CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Norman family’s small farm in Greenwood, South Carolina, had goats, cows and -- Josh Norman’s favorite -- a beautiful red-spotted Appaloosa horse named Strawberry. The animals were close by during epic two-on-two pasture football games with the Norman brothers. Josh, the second-youngest, lined up as a receiver by the dirt sidewalk. He would have a count to five Mississippis to get open.
“He could get pushed around during that five seconds,” said Marrio Norman, one of Josh's three older brothers. “We’d go at it all day. Josh learned ball skills that way.”
Fostering those skills spawned one of the NFL’s latest and greatest success stories. Norman has emerged from obscurity as a late-round pick from Coastal Carolina to become a top-shelf cornerback for the Carolina Panthers.
Next up, if Norman punctuates his career year the right way -- Disney commercials, ESPY nominations and more millions in his free-agency boon.
Nothing can change a career like a momentum-shifting interception in a Super Bowl while more than 100 million people watch.
Ask Malcolm Butler, who is no longer the undrafted cornerback from West Alabama. He’s the brilliant route jumper at the goal line, the key holder to the New England Patriots’ first Super Bowl title in a decade and the warden of Russell Wilson’s nightmares.
Better yet, ask Larry Brown, the spokesperson for cornerbacks-turned-stars.
“The world now knows who you are after that,” Brown, the Super Bowl XXX Most Valuable Player for the Dallas Cowboys, told ESPN this week. “It gets a little crazy.”
A delicate balance is necessary to make this happen, something people close to Norman say the player fully realizes. He must play like a star but not act like one. He must work within Carolina’s defensive scheme while knowing when to take chances.
Playing defensive back in the NFL is an inexact science, especially under high-wattage Super Bowl lights.
“This is not the game to be [a star],” Panthers safety Roman Harper said.
‘BE YOURSELF ... ALL NIGHT’
Harper would know. His big moment came in Super Bowl XLIV, when his team-leading eight tackles and one pass deflection helped the New Orleans Saints hold Peyton Manning to one touchdown and one interception.
The Super Bowl is hard enough to handle when the first few plays are one big blur because of the cameras and the crowd and the hype. Too much freelancing and the Saints would have stood no chance.
“You just settle down and it turns into a normal football game,” Harper said. “If you do the right things and play your position, the plays will come naturally.
"Be yourself, keep yourself in position all night.”
For Brown, though, a level of aggressiveness helped him corral his second interception of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell in XXX by beating a receiver to a spot.
To taste glory, “you’ve got to take some chances,” Brown said. “Pick your moments. The game’s going to be fast, intense, hyped. Every play counts.”
Norman seems to understand the gravity of the moment. During the Panthers’ practice week before packing up for California, Norman talked about his origins, those backyard games and being grateful to play childhood idol Peyton Manning -- “P-freaking-M,” according to Norman.
The Panthers say Norman studies every tendency of opposing receivers, from alignments to pre-snap mannerisms to hand movements when going deep. That won’t change this week. Norman has even boycotted past Super Bowls, despite having tickets, because he wanted his first experience to be as a player. Now he has that chance. Play big on Sunday and he can borrow Kevin Garnett’s nickname -- the Big Ticket.
“This is what we’ve worked for our whole life, since we’ve been birthed into this world,” Norman said. “I think this is what our destiny was to do.”
If Josh thinks like his brother Marrio, which is usually the case, he will be ready for Manning to test him early with Demaryius Thomas.
The Broncos probably have a better chance to win by ignoring Norman’s side, Marrio said. But he has a feeling Manning will throw Norman’s way out of pride.
“They are probably drawing up some double moves,” said Marrio, who had a short stint with the Baltimore Ravens and also played in the Canadian Football League. “He’ll get his opportunity to make plays. He’ll have to capitalize on opportunities.”
‘HE LOVES THE LIGHTS’
Norman plays in a disciplined cover system, but his instincts helped him flourish this season. Take his sack on Russell Wilson in the divisional playoff win two weeks ago. That wasn’t a designed corner blitz. He saw an opening and took off.
That’s where communication is crucial. Norman can signal to his safety -- “it’s a little wink or something,” Harper said -- before acting on instincts. More often than not, Norman has been right this year. Taking calculated risks helped the Panthers record a league-leading 24 interceptions, including seven from safety Kurt Coleman and four from Norman.
Norman’s ball skills, unselfishness and eye discipline are among the reasons Carolina defensive backs coach Steve Wilks sleeps peacefully before games.
“He loves the lights,” Wilks said. “He thinks there’s nobody lining up against him that he can’t cover. I love that about him.”
But there’s still work to be done with Norman, whom Wilks said responds to hard coaching. He’s an emotional player who must be rerouted by coaches at times. He wants to do everything right. Wilks reminds him to have a short memory.
“I think [being the best] is something that’s important to him,” Wilks said. “But if you do what’s in the system, you’re going to shine and get your recognition. It happened this year.”
‘SOMETIMES, YOU HAVE IT REALLY GOOD’
Norman has everything to gain and not much to lose. He already has played his way into big-money status. The Panthers will likely use the franchise tag on Norman regardless of the outcome in Santa Clara. The franchise tag, which allows NFL teams to keep quality players by paying a one-year salary commensurate with the average of the top five players at the position, would net Norman close to $14 million in 2016, though a long-term deal could be worked out after the tag is applied.
After signing a big free-agent contract with the Oakland Raiders coming off his Super Bowl MVP performance, Brown can relate to Norman’s free agency. But Brown was cut after two seasons. His career was never the same.
Looking back, Brown wanted to stay with Dallas for continuity purposes. A foot injury coupled with constant staff changes led to his demise in Oakland.
In Brown’s experiences talking with other players, most want to stay with their current teams, even if their value increases after a Super Bowl.
“What I would advise today’s guys, and what I was not prepared for, is when you’re drafted to an organization, that’s the only one you know,” Brown said. “You assume everybody prepares and plays the same way. That’s not always the case. Sometimes, you have it really good.”
As for the fame surrounding the game, Brown said he wasn’t fazed because Dallas had won three titles in the 1990s and a star-studded roster buffered the celebrity. Brown didn’t have to be the man.
In Carolina, the supporting cast can walk behind Cam Newton’s Versace pants. Still, Norman has a stadium-size personality to match his play. He’d be an ideal post-Super Bowl marketer.
The Panthers aren’t asking Norman to change his colorful and athletic ways, especially now.
“What got us here is enough,” Coleman said.