basketball overseas, in places far away from Greenwood, like China and Germany. If his brothers didn’t get out, Greenwood could suffocate them, the way it had so many others — he’d seen it happen. He had to show his siblings that their athletic prowess could pay off. There were four sets of eyes watching his every move, wondering who he would become.

Greenwood is the type of place that bred strength and toughness because the alternative meant being fed to the mills or pulpwooders, which chewed up cotton, lumber and bodies at an alarming rate. More than one man in the local grocery store was missing a finger, or an arm. There had to be another way.

It’s impossible to talk about Josh Norman’s dreams and not talk about his hometown. He knows it doesn’t look like much — not yet anyway, but he knows that there’s so much that can be done with this place.

One hundred forty miles southwest of Charlotte, wedged between the mountains and the sea, in an area known as The Midlands, sits Greenwood, South Carolina, population 23,222, half white, half black.

In Greenwood, Southern-ness is earned, not bought.

It lays nowhere near the landmarks of Southern travel tourism. The cities of Greenville, Columbia and Charleston, are hours away. However, if you continue down Highway 25, you’ll find yourself on the dark side of the Lake Greenwood, where fearless young men with fast cars and too little to occupy their time meet in small pool halls for jumbled up stories, quick laughs and, even quicker, reach for their guns if you aren’t careful. If you ask the right person, a fair amount of bootlegging happens on roads the color of cracklings frying in a wash pot, stories of fortunes won and lost from running in behind whiskey tucked into ridges and creases of dirt roads.

This is the Greenwood newspapers will eagerly tell you about. Yet in this area in the not too distant past, each day a handful of lives would be reaped from the earth and ground into dust to the rhythm of a semi-automatic. Violence begets violence. Formed from dust, to the dust we return.

This was once the murder capital of South Carolina, even though storefront churches and places to pray almost outnumber the population. This is not the genteel and parochial South of literary lore, and here Southern-ness is not a trend or fashion sensibility picked up on Pinterest — it extends beyond a devotion to monograms and making tablecloths from burlap found in the local Hobby Lobby. This Southern-ness is earned, not bought.

Greenwood’s old reputation as a mill town is treated like a dead man’s clothing — too worn to be vital, too precious to condemn and throw away. But this year Christmas came early for some families here.

It’s a Friday night in mid-December. There is no football game this evening, but there is still a crowd at Greenwood High School. One of its own has come back. To Josh Norman this isn’t a big deal but to the people he’s going to meet tonight, the fact that he’s made the effort after a long day of practice makes a difference.

Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

As he emerges from his black Dodge Hellcat, the one he calls his Batmobile, the Dark Knight is nowhere to be found — there is no swagger here. His helmet is off, his face open. For the first time all season, Josh Norman looks nervous. He fiddles with his glasses, tugs on his shirt tail and smooths his sweater repeatedly.

Tonight it’s just Josh, please call him Josh, accompanied by his older brother Marrio and his mother Sandra who serves as coordinator, and she’s warm but harried. They want everybody to have a good time. These folks need to have a good time. This was the chance to spare children, who have had enough pain in their young short lives, from the torment of having nothing during the holidays. They will have food. They will have toys. They will be treated like VIPs.

Starz24, Josh Norman’s non-profit, even rented a bus to chauffeur children and families that might not have a ride. It seems they’ve thought of just about everything. Each family gets a bag of food, a picture with Josh, an autographed headshot and each child gets two toys.

For the folks invited, the experience starts the moment they reach the auditorium — Starz24 has teamed up with Glenda’s Gals, a group of local teachers and guidance counselors that perform community service around Greenwood.

Volunteers flash welcoming smiles while offering everyone dinner. The mood is jovial and calm. BoyzIIMen’s rendition of Silent Night plays over the loudspeaker and sponsors and local media personalities vie for Josh’s attention, for a sound byte they can use on the local news. The world is paying attention to Josh, and to his mission. Everyone wants to get as close as they can.

At the end of the night, 24 families will leave the event with food for their table, thanks to BI-LO, a local grocer.  One hundred fifty children receive toys. The families were chosen by guidance counselors at local schools — those the adults knew whose needs were greatest, and whose children could use a little encouragement, if not a little magic.

His mother admits there was always enough to go around in the Norman house, but the extras, the luxuries were harder to come by, especially after Norman’s parents ended their marriage.

Gifts cover the stage and as families enter the auditorium there are audible gasps, punctuated by “Oh-Mai-Gawd” s and “Look, it’s Josh Norman!” The latter usually comes from little boys, overwhelmed by the chance to be so close to someone they’ve only seen before on a screen.

A couple of families arrive in their Sunday best. Still more come in Carolina Panthers colors. People take pictures to prove that they were here, so when the story breaks in Greenwood’s Index-Journal, they have tangible proof of they’re involvement. Pictures, or it didn’t happen. A lanky relaxed volunteer in a Starz24 shirt near the stage morphs latex balloons into animals and wrist corsages. The majority of the crowd asks for a tiger, shorthand for Clemson — the only other undefeated team in the area.

Rhonda Ricker is in attendance with her grandsons, Levi (10), Gavyn (8) and Wyatt (7). Each boy twirls a football and talks on, words tumbling out of their mouths, too excited to worry about manners or protocol. Rhonda tries to suppress her emotions, but fails. Her son is going through a divorce and she wasn’t sure what the boys were going to eat for Christmas, let alone what they might receive as presents. Since Thanksgiving, she worried about how to stymie disappointment. There is one less thing to worry about. Thank God.

Later in the night, Josh takes time to pray with Miss Glenda herself, whose sick grandchild was just released from the hospital. She desperately wants the prayer to work, and is appreciative for the entire event, but the time Josh took with her family was the highlight of her evening. At 8:52 p.m. he signs his last autograph — waiting til the end, again — and eventually makes his way back to the Batmobile. He’s got to head back to Charlotte, but his heart stays in Greenwood.

Nights like these are mixed for Norman. He takes pride in the work his nonprofit is doing, but it is tinged with the terrible sadness that work like this needs to be done.

According to the New York Times, when the textile mills that at one time supported the economy of Greenwood closed, the county experienced the sharpest economic decline of any in the country. He knows not much has changed. He cannot keep eye contact when he talks about the children of his hometown.

Norman isn’t after platitudes, he’s after solutions. He’s searching for real world tangible help. Throwing money at the problem won’t solve anything without a strategy. Money runs out.

He wants to change lives, alter generations, leave a legacy. This is what God ordains him to do, what football allows him to attempt, what his role entails. To take the rich darkness of orchestrated violence and make it bear fruit every time a child walks offstage with a toy.

Norman isn’t after platitudes, he’s after solutions. He’s searching for real world tangible help.

He accepts the pain for moments like this, accepts the hazard and the isolation and yes, accepts the money. That is what the fight is for. In this place, Josh Norman is dreaming in reverse. He wants to fix his childhood — well, not his childhood specifically, but the childhood of the kids in Greenwood. He realizes how fortunate he was to have a mother that kept all of her children in athletics, that chauffeured them from game to game to make sure they stayed active and out of harm’s way. Many of the kids in Greenwood won’t get the chance to have that experience. The local YMCA is cost prohibitive for many low income families. Frustrations and tensions bubble close to the surface, and there are few constructive outlets that allow youth to blow off steam. Years ago you could settle a score with a game of pick up basketball, but no longer.

Norman wants to change that. He wants to re-open “The Rec.”

“In the summer my mom would drop us off and we would pair up to make sure nobody got left behind,” says Renaldo.  Armed with money for snacks, the Normans would spend the day in the relative safety of the “The Rec,” or the Y. “We would play basketball, then go swimming, the go back to playing basketball,” Renaldo remembers. Too young to enter the weight room, they would try their luck at baseball and other sports that might not have held conventional appeal. “The Rec,” the R.L. Stevens Center on Seaboard Avenue, stands in a central location for many black residents of the neighborhood, and it is vacant.

Weeds jut from cracks in the cement and the pool sits empty, lines exposed, the bright blue interior fading from years of neglect. The Rec closed in 2009, in dire need of repairs that the county couldn’t afford. It was granted to a nonprofit for renovation and re-opening, but little has changed, and the original property holder cited higher than expected renovation estimates as the holdup.

The center was once a major gathering place for the community. In 2005 the center held Thanksgiving dinner for those relocated by Hurricane Katrina. It is in this setting Norman learned gratitude. This is where he found out starvation and desperation didn’t have a color.

It is the sentimentality of a sound bite, the notion of sleeping on the couch that really grabs people — the type of rags to riches stories that makes Americans want to better themselves. Everyone wants to believe that they have it in them to work their way out of adversity, they just need to be given the opportunity.

Once upon a time, the greatest cornerback in the NFL slept on a couch (and at times in his car) and waited to show the world his God-given talents. The young man from Greenwood walked on at Coastal Carolina his freshman year. Now he’s a starter in Charlotte for the Carolina Panthers. Bruce Wayne to Batman. One city to save and another to fight for.

Talk about a come up.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Dark Knight might have finally met his match. It is Sunday afternoon, week 15, Panthers v. Giants, the game is on and half of the Norman family is sitting in the sunny living room of a family friend in Atlanta, watching.

“Did you see the way that man hit my baby?!?” says Sandra. Her voice slides up the scale into its highest octave, becoming little more than a squeak.  When she looks at that television she doesn’t see The Dark Knight, she just sees Josh. “I don’t know who Josh is when he gets on the field — when they start doing that smack talk. I know it’s part of the game …” she couldn’t finish the sentence. When she looked at that screen she saw Josh — not the hot talker, just Josh — without the helmet, the pads and the hoopla, on a field that on this day has seen bloody, twisted, tortured bodies by the score. The trash talk started a week before, when Odell Beckham wore cleats with The Joker painted on the side — Batman’s nemesis. This had symbolism for Norman. He was ready for this matchup.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Everything has a cost. Everyone has fears for Josh — that he’ll get comfortable, that he’ll get caught up, that he won’t know what to do after football. Mrs. Norman knows the psychological and economic hazards that come with this game. She knows the statistics about bankruptcy, divorce, and concussions.

In a culture that searches for signs from the divine and talismans and cloaked in superstition, there are signifiers all around us. So when Beckham wore The Joker cleats, the world rightly inferred what they wanted to.  The imagined taunting started early. Norman and Beckham traded quips all week. Media outlets prepared for a battle and writers, anticipating the match-up had already declared it to be one for the ages. Beckham’s speed against Norman’s mental dexterity and aggressive nature, their fates intertwined before before they hit the field.

Norman saw Beckham’s Joker-inspired shoe design for what it was, a challenge. He put on his mask.

Beckham couldn’t shake him. In New York’s first possession in the second quarter, Beckham hit Norman in the head, helmet-on-helmet, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and several smirk-filled taunts from the Dark Knight—he was in his opponent’s head. That made for an abysmal first half for Beckham. He made no catches on three attempts, and the Panthers were up 21-7 by halftime.

Beckham couldn’t take it. The back-forth-jawing, that hot talk got the best of him.

Then came the meltdown — the world watched him devolve in real time. The media captured that, too.

Beckham isn’t ejected from the game. This is what the crowds came for — they call it blood sport for a reason. Bad blood will eventually leave a bad taste in both of their mouths. The incident even made the CBS Evening News — the footage of helmet on helmet contact replayed over and over again. The Panthers win, 38-35. The incident will cost Norman almost $26,044 in fines. But Beckham is suspended for one game.

You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain, right?

The hits that Norman and Beckham dole out that afternoon are too much for his mother to stand, and for much of the game Sandra paced around the first floor of the house, at times with a shawl wrapped around her face, at others on the phone handling the social media that’s flooding in. In smaller, quieter moments she spins her grandchild in a circle, holding her hands, eliciting giggles and a toothy grin.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The littlest Norman did “the dab” every time Carolina scores, arms flailing, the beads in her hair creating constant clacking. Mrs. Norman fears the rough games, like this one against the Giants, and the one that would come after. The night after a loss is the hardest. The Panthers finally fall to the Atlanta Falcons 20-13. Two weeks previous they’d trounced the Falcons 38-0. As the post season approaches, Norman declines to be interviewed any more. Now is the time for deeds, not words.

Before the regular season was underway, while the Panthers were still on their winning streak, he was asked what it was like to lose.

He described a bottomless hunger, an empty clanging that makes you part radical, part reactionary. It’s not his favorite place to be, but he does his best not to sulk. For a hole to heal, he has to stop touching it. Remember the fundamentals. Work hard. Pray harder. Keep pounding.

Soon, it will be game day, the playoffs. There are no do-overs here. There never have been, not even with his brothers in the living room of that double wide.

He waits.

It is twilight in this hemisphere, and soon it will be time to play. In the darkness he can hear his heart beat and he moves towards the light, picking up speed, gaining momentum, the crunch of his cleats ringing on the cement.

He is coming.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

As he hovers in the shadows, he takes inventory of the things he carries in him—Greenwood, his brothers, the rapidly approaching future, his dreams, the team. Things that are greater than the sum of their parts.

Josh Norman is the man behind the mask. Not quite Bruce Wayne, but not just Batman. Body searing and crackling with pain underneath his pads — he’s worked so hard to be here. He wonders how to take hold of the scene before him, how to harness the electricity in the crowd, the deafening sound of the cheers. There will never be another moment like this one.

How do you describe outer space to someone who has never been there?

He bursts forth, shooting out of the darkness of the tunnel, escaping gravity, hurtling, spinning out into the universe. This world is his stage. It is rife with contradictions and snap judgments, but now, maybe just for this season, just for today, it is his. There is no need to separate fact from fiction anymore. For a few minutes they can be one in the same.

In his view of the stadium, the lights of Charlotte as its backdrop, up in the stands, on jerseys that seem to glow as prominently as No. 1 and No. 59, is No.24, in black and white.

And there is joy.

He raises his hands, spreads his arms and the stadium rocks. The drums beat louder. He takes a leap into the spotlight — no regrets.

Action.


About the Author

Latria Graham (@LGRaconteur) is a freelance writer based in South Carolina. Her work as appeared in Ebony Magazine, The Guardian, and The Establishment. Read more about her, and her work at LatriaGraham.com

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