Coastal Carolina

The ‘Dark Knight’ on the field, Norman a son of rural S.C. off it

Josh Norman stands outside the now closed Seaboard Recreation Center where he used to play as a kid in Greenwood.
Josh Norman stands outside the now closed Seaboard Recreation Center where he used to play as a kid in Greenwood. For The Washington Post

The line was unorganized, and it was all Josh Norman’s fault. He just can’t say no to children, especially those from his home town. The Washington Redskins cornerback already had spent a considerable portion of his fourth “Fun Day in the Park” signing autographs and posing for pictures. Still, there were about 50 people in line.

Keshia Walker, executive director of Starz24, Norman’s foundation that aims to support the community that raised him, attempted to establish two lines – one for autographs and one for photos. But the children kept swarming around Norman. And he kept signing.

“Josh, one per person baby,” Walker said as Norman signed the brim of a little boy’s turquoise Kevin Durant snapback hat. “Everyone’s getting photos and autographs. See, you the one causing the trouble!”

They smiled. The Coastal Carolina alumnus finally gave in to her rules, though he bent them for a few kids. He wanted to leave a positive experience for the 1,213 children running around Brewer Field on this humid June day because, less than a mile away, his childhood memories have been boarded up and abandoned for the past seven years.

Seaboard Recreation Center once served as a safe haven for Norman, his four brothers and generations of Greenwood natives. Now, it’s an asbestos-filled gym with an adjacent, uninhabited swimming pool. The only signs of life reside on the two outdoor courts, where locals play pickup basketball games with shards of glass scattered on the court, and in the pool, where weeds have bloomed through the cracks of the inert foundation.

This bulky red building, and the caged-in swimming pool, played a significant role, along with his supportive family, in shaping Norman into the 28-year-old man he is today. And he’s yearning to create another Greenwood sanctuary for the next generation.

“I can’t forget that,” Norman said. “It was a part of me when I was young coming up, and it’s stuck with me all the way up to now when I’m an adult. It’s still with me today. If I didn’t go to the rec center, I don’t know where I’d probably be at this point in time. If there was no rec center, we wouldn’t be here having this conversation.”

Before he was the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL, signing a five-year deal worth $75 million in April, before he was a first-team all-pro and before he was name-dropped by Jay-Z on DJ Khaled’s “I Got the Keys” track, Norman was just another scrawny Greenwood kid. The second-youngest of five brothers, nicknamed “5 Strong,” with two parents rooted in their Christian faith, the Norman family grew up 90 minutes west of Columbia in Greenwood, the town that now holds more than 23,000 people.

They lived in a double-wide trailer on a few acres where Norman and his brothers shared a room sleeping on bunk twin beds. They had to twist around the antenna out back to get a signal strong enough to receive a few TV channels. Their first basketball hoop was a tire rim nailed to an oak tree. What they lacked in material possessions, they made up in competitive spirit. It’s the same one Norman displayed for four seasons with the Carolina Panthers.

Everything was a game with bragging rights on the line. He received tough love from his older brothers playing “throw-up-tackle” football, an aggressive game they all loved, where Norman had to outrun his siblings from one end zone to the other to avoid what was likely a brutal takedown.

“That’s why we call ourselves “5 Strong” because we grew up in that trailer, in that environment, where we was right there on top of each other,” said Marrio Norman, the third-oldest brother, who also played at Coastal Carolina. “Every man fend for themselves. That’s what gave us that mentality.”

The mind-set stems further than that, back to Norman’s grandparents, who grew up in the segregated South. They stressed the significance of education to Norman’s parents, Sandra and Roy, in a period where African-Americans were typically limited to industrial or service jobs. Sandra felt a calling to become a nurse at 10 years old. Excelling at McCormick High School in the classroom while participating in track, she went to college and achieved her dream. Roy was one of two black students during desegregation to attend the all-white Northside Middle School in Greenwood. He was driven to prove himself while white students called him the N-word and threw biscuits at him. Roy felt a calling to get into ministry, passing on an opportunity to study neurosurgery in graduate school at Emory University.

“Something happened to me at Northside Middle School that was sort of like a volcano that was building,” Roy Norman said. “Something was happening down on the inside that would eventually explode, but I knew that the only way I could ascend to the top was through the educational system. So I had to play the game.”

Sandra and Roy instilled that same spirit in their five sons, Renaldo, Orlando, Marrio, Josh and Phillip: Use the gifts God gave you. If you have faith, regardless of the circumstances, you will succeed.

‘Not taking no for an answer’

Norman’s parents separated when Josh was about 11 years old. Roy still played a significant role in his sons’ lives, but they all lived with their mother in north Greenwood. She had to balance working long hours as a nurse while raising five boys, which became a financial burden.

“I can tell you about times when my momma was scrapping up pennies to put gas in a station wagon,” said Orlando, the second-oldest brother who works in real estate. “I feel like if nobody can reach out and understand what I’m saying with that then they can’t understand nothing. It wasn’t like we were born with silver spoons. We had to work from the ground up.”

Instead of wrestling with each other throughout the summer at the house, Sandra took the boys to Seaboard Recreation Center. Sometimes they would walk on their own. It was a staple in west Greenwood, a predominately African-American area, where children swam, played basketball, football and baseball from dusk till dawn for free. While a YMCA resides in the town, many households can’t afford a membership. The average household income in Greenwood is less than $23,000.

“The rec center was the community that couldn’t afford to go to the Y,” said Renaldo Norman, the oldest brother who like his father is a minister. “So everybody got to go over there for free to the swimming pool, playing basketball. A lot of those hard-core basketball games, it’s where we got a lot of our toughness from really being at the rec.”

Trash talk was necessary, not optional, at Seaboard. People stepped on the court oozing with confidence. Though during this time, Josh wasn’t the chatty individual he is on Sundays nowadays. His mother said he always loved attention in public, especially in the classroom, where he often distracted his classmates, but Norman was too busy as an 8-year-old fighting for a spot on the court. Norman had to play up to the level of those older than him who didn’t trust him or didn’t want to play with him. Every opportunity he received, Norman had to prove he belonged.

“It honed me to my skills and who I am today,” Norman said. “It did because I was always hearing, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ And once I got that one ‘yes,’ it was like I couldn’t get off the court. Then I’d get a ‘no,’ then a ‘no,’ then a ‘yes.’ And it took off from there. So it was always going back and forth at first and then finally I hit the court where they were like, ‘Okay, he can play.’ 

Proving them wrong

There have been doubters throughout Norman’s football career as well. Norman, a safety on the Greenwood High team, had aspirations of a state championship and visions of playing in the NFL. His junior season ended in disappointment in the playoffs. A year later, in 2006, he accomplished his first goal as the leader and best player on the school’s state championship team.

But Norman was searching for a plan after graduation, and he didn’t have any scholarship offers from Division I schools.

Georgia showed interest but moved on because of Norman’s academic record. The only offer Norman received was from Mars Hill, a Division II school in North Carolina that his high school position coach, Tony Temple, helped secure. Norman wasn’t interested. Instead, he followed his brother Marrio to Myrtle Beach, where he crashed on his couch with two other people living in the apartment. Norman worked on receiving a Spanish online credit to bridge his transition from high school to college and took a few college courses at Horry Georgetown Tech that year as well. From there, he planned to transfer to Coastal Carolina, where Marrio was a defensive back.

“I was worried because, as a coach, I witness so many kids leave high school, get out of playing and then they never get an education,” Temple said. “They never get back in it. I said, ‘Buddy, it’s just so hard to do that.’ 

Norman persevered, but gets emotional reflecting back on that year. He slept in his green Toyota Camry with no door handles one weekend because he forgot to grab the apartment key from Marrio before a Coastal Carolina road game. He often spent his weekdays working out, attending class and working 40 hours a week as a mental health technician at Lighthouse Care Center, an inpatient psychiatric hospital. If he wasn’t scheduled to work on a weekday, Norman watched Marrio’s practices.

“He would stand like we’re standing right here and just watch,” Marrio said. “Just watch, waiting for his moment. I remember it like it was yesterday. That continued to keep that fire going in him, ignite that fire and kept it going. He just kept feeding it.”

Norman walked on the Coastal Carolina team and earned a scholarship before his sophomore year. Marrio’s collegiate career came to end just as his younger brother was getting started when he hurt his ankle during Coastal Carolina’s 2008 season opener at Penn State. His brother’s injury opened an opportunity for Norman. He started seven games that season, recording two interceptions. Norman ended his career with 13 interceptions, the second-most in school history, surpassing Marrio, who had 11.

“It was tough because that was my senior year, but it was bittersweet,” said Marrio, a freight broker who still hopes to catch on with an NFL team. “If I want anybody to do it, it’d be my brother. I always say that. One of those things where you can’t be salty, especially if it’s a family member doing everything you wanted to do. It’s love at the end of the day, man.”

Norman graduated from Coastal Carolina with a degree in communications in 2012, the same year the Carolina Panthers selected him in the fifth round of the NFL draft.

His journey to the NFL is why Norman scoffs at skeptics. He’s heard about how he wasn’t worth the money. He’s heard about how he’ll fall off now that he’s the league’s highest-paid cornerback. He’s heard about how he won’t succeed with a new team and defensive scheme in Washington.

Norman tilts his head sideways, releasing a devious grin in an empty Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church where Renaldo preached at an hour ago.

“Is that even a question to ask? Do you think I still got it?” Norman said. “I don’t even feel like I’ve got 75 [million].

“I don’t even feel like I’ve made it yet. If somebody don’t feel like they’ve made it, you might want to watch out because they’ll do everything they can in their power to – regardless of what it is.”

Between the lines, anything goes

Norman’s older brothers always set the bar for him. They showed him how to be ruthless in competition but respectful after the game, whether it involved family or other people at Seaboard.

The unwritten rules were simple – between the lines, anything goes. Phillip, who plans to live with Josh in Ashburn this season, said that included pushing, shoving, throwing an elbow or even a punch. If the physical altercation escalated into a fight, the initiator would usually apologize as a sign of respect. Grudges weren’t held once everyone stepped outside the lines, and they’d play again the next day like nothing happened.

“Every time I step on the field, that’s what I bring – I bring Greenwood with me,” Norman said on stage to 1,800 people at his “Fun Day in the Park” event in Greenwood in June at which he received a key to the city. On display was Norman’s American Saddlebred horse Delta, which he bought shortly after he was drafted - a nod to his father Roy, who says his family owns 11 horses on three farms, one in Greenwood and two in Georgia.

“The thing is, I come from somewhere where hard work is all we know. It’s all we ever know,” Norman said. “If you sit up there and look at the people you go against – Julio Jones, the Odell [Beckhams] and people like that. You sit in front of them, Dez Bryants and all those guys on the Cowboys. … We sit in front of them, and we check them every time. Every time we look in their face, we like to see their heart. We really do because that’s where we come from. Gritty, nose-grinding people.”

Nearly seven months after a heated matchup with Norman last season, Beckham, the New York Giants wide receiver, is still a sensitive subject for Norman and his family. Norman threw Beckham to the turf after a play on the Giants’ second drive, and Beckham attempted to retaliate throughout the rest of the game, earning a one-game suspension.

Norman’s brother Phillip took issue with Beckham’s actions and how he’s responded since. “We weren’t raised to respect that,” his brother Phillip said. “Especially since he gave them no apology.”

Phillip continued: “I just see the things [Beckham’s] doing – the dancing and the Michael Jackson stuff – and none of that is Greenwood. You can’t do all that and then try to be this whole ‘nother, different guy on the field. That’s the different thing about my brother. He’s always been a trash talker, so he’s always been that guy. For him to take it to the field, it’s okay. He can play through it. You see somebody that carry themselves and be somebody they not, they can’t play through it. And you seen that in [Beckham’s] play. He’s not that guy. Don’t be that guy. He wants to be Joker. Is he really the Joker to the Batman? That’s what he wants to be.”

‘Seeing red’

“Batman” refers to Norman’s “The Dark Knight” persona. It started in college and grew over time with his infatuation with the superhero and Christian Bale’s performance in the movie of the same name. Norman becomes this alter ego when the lights turn on and the cameras watch his every move on the field, in the locker room and during an interview. A minor in dramatic arts, this is Norman’s stage.

“The Dark Knight” also draws out his dark side on the field to mentally break his opponent between the lines.

“I see through people in a way that it’s just the competitive side of me I guess that feeds off their bitter side,” Norman said. “Sometimes I get blood drunk, when I get drunk into the game. It’s like I’m on a bottle of straight Adderall aggression and fire. I’m out of it. I’m seeing red. I see it and look at it, and it’s just like, ‘Yeah, I know I got you today because of your armor or your flinch.’

“It’s just like Mike Tyson said. When you look at someone, you look at them and look at them, then they look down. You know you’ve got them.”

The broadcasters during the Giants-Panthers game last season noted in the second half how Norman was winning “the mental game” with Beckham, but Norman later told Temple that his emotions got the best of him as well. Norman is still attempting to learn how to turn his alter ego off, which has been more difficult than turning it on. He will have to be even more cautious now that he plays Beckham twice a season in the NFC East.

The rivalry shows every sign of continuing. Beckham told GQ magazine in its August issue that Norman’s status in the NFL as one of its highest-paid defenders “is because of me.”

“I can go from having a conversation with you cool and quiet but once you talk about something that hits a trigger, I go into a whole different phase and side of me,” Norman said. “That’s what I mean by inside the white lines and outside of it. That switch automatically comes on and if someone rubs me the wrong way, it’s on until I go to sleep at night. I’m trying, trying to work on killing it after the game, but it’s so hard.”

Rebuilding the foundation

You’ll see “The Dark Knight” at FedEx Field, but you won’t find him in Greenwood. The mask comes off when Norman is back home, and he’s the caring person all the locals know him to be. Norman holds events like “Fun Day In The Park” to raise awareness and funds to build his own recreation center. There have been a handful of NFL players to come out of Greenwood – defensive ends Gaines Adams and Sam Montgomery, wide receivers Robert Brooks and John Gilliam and current Arizona Cardinals safety D.J. Swearinger – but they haven’t been as devoted to the community as Norman.

“It means so much not only just for the contributions that he’s already made, but the spirit of the community,” Greenwood Mayor Welborn Adams said. “For those kids to know that there’s somebody willing to come and give up their time, you can’t put a price on that. It’s so inspiring.”

Seaboard Recreation Center was shut down by Greenwood County in 2009 as part of the cutbacks during the recession. The building and swimming pool were given to resident Darlene Saxon, who changed the name to Beyond The Walls Family Restoration Center but hasn’t done anything with the property. The neighboring community has suffered without the center that was a mainstay for almost 60 years.

“Growing up with my friends and playing with my friends, a lot of them grew up in single-family homes,” said Anthony Coates, a city native who now serves as the linebackers coach at Greenwood High. “They didn’t see a lot of parent stuff going on. But growing up at the rec, you had the role models over there that would teach you the things that you couldn’t get at home. That made me want to be a better person, want to be the better husband and father that I am today. I knew what it took to get from there to here.

“If you go to the rec now, you don’t see anything. That’s because they don’t have anything to do. So now, what are they doing? They’re finding other stuff to do and, most of the time, it’s not the right thing.”

Residents believe violent and property crimes rose during the recession in Greenwood, and there are many in the community who believe the absence of the center has played a role. While another center, Brewer Recreation Center, exists, residents say kids aren’t going to it because of inconsistent open-gym hours. Seaboard kept the outdoor court lights on until 11 p.m., and by the time everyone left, the teenagers were too tired to do anything else.

“They go home, take a bath, go to bed and do it all over again tomorrow,” said George Brennon, who was a volunteer coach at the center. “Now, he done slept all day or sat around the house all day. When it gets dark, he got more energy than a lift. He’s ready to run the streets.”

Norman has been trying to change the perception of Greenwood by starting Starz24 during his rookie season, and he believes a new complex will keep the kids occupied with an emphasis in athletics and academics.

“We have an opportunity as a ministry to talk to them and tell them what you can do instead of what you can’t do,” said Norman’s mother, Sandra, who recently retired as a nurse and devotes her time to her grandchildren and Norman’s foundation. “Just because your uncle was this or your brother was that don’t mean that you have to be that. You can be something different. You are different. You’re an individual. God gave you something different, and you don’t have to settle.”

Sandra oversaw the “Fun Day at the Park” with Walker, Starz24’s executive director, in what was considered a success. They were all amazed by the turnout, which exceeded Sandra’s expectations by more than 900 kids. Norman was proud that it brought the community together regardless, of race or class.

“It’s a town that is divided in a way,” Norman said. “You can bring a strong force to come back and sever that gap and bring everybody together on common ground. It wasn’t just black people out there. It wasn’t just white people out there. They was all together and having a good time. That’s what I want Greenwood to have.”

A new center would bring it all back for that scrawny kid from Greenwood in a way that no play on the field could duplicate. A lasting impact to the people he can’t forget, who know better than anyone else that Norman can make the most unfathomable dreams a reality.

“It’s going to be the jewel of this town,” Norman said. “It really will be, a state-of-the-art. That’s what it’ll be. Something that nice where everyone there in the community will have a hand on it to call and say, ‘This is mine.’