With the help of a soccer ball, Josh Norman befriended teammates and learned the value of patience during his first Redskins training camp in Richmond, Va.
Josh Norman waited his entire high school career for football scholarship offers that never came. He waited five rounds in the NFL draft to hear his name called. It took two years in the NFL for him to solidify a starting spot. Norman has always been patient with himself. After his first training camp with the Washington Redskins, Norman realized the value of being patient with others. That lesson helped forge relationships with teammates, endear him to fans and fostered a personal maturation that is helping him adapt to his newfound stardom.
"I got understanding, better awareness and just overall being humbled in a sense to where you can't just go out and run straight out there," Norman said. "You have to learn and you have to grow, and I did grow. That's what I got better at, just growing overall. Not just in my position, but in people."
Josh Norman was on the way home from a funeral when he found out his franchise tag had been abruptly rescinded by the Carolina Panthers on April 20. Suddenly and unwittingly thrust into the starring role of a free agent bonanza, Norman's first free agent stop was with the Washington Redskins at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park in Loudoun County, Va.
After spending his entire life in the Carolinas, Norman let his family decide his new home. His family weighed the priorities of the organization and, after a vote, the Redskins were the nearly unanimous choice. Just five days after Norman's tag was rescinded, he was in the Redskins Park weight room. Not only was he keeping his body in peak shape and learning a new defensive scheme, but he was also learning the names and faces of his new teammates.
A few weeks later, Norman went to France and visited Paris Saint-Germaine F.C., a French soccer team, to see the final home game of Swiss legend Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Norman was so enamored with the trip that when he came back for OTAs, he was dribbling a tetherball on the sideline. That small act turned out to be a foreshadowing. Two and a half months later, Norman brought a soccer ball to training camp that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would become a catalyst for getting to know his teammates.
It began with the All-Pro cornerback lollygagging by dribbling his soccer ball before or after an interview. After a few days, reporters, fans and players took notice. Kids on the field joined in, and soon players did too. Norman would kick the ball around with anyone. Midway through training camp, players were forming soccer circles before practice.
Norman's soccer ball brought teammates together in diverse, unlikely groups. Veterans and rookies, domestic and international, quarterbacks and kickers. Every athlete can bond around a ball.
Even virtual soccer ingratiated Norman with his teammates. Outside of football, skills in FIFA 17 may be the most coveted in the locker room. Norman was (and is) not shy about taking on his teammates in the game with his favorite team, Paris Saint-Germaine. He was incredulous when linebacker Preston Smith dropped him in FIFA this week.
Norman didn't realize his soccer ball would be an icebreaker, but the bonding provided an avenue for him to cultivate relationships.
Clowning around with teammates off the field allowed Norman to lead by example on the field with his post-practice workout routine. Each day after practice ended, Norman would lead a small contingent of younger players to the corner of the end zone -- the furthest possible space from reporters -- and hone his craft long after the rest of the team had headed to the locker room. In that far corner of the field, Norman would practice breaking on underneath routes, flipping his hips on double moves, challenging cornerbacks and receivers to best of three jump ball contests and catching balls from the Jugs machine without breaking stride.
A self-described blue collar technician, Norman's work ethic has not wavered from when he was a high school cornerback without a Division I scholarship offer or a fifth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina. Staying true to his humble beginnings in Greenwood, S.C., is key to avoiding the perils of his newfound fame and continuing to improve his craft.
"As you see I'm still doing the same thing," Norman said after a post-practice workout. "I still work. My work rate is going to get me through all the adversity that I'm struggling with right now from the outside noise and everybody pulling on you, tugging on you and wanting a piece of you. You just got to continue to stay focused and grounded in what you do and that's all I can do."
Cornerback Bashaud Breeland felt that Norman made him better every day.
"He made all us bring out our A-game," Breeland said. "Like we all gotta go to be where he's at and what he's accomplished so far in his career. That's what we're grinding to get to and he's doing his best to help us to get there as much as possible."
One of the players would frequently work with Norman after practice is rookie cornerback Lloyd Carrington, an undrafted free agent out of Arizona State. Carrington, who has made some impressive interceptions in practice since joining the team, was eager for the opportunity to learn from an All-Pro cornerback. Norman's post-practice sessions morphed into a daily ritual.
"(Josh is) just giving me the game on how to be a pro and hard work and dedication and how far it can take you," Carrington said. "He's teaching me a lot about paying attention to detail and perfecting your craft on the field. Everything pays off when you put all the time and effort into it. Someone of his status and stature did it the right way. Did it a way that just about everyone can do, and that's just hard work man, being dedicated to what you love, and really having a passion and loving what you do."
Outside of the heat of competition, that passion is most visible when Norman is with fans. For the people who wait up to an hour after practice ends for Norman to finish his routine, he makes sure to mingle with everyone who stays to watch him.
"I did it when I was Carolina too, so nothing's going to change that," Norman said. "It didn't change me there so it's not going to change me here. My work rate. If I get done and they're standing out here watching me the whole time the least thing I could do is sign for them.
"[Redskins fans] are embracing me as one of their own and that's all you can ask for as a player coming from another squad. You feel that love and you want to give it back to them as much as you can. That's why you put in that extra work and do as much as you can so they don't feel like they're let down or anything."
As he leaves Richmond, the relationships Norman developed with his teammates and fans during training camp have been critical in reshaping his approach to the criticism and expectations he has dealt with since signing with Washington. When his agreements with Fox Sports and disagreements with Odell Beckham Jr. cropped up in the last two weeks of camp, Norman relied on his newfound family to keep him grounded.
Check out behind the scenes images from Cornerback, Josh Norman's 2016 Redskins Photo Shoot.
"Everybody's not gonna like you, everybody has something to say," Norman said about his critics. "You just gotta keep being positive, keep doing what you're doing. Because at the end of the day, you're not where they're at. You're on a whole 'nother platform, so you just gotta continue that mindset, stay focused, stay driven in your approach, knowing that you're doing something right and you're benefiting not only yourself but others around you. Just stay positive man. Keep that outlook."
After beginning in Redskins Park as the new guy just four months ago, slowly but surely Norman left training camp with a family. Just like sitting on a receiver's route before taking an interception to the house, Josh Norman's patience led him to his new home.
"Control the controllables, that's what I've been trying to do my best, and I've been doing that man," Norman said. "I've been having good support from my GM (Scot McCloughan), my head coach (Jay Gruden), our President (Bruce Allen) and everyone, so everybody works hand in hand. Then you get the teammates on board with you, and everything is right, so I'm just loving the atmosphere, and we're happier because we got a good team, we really do."
As the Redskins headed home on the last day of training camp, Norman's famed soccer ball that the team had been kicking for weeks was nowhere to be found. He punted it into the crowd for a fan to take home.
He didn't need it anymore.