Josh Norman, the NFL's Last True Warrior, Is Ready to Let 'All Hell Break Loose'

Washington's star gets real on OBJ, Dez and, well, pretty much everything else in an exclusive B/R Mag interview at his off-season family home
photo of Tyler Dunne Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterIn Roswell, Ga.May 25, 2017

Inside the home he bought for his mother, through the kitchen, into the living room, Josh Norman has a daughter under one arm and a nephew under the other.

"Tigers!" his daughter pleads. "I want to see tigers!"

Norman taps open the search menu on Netflix, types in "Tiger", and soon enough, there's a striped feline prowling the jungle. His daughter loves it. But the Washington cornerback is also transfixed.

His eyes squint. His head bobs—ever so slowly. His words crawl.

And he points to the screen.

Norman spends time with his daughter at his family's offseason home in Atlanta.
Norman spends time with his daughter at his family's offseason home in Atlanta.(Tyler Dunne for B/R Mag)

That tiger stalking prey? That innate ability to incite fear? That's exactly the presence he seeks on a football field. He wants everyone to tremble. Because he's the bad man who'll two-hand shuck you in the sternum, step into your personal space after the whistle, stare you down and take your soul away. 

He knows the way he attacks the game—a violent blend of King Leonidas, a gladiator and Lester Hayes—is not always welcomed. He ruffles feathers. He also knows his kind is all but extinct in a league going soft. So be it. He'll bring a "fight to the death" mentality to every snap, every game, and he's not asking for forgiveness.

Norman believes he is the NFL's last true warrior. 

So, sure, he'll likely end up fighting Odell Beckham Jr. again. He'll rack up fines for celebrating. He'll live on the edge because he's wired like that tiger on the screen.

In a two-hour conversation as he lounges on his couch in a state of zen, it’s clear there is no mind in football quite like that of Josh Norman. From his feelings on Dez Bryant (“just a guy”) and Odell Beckham Jr., (“he’s a big kid, man”) to clashing with both of them, to how he strikes fear in his opponents, Norman goes deep with B/R Mag on his rebellious, old-school mentality.

    

I. The Assassin

Initially, it's difficult to hear him. As his daughter squirms on his lap, Norman speaks so softly, so quietly. Lean forward, listen up, and each word cuts like a knife. It's as if his mind and voice are racing, each thought hurdling over the next. Norman views the cornerback position in the NFL as mano-a-mano mental and physical warfare. And in that process, he slows the game down to the millisecond...then attacks.

      

B/R Mag: You strike me as one of the most interesting men in football. Fans would love to know why that is, how that is. How are you different from any other player in the NFL?

Josh Norman: I do things, man, that are so different. ... I look at it as more of an art form more than just a skill position. ... You're captivating an audience. Back in the day, people went to those arenas to watch gladiators fight and fight to the death. I look at it that way: me playing against a competitor, a fierce competitor, and fighting that competitor in a way in which they would back in the day.

Who or what was your inspiration that made you attack the game this way?

My (five) brothers. ... We always wanted to outdo each other. ... They pretty much always left me behind because they thought I was too young. So I was always challenging guys who were older than me. That's how I got good playing versus guys on my level.

How do you turn the game into psychological warfare?

Basically I look at my opponent, who I'm going against. I see what my task is, my assignment. You've seen the movie Assassin's Creed, right? Like an agent. I look at it like I'm one of those guys. I take my assignment down and I take it seriously. I take it like this is the only thing I have to do in life and I dissect it.

How is your profession truly unlike any other, when you're obsessing with the receiver you're covering that week?

I feel like King Leonidas leading an army into battle, leading troops into defending your territory. ... This is our profession. This is what we do. ... That's why I indulge into that character because I want to be the best. People who say, "This guy can't be covered," show me that. Show me that obstacle we're faced with. Because I guarantee that I will destroy that challenge.

Norman tells B/R Mag his older brothers were the inspiration for his style of play: “They pretty much always left me behind because they thought I was too young. So I was always challenging guys who were older than me.”
Norman tells B/R Mag his older brothers were the inspiration for his style of play: “They pretty much always left me behind because they thought I was too young. So I was always challenging guys who were older than me.”(Getty Images)

So what battles have really defined you?

The ones that define me are the ones they say are the best. So when you (a) don't give a receiver 100 yards, (b) don't give up any touchdowns, (c) take him out of the game, then what? So I look at that as the sweetest satisfaction you can feel.

But there had to be a time you were fearful of a receiver?

It wasn't fear. It was a heightened sense of what was going to come. Like, "This guy's averaging over 125 yards coming into this game. ... What are the odds of me stopping this? Am I the one to give you 125 yards and a touchdown? Uh, heck no!" So for me, my mindset goes into automatic mode of woosh...woosh...and my heart is racing. I'm in the zone now.

You need your heart racing?

That's when I'm at my high, my peak. Because I'm so homed in and focused that I can almost split hairs off of a fly in that split second. You see things in a millisecond now.

Like what?

It slows down. Have you ever seen the movie Limitless? Have you ever heard of, before you get into an accident, everything slows down?

Absolutely. I felt that way in a near crash two years ago.

Everything flashes! That's the feeling I have on the field. In that moment—that second—I can see the play happen as it comes to me. That's when you tap into a whole other realm. That's when you're not only playing the game—you are the game. You're becoming the game. You're changing it. You're changing the outcome of what's going to come. It's The Matrix.

So you need an element of cockiness that you'll take down the guy in front of you?

You've got to ooze with that. You have to ooze with confidence when you walk onto the field. .. It's just like any type of animal. How they walk. How they carry themselves. They pick up on that. 

"That's when I'm at my high, my peak,'' Norman says, describing himself at his best. "Because I'm so homed in and focused that I can almost split hairs off of a fly in that split second.''
"That's when I'm at my high, my peak,'' Norman says, describing himself at his best. "Because I'm so homed in and focused that I can almost split hairs off of a fly in that split second.''(Getty Images)

When did you see fear in someone's eye?

When they don't look me in the eye. They look, and then they look down. I swear it's just like Mike Tyson said one time before: When they blink and when they look away, he knew he had them. And then, they try to play the nice role.

Who does? Receivers really say, "You're great, Josh, you're great?"

Yeah, they do that.

You have a target on your back. You're the highest paid. You talk. A big target comes with that.

It's not like I'm talking ... just to say something. I'm walking it because our action, the work we put into it, speaks of it. There's nothing by chance. There's no mythical, imagination that comes out of the freakin' blue. I don't get this way by just showing up Sundays. The work that I put in Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, all the way up to the game, is why we are what you see on the field. 

On those days, what is Josh Norman doing behind the scenes that no one sees?

Drilling. Drilling, drilling, drilling. Technique, technique, technique. Technique with any man on the field, whether they're fast, slow, quick or just a savage. Technique wins almost 99 percent of the time. ... I'm going to take away what you like to do best. I'm going to hit you in the kneecap. I'm going to hit you in the thigh. I'm going to slow you down. ... You've got a gear? I've got one, too. You bring yours and I'll bring mine.

    

II. The Bully

Confrontation is inevitable. Norman refuses to back down and—intended or not—he effectively gets inside receivers' heads. The world saw this on December 20, 2015, when Norman and Beckham Jr. treated the field like a coliseum. Both were fined. Their duel got ugly. And, now, Norman faces both Beckham and Dez Bryant twice a year in the NFC East.

He's ready for more bloodbaths. Norman won't be bullied, either.

Because Norman does the bullying—with a twist.

    

Let's get into a little word association with receivers. Dez Bryant?

That's a guy. Just a guy. Dez was Dez in 2012, '13, '14. Maybe '14. Now? He's a guy.

There's no specific aspect to his game that pops? He's bland?

He doesn't "wow" you. For me, he don't. For other guys, he probably will do the worst to them because he'll bully them. But you can't bully a bully. You know what I'm saying? That's why his game doesn't resonate to me.

Norman has found a second rival in the NFC East in Dez Bryant, referring to him as a “fake tough guy.”
Norman has found a second rival in the NFC East in Dez Bryant, referring to him as a “fake tough guy.”(AP Images)

So he comes across as a "fake tough guy?"

That's what I mean. That's his game: to bully. But how can you bully a bully?

You're the real bully out there.

If anything, it's the other way around. I don't bully people. I have conversations with people.

So what was your conversation with Dez Bryant then?

He's trying to be a tough guy and that's not him. That's not how you play ball. The media really created this "talk trash" with me. I don't really talk to these guys. They're talking to themselves. I just play them. And then they get a little snippet of me having a conversation with them and blast it on ESPN. So now when I go up against people, the coaches tell them: "Don't talk to Josh! He'll get in your head!" My coaches think I have this magic wand and just automatically make these people do something crazy.

What do you say or do then that sets players off?

I don't know. Because that year I had two or three people get thrown out of games.

Including that one game [against Beckham Jr.] you said you almost were killed.

I wish I would've let myself go that game. That's one game I wish I would've let myself go.

What do you mean by that?

Let everything go.

Like fisticuffs?

Everything. The whole thing. I was held back by trying to play it cool, trying to be a good guy. Screw that.

You get Beckham twice a year now.

Yeah, and that game gets so hyped up by the time we play them, it won't even be Giants vs. Washington—it'll be me and him. You know what I'm saying? It's like when it becomes bigger than the game. ... Because now you have us on Thanksgiving Night. C'mon, man!

So when you think of Odell, what is his game?

He tries to be a tough guy. He tries to put on this persona which he's not. Because he's always going to have his head on a swivel. Always. Always when we play each other. He's scary like that. He does things that he normally wouldn't do because of all the pressure and added hype that he has to put on his whole persona. He's not this guy. If you go back and watch the games in which we play compared to the games we don't play each other, he's a totally different guy.

How so?

When people get physical, tough, like the Minnesota game, he acts out. He's a kid. He's a big kid, man.

Like messing around with a kicker's net.

When you really, really want to see what a person's really like, you get in their face, you smell what they ate and you take their soul from them. How do you do that? You put your fist right into their chest and you see what they're made out of.

And you did exactly that with him. What did you see in Beckham?

You see a person who's actually not what they're made out to be. Because they come back at you. And that's not him. They come back at you in a way like, "He's not going to punk me! He's not going to sissy me out!" All right! But then when you go and you do things you're not accustomed to doing, that's pretty much what it is.

Norman on the hype surrounding his rivalry with Odell Beckham Jr: “That game gets so hyped up by the time we play them, it won’t even be Giants vs. Washington—it’ll be me and him. You know what I’m saying? It’s like when it becomes bigger than the game. … Because now you have us on Thanksgiving Night. C’mon, man!”
Norman on the hype surrounding his rivalry with Odell Beckham Jr: “That game gets so hyped up by the time we play them, it won’t even be Giants vs. Washington—it’ll be me and him. You know what I’m saying? It’s like when it becomes bigger than the game. … Because now you have us on Thanksgiving Night. C’mon, man!”(Getty Images)

What did he eat when you smelled that breath?

That humble pie! But like I said...

The beauty of it is if it's in the headlines that week, haven't you already gotten in his head?

Yeah, but I wouldn't even say there's beauty in that. ... When we were playing them the first time, we were 14-0. We were battling, but then the game took a whole other turn when he started doing all that extra stuff. ... That's what they were really showing and I was just trying to defend myself from it. Like, "What the heck?"

I've chatted with Stephon Gilmore up in Buffalo, and way back before that game, he called Odell Beckham Jr. a prima donna.

There's not even a word. I hope I don't catch him outside. Let's just say that.

On the other hand, there's Julio Jones.

Now, that is the ultimate challenge. That's when I can do things in a split-second, a millisecond, just choo-choo-choo. That's when I'm in that realm of floating in the air—an aerospace kind of thing. ... My senses are enhanced times 10.

But you've got to face these other two guys twice a year. You don't get Julio.

I know. It sucks. It's the worst. Because I'm just battling "guys." I'm not battling against something I can call "greatness." I'm not enhancing my craft. Don't get me wrong. They're tough. But they're not...

Not Julio tough.

Not even close. Or Antonio Brown. Someone I can actually get myself better with—my every move. He got me right here? OK, if he got me there, let me think on this. I've got to come back this way. You know? I can't do that with them guys.

Norman considers Julio Jones and Antonio Brown among the players he likes to face because of their "greatness."
Norman considers Julio Jones and Antonio Brown among the players he likes to face because of their "greatness."(Getty Images)

Who are the other receivers more like Julio Jones then? Who do you have circled on your own schedule?

Alshon [Jeffery] is going to be with us this year. He's a big guy. He uses his body. And I enjoy going against big guys because they think they can get physical with me. They think that. That's quite the contrary. ... It's those little jokers, those little buggers, you've got to get down with. I can't take a day off. You've got guys who if they score on you, if they beat you in any kind of way, it's going to get blasted. I'm the guy where, if I shut this down, that ain't going to get shown. But if I give up a touchdown? I'm the worst in the history of the world.

Doesn't that eat up cornerbacks in the NFL? That reality can consume guys and send them out of the league?

Oh my God. It can. Very fast. That's why you have to be mentally strong, man. You can't allow that to even control your thoughts.

   

III. The Rebel

Josh Norman is an unabashed "adrenaline junkie." During the season, he gets his fix at least 16 times. But when the season's over? He rides horses. He jet skis. He sky dives. He rips through narrow four-wheelin' trails back in Greenwood, South Carolina, on his Polaris at speeds up to 40-45 mph.

So when Norman says aloud that he's considering running with the bulls when he travels to Barcelona this summer, part of you believes him. If a man can outrun a bull, no receiver stands a chance.

Which is why no wide receiver in the NFL is his greatest threat. No, that'd be the league itself. Norman thrives in that split-second before the ball arrives—mind slowing down, body ready to pounce like that tiger—so what happens when the commissioner compromises that split-second? Roger Goodell's rules, limits on individual expression, fines, suspensions and more fines make Norman's blood boil.

OK, so Norman signed a five-year, $75 million contract last year. He still doesn't like where this game is headed.

     

If you were the commissioner, what would you change?

First, I would change how I handle people. For one, you don't show up anywhere. You don't show up where the players show up. So how are you going to know what they want?

Do you mean the commissioner should just be around you guys more often?

If this is the guy who is your commissioner, who makes all these rules, wouldn't you think you'd want to see him other than when you get in trouble? Why would I see you if I'm in trouble—what's the point? Why wouldn't I see you before then so you can eliminate that?

Have you ever met with Roger? Sat down with him?

I never sat down, I never met with him. I never got in front of his face. Nothing. The stuff that he does is not even cool.

Is it hard knowing how to even play cornerback with all these rules?

It is. Now you have to stop and think about it before you actually hit somebody or you're going to get fined. But where's the offense getting fined?

So what do you want your legacy to be?

Playing this sport, playing this position, playing the way people used to play it in the old days. Like Mike Haynes. Those kinds of guys. Lester Hayes. People who played it with violence and ruthlessness. Lockjaw. No pussyfooting around. No inching off. None of that softness. ... You're talking the bad boys in Oakland. Back in the day. The '70s, man.

Norman wants his NFL legacy to be as someone who played the game in an “old school way,” with “violence and ruthlessness” rather than playing it “soft.”
Norman wants his NFL legacy to be as someone who played the game in an “old school way,” with “violence and ruthlessness” rather than playing it “soft.”(Tyler Dunne for B/R Mag)

Can the league realistically get back to that?

No. You know why we can't? ... We have too many soft guys, too many guys coming up saying, "I don't know...." Playing their little off, soft technique. No. I want to play hands on. I want him to see me with my hands in his face. That's what I want you to see. In their chest, their breast plate, so they cough up air. They skip a beat in their heart kind of thing.

Right in the sternum?

Exactly. Those commentators say, "Oh, he's too touchy. He's touching him too much. Oh, just play off and get a feel." No. That's how you would play. That's how the soft mind-set of this world has us thinking now.

Is the world too soft? Is society too soft?

Everything about it is. That's why you can't touch guys after five yards. ... Screw that! Hands on. Call it if you call it. So what. You're going to have to call it all game.

And then they'll be rounding out that route a little bit.

Yes! I'm going to get him to thinking that he can't run right through you like he thinks he can. And that's the whole mentality of it, man. You don't bow down to nobody on the field, man. No offensive lineman. No freakin' receiver. No running back. Definitely not no quarterback. They'll fear me before I come. I guarantee you that. 

     

IV. The Last Mohican

Josh Norman has a softer side he wishes everyone could appreciate. Through his foundation, Starz24, he aims to give hope to kids back in his hometown of Greenwood, South Carolina. He wants Starz24 to spread to all 50 states. And beyond football, he has big-time acting dreams, too. He started as a dramatic arts major at Coastal Carolina. 

You'll be seeing a lot of Norman for years to come.

Right now? He's determined to keep his kind of player alive. He hopes more players adopt his mentality. His ruthlessness. If not, he's perfectly fine being that last soldier standing.

He'll fight to the death to preserve the soul of the game.

“I’m the last of the Mohicans that’s standing, that is in that mindset,” Norman tells B/R Mag. “What makes or breaks me is how I feel about how I do things and how I go about life inside those white lines because I’m a lion.”
“I’m the last of the Mohicans that’s standing, that is in that mindset,” Norman tells B/R Mag. “What makes or breaks me is how I feel about how I do things and how I go about life inside those white lines because I’m a lion.”(Getty Images)

Do you really see yourself as that last samurai, the last soldier, fighting for the good of the game? The league's changing. Everyone around you is changing. And you're saying F that.

I'm the last of the Mohicans that's standing, that is in that mindset. ... What makes or breaks me is how I feel about how I do things and how I go about life inside those white lines because I'm a lion. That's why I'm so glad we got DJ (Swearinger) this year because he knows how we roll. When you have a guy like that who can back you up, man? It's so good.

That must help when you're going into games against Dez and Odell this season.

Trust me when I tell you, it's going to be bad blood this year. You think the NFC East didn't like each other before? This year right here? There's going to be a lot of fines and maybe some suspensions. I'm going to be honest with you: This shit is going to get really ugly. Because I do have a safety that don't give a fuck and I definitely don't. And I know they don't have that many people on the offense who do on their side.

And if it turns south like it did that last time, you're not holding back?

I'm letting all hell break loose.

    

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.

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