Steal Your Bologna

I remember when I was a kid, nobody would pick me on their team for street ball. Not even my four older brothers would let me get on their squad. So when everybody was playing ball, I would be on the other side of the park all by myself, shooting Js on the crooked-ass rim with no net.

I’d wait for two or three hours trying to play. “Yo, I got next! Come on, man. I got next!”

But nobody was hearing it. The older dudes would just look at me like, “What the hell you gonna do about it, kid?”

I wasn’t going to do anything about it. I was skinny and shy. I’d be out there by myself, slamming the ball, yelling, crying … 

At home, I had to hide my food. I’d always cook up some eggs, grits and bologna. We usually didn’t have enough money for bacon. We only had the po’ man’s meat. If I left my plate out for a minute, my older brothers would try to steal my damn bologna, and I was too small to stand up for myself.

Then one day, they made a mistake. They messed up. They let me put on a football helmet. They let me get in the dirt. Now, all of a sudden, the same dudes who used to steal my “next” were hearing a very particular sound. It’s a sick sound, really. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it.

It’s the crack of a football helmet obliterating some poor dude’s chest protector. Then you hear him wheezing. You see the spirit draining right out of his body.

At home and at school, I was shy. But when you put me in the dirt? I was transformed. I was a savage. From the first day I put on a football helmet I have repeated the same three words to myself every time I go out on the field: seek and destroy.

Seek and destroy everything.

I modeled my game after Bob Sanders. He was only 5′ 8″, but he was a monster at strong safety. I’ll never forget the sight of that dude running downhill on a poor receiver, dreads flying everywhere, whoooom!, obliterating him like he was using the Madden Hit Stick. The ball just erupting out of the receiver’s hands.

The sound, the fury of this man. It gave me chill-bumps.

People might think this mentality is crazy or unfair. No, no, no, no. Football isn’t unfair. Life is what’s unfair. Getting your bologna taken is what’s unfair. Football is barbaric. It’s animalistic. It’s my will versus your will. It’s all those things. But it’s not unfair. That’s why I love it.

My favorite superhero since way back was always Batman. I always related to Bruce Wayne because he came up through the darkness, and so did I. Matter of fact, I trained in it. When I would go to sleep at night, I always had a football next to my bed. I’d lay back with my head on the pillow, and I’d throw the ball up into the air in the pitch black. I couldn’t see the ball, so I’d have to listen to it. I’d use my other senses to hone in on it. I’d do this for hours. I didn’t sleep much. Sometimes the ball would hit my face and I’d wake up with a bruise. But over time, I didn’t need to see the ball anymore. I could feel it coming.

By the time I got to high school, I was playing five positions. Everybody called me Mr. T because I shaved my head into a mohawk. I was a monster in South Carolina — a state champion playing both sides of the ball.

But did I get offers from the big schools? No. I did not.

Did I get an offer from anyone? No. I did not. They slept on me.

So you know what I did? I went to Horry Georgetown Technical College in Myrtle Beach and lived with my brother Marrio, who played defensive back at nearby Coastal Carolina. I went to class during the day, and when I came home at night, I would cut grass.

I’m not talking about no Remington lawn mower. All I needed was a pair of spikes. I just started backpedaling and churning up grass, and I wouldn’t stop until I was dead tired. I didn’t need orange cones. I didn’t need headphones. All I keep telling myself was, You’re hungry. You’re starving. More.

I always wanted more for myself. The only way to get to the next level was to cut grass. Wherever there is dirt, wherever there is soil — I get it in, man.

The next year, I made the team at Coastal Carolina as a walk-on. I got a pick in my first game, too. If you think I’m radical now, you should have seen me back then. I had a montage mentality. I’m putting you in my YouTube video. I’m coming for your face, every time. No holds barred.

My sophomore season, I broke the school record for interceptions. And that’s when I learned a tough lesson about being a cornerback. The offensive coordinators simply stopped throwing to my side. I’d go entire games without seeing any action. For my final two seasons, I barely had any game tape to show. I locked the receivers down so hard that I basically disappeared.

I showed up for the 2012 NFL draft in New York City thinking I was a Day 1 or 2 pick. I had agents telling me I was projected for Day 3, and I just couldn’t believe it. I’m sitting in the green room, and the second round goes by. Then the third round. And nobody called my name.

I went out into the seats at Radio City Music Hall and listened to the names of guys I knew I was better than getting called before mine. I watched them walk on stage and get their hat, and I was gritting my teeth. I was so disgusted that I flew back home to South Carolina that night.

When Day 3 of the draft started, I was at Red Robin with my whole family all packed in. They had the draft on the TV and I couldn’t even stand to watch it. The fifth round started and I was so sick that I walked outside to be by myself.

Eventually, my phone rang. Carolina number. It was Steve Wilks, the DB coach of the Panthers.

He said, “Hey, anybody else call you yet?”

I said, “No, sir. You guys are the first ones.”

He’s like, “O.K., well, don’t talk to anybody else because we’re taking you right here with this pick.”

All I could think to say was, “What took y’all guys so long?”

Coach started laughing.

I said, “I’m going to do everything I can to prove everybody wrong. Every single damn day. We’re gonna do some great things together.”

Sure enough, fifth round, 143rd pick: “The Carolina Panthers select Josh Norman, cornerback, Coastal Carolina.”

The whole Red Robin erupted. My family was going crazy.

Was I happy? I was not. I was pissed. Because that’s just who I am. That’s how I got here. Fourteen other cornerbacks went before me. I wrote those names down. Oh yeah, I did. Very few people believed in me, and I’ll never forget that.

When I got to the league, expectations were not high. But I realized something very simple early on: There are really only nine routes a receiver can run. For all the complexity and terminology, the heart of my position is still the same as it was in Pop Warner. Whether the receiver is 6′ 4″ or 5′ 10″, there are still only nine routes he can run.

Hitch. Speed out. Slant. Inside curl. Outside curl. Post corner. Post. Go. Fade.

That’s it. It’s so simple. The beauty is everything in between. The battle between a wide receiver and a corner is mental warfare. The mannerisms. The body language. The eyes.

Speed? A 40 time? Come on, man. We all fast. We’re going four yards on a hitch. How are you gonna sell me on that? How you gonna fool me so you can get to your spot?

We’re trapped in a little box together. That’s what so many scouts, recruiters, GMs and draft analysts don’t understand. That’s what they don’t fully appreciate. That’s why D-I schools ignored me. That’s why I was sitting alone in Radio City gritting my teeth. That’s the beauty of this position. It’s not a 40. It’s a war inside a little box.

Best receivers in the game?

Julio Jones and Antonio Brown.

One’s a top six pick. One’s a sixth-rounder.

Now, how can that be? They don’t look anything alike physically. But mentally, they’re animals. They thrive inside the little box. When I figured that out, I transformed and went to the next level.

For four years, I gave everything to the Carolina Panthers. I bled for that jersey. We reached some great heights together, all the way to the Super Bowl. And to be honest with you, I thought my 2014 was better than my 2015. Watch the tape.

Thing is, some people will never get over the name on my degree.

One hit wonder. Greedy. Trash talker. I hear it all. I hear you. What do you want me to say? Did I want to stay in Carolina? I did. One day you’re the hero, the next day they’re throwing sticks and stones. That’s the business. I get it. I got love for you, Carolina. Nothing but love.

But the business sent me to junior college. The business made me a fifth-rounder. The business cuts the average NFL player after three years. The Panthers made a business decision.

Was it a good one? We will see.

It’s a passing league. The last line of defense is the cornerback. I believe I’m the best at my position. If you don’t believe me, I actually thank you for it. I’ll think of you when I’m cutting grass.

Let’s just clear one thing up, though.

For real — I do not talk that much shit. Go ahead and look at the film when I’m mic’d up against Julio Jones. We don’t talk when we play. When I’m playing Mike Evans? O.K., I’ll give you that. We have some conversations. He’s trying to be about that life. I am about that life. You can’t get in somebody’s head who is already in his own head. I came up through the darkness. I was born in that. I was molded by that. I love it, man.

Does it offend you? Does it ruin your experience? What do you think you’re watching? You’re watching raw, uncut aggression. You’re watching 22 guys trying to obliterate one another.

When Odell and I went at one another last year, people got mad. Imagine that. People who watch this sport every Sunday and say they love it actually pretended to be offended. They don’t see the beauty in it. They don’t see the truth.

The guy lining up across from me, he knows the truth. There are a lot of people who watch this game, or who are paid to commentate on it, who might not understand the true reality. They might get offended. They might think we’re animals.

But Odell and I, we know the truth. Anybody who makes it to this level knows it. The truth is that on the football field, he’s trying to steal my bologna, and I’m trying to steal his.

See you twice a year, bro.