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'Escape artist' Norwood also true outdoorsman

Atlanta Falcons running back Jerious Norwood (32) an avid outdoors man, kisses his catch as he gets in some fishing in the lake behind the team's practice field immediately following team practice in Flowery Branch, Ga. AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Curtis Compton

Jerious Norwood makes a living escaping. As a third-year running back for the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL, he's known for the kind of speed that gets you noticed (he ran a blistering 4.33 at the 2006 combine) and for breaking off big runs in the fourth quarter (in 2006, he ranked second behind Chiefs running back Larry Johnson for most yards gained in the fourth quarter).

That's what Jerious Norwood does. But it's not who he is.

The real Jerious Norwood  the one you don't see suited up on Sundays  grew up hunting and fishing in his hometown of Jackson, Miss. Raised by his grandmother, Norwood recalls a childhood where escaping meant going fishing with his brother and two uncles, instilling a love for the outdoors in him that has only increased with time.

"A lot of people might be misled, because I'm in the NFL, being here in Atlanta and all ... but you don't forget where you've come from," said Norwood from Falcons training camp. "I've always enjoyed hunting and fishing  and that's part of my life, it's who I am."

In fact, you'll soon find that just about any Jerious Norwood story ends with him bagging his prey on a hunting or fishing trip.

"I've never met anyone that loves it (hunting and fishing) like he does," said Josh Gilreath, director of the Mississippi State chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and team chaplain during Norwood's time there. "He loves football and he loves playing, but he loves being outside even more."

That much became evident to Gilreath the first time he spotted Norwood walking across campus, dressed head to toe in camouflage.

"It didn't matter what season it was, he would get up early every morning and go hunting or fishing, then go straight to class  still in his camo," said Gilreath. "But he was a really good student and he never missed a class."

Even if it meant cleaning out his catch in the parking lot before practice, which he did with the help of Mississippi State teammate and fellow outdoorsman David "Big Country" Stewart, who now plays for the Tennessee Titans. The two shared not only a love for hunting, but similar soft-spoken demeanors and country mannerisms running in sharp contrast to their tough, aggressive presence on the field.

Norwood's aggressive presence while at Mississippi State allowed the 5-foot-11, 200 pound back to start 29 of 46 games, setting a school record with 3,222 career rushing yards on 573 carries (5.6 avg.) with 15 touchdowns. As a three-year starter, he rushed for over 100 yards on 13 occasions, surpassing the previous school record of 12, set by Walter Packer and James Johnson.

As a third-round draft choice by the Atlanta Falcons in 2006, he has blossomed into a reliable ball carrier on a team left trying to create an identity around a revamped cast of players. Norwood was second on the team last year in rushing, with 613 yards on 103 carries with one touchdown, and has a career average of 6.2 yards per carry. This year he figures to split time with Michael Turner, newly-acquired from the San Diego Chargers, and sixth-round pick Thomas Brown out of the University of Georgia, who both joined the team after the departure of star running back Warrick Dunn.

And that's where the stark differences between the Jerious Norwood who steps up to the line of scrimmage and the Jerious Norwood who spends hours in a deer stand end.

Dan Davis, his football coach at Brandon High School in Brandon, Miss., attests to his commitment to excel at anything he tries  whether it's on the gridiron or in the woods.

"You can show him how to do something he's never done before  and within 10 minutes he's as good as anyone you've ever seen," said Davis. "We went bow hunting once, and Jerious showed up with this old bow and only two arrows. We tried to get him some other stuff but he said, 'Coach, just put me in a good place and I'll get a deer.'

"He was the only guy who actually shot a deer that afternoon."

In fact, come to Norwood's home during the off-season and it's not uncommon for him to answer the door with a turkey he's just shot.

Not home? Don't try to call him. He'll more than likely answer the phone in a hushed voice from a deer stand somewhere and politely ask if he can call you back.

But don't worry, he'll return your call  that's just the kind of guy he is.

"It doesn't matter if you're 7 years old or 70, Jerious comes across as a genuine person, and that's hard not to like," said Davis. "You think pro athlete, fancy car, all of those things  but that doesn't appeal to him. He can blend in with any crowd, in any community, because he's so likable."

In 2007, he created the Jerious Norwood Foundation, to reach out to children in his home state with a mission of sparking the same interest in the outdoors he discovered in himself as a child.

"It's directed towards less-fortunate kids being able to spend a day on the lake or in a deer stand with me, just trying to expose kids to the outdoors," said Norwood. "I love working with kids and I also love the outdoors, so this allows kids in the community to spend time with me doing something I like to do."

But Norwood says his hunting and fishing pursuits have also helped him become a better football player.

"Being a running back and having to wait on my blocks on the field takes a lot of patience, you know and going hunting ... you have to wait on the turkey and have a lot of patience, because a lot of times you might call and call and not see anything, but he's out there  you just have to be patient and wait it out and when the time hits, be ready," he said.

"On the field, when the time hits and the hole opens, you gotta hit it. When that turkey shows his red head, you gotta hit it."

Norwood will prepare to hit those holes when the NFL season officially kicks off with the Falcons' first regular season game against the Detroit Lions on Sept. 7.

For now, he is busy with two-a-days in the blistering Southern heat, learning a redefined running game that will feature both Norwood and Turner's complementary running styles.

How much the two will split is yet to be determined, but early reports indicate a strong "change-of-pace" style between the two runners.

FYI

For more information on the Jerious Norwood Foundation, visit his Web site.

Luckily for Norwood, if the on-the-field action gets too intense, Falcons' headquarters features a lake stocked with decent-sized bass he can cast his line after during free time. For Norwood, that's the perfect combination of his passions.

"On a perfect day, I'd rather be in a deer stand or in a boat, in the early morning on some calm water, doing some big-time bass fishing," he said. "I think I'd rather be doing that then letting these big guys try and take my head off ... on the football field, I'm out running for my life, but when I'm on a boat or in a tree stand, I'm where I wanna be."