The strength of a man’s character can only be defined and understood by those who know him best.
In the case of Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood, those who know him best tend to run out of words used to describe the respect that they have for a man who’s had to overcome, persevere and ultimately succeed through a difficult path.
Seen as a mid-round prospect by many NFL draft analysts, Norwood’s name continues to be listed among the ‘sleepers’ in this year’s draft.
The 6’2”, 198-pound receiver finished his career at Alabama with 81 catches, 1,275 yards and 12 touchdowns.
But once you peel back the curtain on Norwood, there’s much more to him than just career statistics or numbers in a box score.
Norwood is the youngest of four siblings—three brothers and a sister—and was born and raised in Biloxi, Miss., but moved around a bit as a kid.
He went to Middle School in Gulfport, Miss., but it was after Hurricane Katrina that things changed for his family.
In a journal published for USA Today, Norwood described the struggles his family went through after Katrina.
“I was in ninth grade. We had no lights, no water, no food. Every day, me and my friend would get on our bikes and go find food to help our family out, go find bottles of water because you couldn't drink the water – it was contaminated.
So many of those nights just struggling, getting eaten up by mosquitoes, sweating. We had the windows down, but it was still hot. We had no electricity, so we couldn't turn on the fan. It was really crazy. That was an experience that I know God wanted me to experience, just to make sure I stay humble and make sure I appreciate everything I have today.”
It was Norwood’s sophomore year of high school when he decided to move to D’Iberville, and it was there that he met Bo Mandal, a supporter of the high school football team who ultimately became close with Norwood.
It doesn’t take long to understand what kind of respect Mandal has for Norwood.
“If my daughter comes home with somebody like him one day I’ll be alright with it,” Mandal said. “He’s influenced me probably more than I’ve influenced him because I just wish there was more guys like him.”
Mandal went on about the high character Norwood has always shown with everyone who's crossed his path. And despite the obvious talent and praise Norwood receives for his play on the field, Mandal is more proud for what he’s done off of it.
“I’m more proud of him getting his Master’s degree than anything,” Mandal said. “His commitment to school was just as strong as it was to football. He’s on the leadership group at Alabama and never missed a study session.”
Three national championships, two degrees, all-time team captain and a future NFL opportunity all became possible for Norwood at Alabama, but it started for him at D’Iberville High School.
Rusty Waites, an assistant coach at D’Iberville high school, recalls the dominance Norwood showed during his junior and senior seasons.
“He was a man among boys at wide receiver,” Waites said. “With his height at 6’3” and the arms that he had, at the high school level, he just outmatched a lot of people. It didn’t matter if they put two guys on him -- he was able to have a lot of success with any number of people around him.”
While the dominance on the football field was apparent for Norwood in high school, that wasn’t what impressed Joe Seidule, a retired United States Border Patrol Agent. Instead, it was what ocurred during the story Seidule shared about his first meeting with the high school football standout.
With the homecoming dance approaching, Norwood had planned to ask a certain classmate to go to the dance with him. This classmate just happened to be Seidule’s daughter, and Norwood was told he’d first have to get permission.
So Norwood went to the office of the United States Border Patrol to speak with Seidule, who just happened to be working out at the time.
“He had enough wherewithal to come in there and shake my hand and look me right in the eye and ask to take my daughter to homecoming,” Seidule said. “Let me tell you something, it took a lot for that young man to come into that setting and do that. I was so impressed with him. He just blew me away.”
Seidule even remembered the way in which Norwood carried himself.
“It wasn’t arrogance, it was confidence,” Seidule explained. “He looks you right in the eye. I feel like I read people pretty good through my 57 years, and I said ‘Man, this guy is something else.’”
Again, it’s Norwood’s character that people rave about the most.
“He has a goodness about him that’s genuine and quite refreshing in this day and age,” Seidule said.
Norwood remembers the moment when he realized that football was something that could take him somewhere, not just something that he could look back on and say he was good at in high school.
“I was in class and one of my coaches, Rusty [Waites], brought a scholarship offer to me from Mississippi State and we just sat there talking,” Norwood said. “I was just thinking…I could do something with this. Then more just started coming in and I just concentrated on bettering myself.”
But when it came to Alabama, there was no doubt.
“It was love at first sight,” Norwood said. “I wanted to win.”
While Alabama was seen as the pinnacle of college football for Norwood, that doesn’t mean things were going to be easy after he signed to play for the Crimson Tide.
Norwood soon found out that this was the case during his first year in Tuscaloosa.
Coming into Alabama, Norwood had a resume that would impress most coaches and teammates. He ranked as the No. 22 wide receiver in the nation according to Rivals.com, and the No. 5 player in the state of Mississippi.
But he wasn’t coming to just any program—he was coming to Alabama, the nation’s premier college football program.
Things weren’t easy for Norwood, and he was ultimately redshirted his freshman year.
It was while redshirting that Norwood became close with some other players facing similar situations—including Kenny Bell, AJ McCarron and Eddie Lacy.
Norwood doesn’t shy away from the frustrations and doubts he had during that first year at Alabama. He even talked about he, McCarron and others discussing transferring from Alabama.
“There were plenty of times we thought about going other places,” Norwood said. “We always said it but we never made any moves. We just stuck it out.”
Waites understood the challenges Norwood faced when he stepped on campus.
“They’re a big fish in a little pond [in high school] and you get to somewhere like Alabama and there are those type of athletes on the roster already with the same ability,” Waites said. “I think the saying at Alabama is to ‘learn the process and understand where you fit in and the way you have to do things.’”
Norwood kept in touch with Waites during these trying times and the advice was always the same.
“The only thing I kept telling Kevin is that ‘your time will come and to be patient, and when you time comes just make the most of it,” Waites said.
Mandal remembers these struggles as well.
“We had some tough conversations with him when he was down and out,” Mandal recalled. “When he was a Freshman and Sophomore at Alabama, and he always responded to those conversations. He’s a listener, Kevin, when you talk to him doesn’t blank you out. He listens to everything everyone says to him.”
Mandal even remembers the strength it took for Norwood to tell Alabama coach Nick Saban, who approached Norwood about moving to defensive back early in his career at Alabama, that he wanted to stay at receiver.
“I’m not sure how many people would have the strength to tell coach Saban something like that,” Mandal said.
But the person Norwood talked about being the rock for him during these times was his mother, who he had seen struggle but always managed to get through whatever was in her way.
“Knowing she could fight through getting laid off jobs and then just to find another one, just to be able to bounce back, I felt like I learned from that,” Norwood said.
Norwood says his faith has also helped him get through the tough times as well, crediting a strong belief to help guide him when it was needed the most.
Waites reflects upon everything Norwood had to deal with from those early struggles at Alabama. The doubts and the numerous conversations they had about sticking with it ultimately led him down the path he is on now.
“He was frustrated and he battled through a lot of injuries and some pain,” Waites said. “Kevin is a tough kid on top of everything else. He battled through everything he needed to battle through and eventually found success and became a leader at a place that where he went to at the beginning, he felt like it might be time to come home after the first week or two.”
But through that frustration developed the player he is today and Norwood will be the first person to tell you that.
“Being redshirted wasn’t really a bad thing,” Norwood said. “It allowed me to develop as a player and as a person, and that’s what I did.”
It’s the ability to take the frustrations of not getting what you want right off the bat and channeling that into a work ethic to become a better player that’s led Norwood to this point.
It would have been really easy to throw in the towel, transfer, or simply let the situation dictate how his future would play out. But Norwood knew he had to wait his turn and continue to work, and it’s his faith and belief in himself that fueled his desire to improve.
Mandal recalled an interview Norwood had with the media his senior year that summed up the mindset Norwood had about improving his craft.
Norwood was asked about his most memorable moment at Alabama, which included three national championship seasons.
Without hesitation, Norwood mentioned the 2010 game against Auburn. Starting receiver Marquis Maze had left the game with an injury and Norwood was asked to step in for him.
On a 3rd and 10 play the pass came Norwood’s direction, and he dropped it.
“He said he went home and looked in the mirror and told himself, ‘I never want to feel this way again’, Mandal recalled. “He said ‘I wasn’t ready for that moment.’ And he said that would ‘never, ever happen again.”
His most memorable moment was the failure that fueled his desire to get better.
It’s interesting that dropping a pass was the most memorable moment for him, and it should be, because it didn’t happen often.
Norwood said he dropped only three or four passes during his entire career at Alabama.
It’s also one of the things many NFL draft analysts discuss when talking Norwood’s NFL future.
Lead NFL Draft writer for Bleacher Report, Matt Miller, recently wrote about Norwood in his latest Scouting Notebook series.
In my talks with NFL scouts this week, one name that kept coming up was Alabama wide receiver Kevin Norwood. In a draft class dominated by underclassmen at the position, Norwood is seen as one of the most pro-ready players in the group. One scout also told me Norwood has "the strongest hands" of the entire class.
It’s no secret that Alabama’s offense is built around a dominant offensive line and a strong running game, which made it difficult for a receiver not named Julio Jones to step away from the herd and make an impact.
But with good size at 6’2”, including a 4.48 40-yard dash and obviously solid and dependable hands, Norwood answers the basic questions asked of NFL receiving prospects of size, speed and hands.
For those who love to discuss the “it” factor of players, Norwood’s nickname is “Mr. Clutch”.
In the two National Championship games Norwood played in for Alabama, he combined for seven catches and 144 yards.
Put in the same position against LSU in the National Championship as the Auburn game that he deemed his most-memorable moment, Norwood was once again asked to step in and play for an injured Maze, but this time he didn’t drop the ball.
As a sophomore, Norwood caught four passes for 78 yards in helping the Crimson Tide to their 21-0 victory over LSU.
Wanting to never fail the same way as he had before against Auburn, Norwood said his practice habits are what helped him be put in the position to make those clutch plays for his teammates.
“When it was game time I wanted to be sure that I was ready,” Norwood said. “That’s why I went full speed every route at practice—to make sure I was ready.”
In addition to his work ethic, Seidule explains that it’s Norwood’s coachability that has helped him get to where he is today.
“Kevin is a sponge when it comes to absorbing knowledge,” Seidule said. “He knows you can learn something from everyone. He picks the best out of everyone and he learns from those traits.”
Seidule went even further to explain his overall assessment of Norwood.
“At the end of the day he’s a man who’s done a man’s work, and I think he’ll do a man’s work for whoever is smart enough to draft him,” Seidule said.
Mandal echoed that same sentiment.
“Whoever gets this kid is getting a steal and they don’t even know it yet,” Mandal said. “He’s going to outwork people because that’s what he does. Whether it’s in the classroom, on the field, in life or in his faith, he’s just going to outwork everyone.”
When Norwood is asked about the feelings he’ll have when he gets the call on draft day, there’s no words he could use to explain what that’ll mean to him.
Growing up watching the Cowboys because it was his stepdad’s favorite team, Norwood dreamt of one day being in the position he finds himself on the doorstep of now.
From Hurricane Katrina altering the path of his journey as a young teenager, to the roadblocks of fighting for playing time at Alabama, Norwood’s faith—along with a number of respectful mentors—has guided him to a life that’s left a legacy of success, respect and admiration for someone who can't be described in merely a handful of words by those who know him best.
And all Norwood is looking for is an opportunity, which is what he’s looking forward to on draft day more than anything.
When asked what he’ll bring to the table on the field for the team that gives him an opportunity, Norwood made it simple.
“When it comes time to make plays I am going to make plays,” Norwood said. “And when they don’t need me to make plays, I’m going to make plays anyway. I am going to be dependable."
Strength, character and dependability—words that epitomize Kevin Norwood.