Josh Norman: From obscurity to NFL to 'Dancing with the Stars'

LOS ANGELES -- Josh Norman and partner Sharna Burgess were on a couch at the far end of the dance studio devouring a late-afternoon snack. They were laughing and being playful, oozing with the same chemistry that shines on the ballroom floor.

"Time to get back to work," Norman said as he took a last bite of chicken before rehearsal for the upcoming triple-elimination semifinals of "Dancing with the Stars: Athletes."

It had been a hectic month of traveling between the nation's capital and Los Angeles, along with a side trip to his hometown of Greenwood, South Carolina, to put the Washington Redskins cornerback in position to earn a runner-up finish in the show's finale on Monday night.

But it had been a breeze as compared with Norman's journey from obscurity to NFL (and now dance) stardom.

Eleven years ago, he was sleeping on his brother Mario's couch more than 2,000 miles away near the South Carolina coast.

He had been shunned by the Division I colleges in his home state because of academic questions. He was attending Horry Georgetown Tech, not far from where his brother attended tiny Coastal Carolina.

Norman was trying to envision playing football again.



Dancing to the cha-cha and salsa at a Beverly Hills television studio in front of millions of viewers seemed as far from reality as playing in the NFL. His future looked bleak.

"That was a defining moment," Norman, 30, said as he recalled the low point of his life. "That was the bottom. Now the only thing I can do is go up."

Up began at Coastal Carolina, where in 2008 Norman was invited to play as a walk-on. It continued in 2012, when the Carolina Panthers selected him in the fifth round of the NFL draft.

It took a slight dip when Norman was benched for too much improvising after starting the first 12 games of his rookie season, then surged in 2015 when he was selected to the Pro Bowl and started in Super Bowl 50.

The following offseason, after having his franchise tag rescinded by then-general manager Dave Gettleman, the Redskins made Norman the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL with a five-year, $75 million deal.

He had reached his football pinnacle.

But not quite the height of his stardom.

Even then, Norman wasn't the household name he has become on "Dancing with the Stars," where Monday night he will compete with Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon and former Olympic figure-skating villain Tonya Harding for the Mirror Ball Trophy in the shortened all-athletes version of the show.

Norman has gone from SportsCenter to national talk shows such as "Live with Kelly and Ryan."

"He's more international now," his brother Renaldo said.

Even Burgess, his red-headed dancing partner, hadn't heard of him before the show.

"If I'm 100 with you ... no!" she admitted.

Burgess really didn't know Norman after looking into his background. She got the impression from his battles with New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and then-Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant that he was a trash-talker and genuine "bad boy."

"I thought, 'Dear God, what am I in for at this point?'" she recalled.

Now Burgess describes Norman as humble and sweet, somebody with "a heart of gold." She's blown away that he's on "DWTS" to raise money for his Starz24 Foundation that "challenges the youth to participate and excel in areas that help develop strong interpersonal skills and awareness of the world around them."

She's impressed with his dancing too, and not surprised he made the finale.

"Amazing," Burgess said. "In all honesty. We've had a lot of football players on the show, some incredible, some less so. I would say Josh is right up there with the best of them as far as learning the choreography, being able to bring his personality, A game, mental preparation."

Grueling schedule

Norman was on a natural high a week ago after advancing to the "DWTS" finale, but his mind already was back on football.

"Gotta be in D.C. to lift weights at 8 a.m.," he said of the offseason workouts that players are expected to attend even though they're voluntary.

Norman doesn't have a private jet for these cross-country flights. He flies commercial, and he seems proud of it.

The dance rehearsals, using muscles in ways he never has before, actually have helped his conditioning. It has taken his mind and body places that other offseason adventures -- jumping out of a plane, driving a stock car around a superspeedway -- never did.

"You know what, [at first] my glutes were sore," Norman said.

Burgess interrupted, "You were like, 'My butt hurts.'"

Norman laughed.

"Pause," he said. "The meat part. That's what we say."

Burgess added the ankles to Norman's list of aches.

"I felt it," Norman said. "They seemed, like, fatter."

This time Burgess laughed, adding, "You got hankles. You want hankles."

Fat ankles or hankles, it definitely has helped Norman's transition on the football field.

"Like my explosiveness went from here to here," he said. "It went up a notch. It was areas I don't usually feel. I don't use my heels anymore. I use the balls of my feet, like my toes. I'm moving faster."

'Stand By Me'

Norman just finished the best performance of his brief dance career, garnering 9s from all four judges to finish second to Rippon in the first round of the semifinals.

But before the votes were revealed, he had a playful moment with his brothers -- Renaldo (36), Orlando (34), Mario (31) and Phillip (29) -- on the stage at the far end of the ballroom floor.

Norman had picked his brothers for his MVP dance choreographed to the song "Stand By Me." He picked them not just because they have been so instrumental in his life, but because many of the other competitors picked their moms.

Norman likes to be different.

"I'm trying to express and show for sure we're going to be there for each other," Norman said on a video before the performance. "I do love them and care for them. I hope they don't see this."

Norman had an interesting way of showing that love after the performance.

"He said we were trash," Phillip said with a laugh.

Trash, apparently, is a term of affection in this family.

"He was hot trash, and now he's lukewarm trash," Phillip said. "He's made it to the finals, so he's lukewarm trash. He's not complete trash."

Let Sandra Norman explain.

"I know what he's saying," Norman's mom said. "When you're hot trash, you're just a mess. Now he's not such a mess. ... That's just how they talk."

Norman grew up competing with his brothers in just about everything but dancing. Through those moments he learned how to survive and overcome the tough times.

"Growing up with four brothers, you have to fight your way up to the top," he said.

Trash talking in dancing?

Norman has a reputation for breaking down his opponent with his physical skills ... and his mouth. He does everything he can to get into the receiver's head.

His 2015 Week 15 battle against Beckham is a prime example.

Beckham became so frustrated with Norman that he was flagged three times for personal fouls during the Carolina win. The following week, the league suspended him for one game.

There have been no such mind games on the dance floor -- yet.

"It's a different kind of competition," Burgess said. "They're all in a position where none of them know how to do this. They're giving moral support to each other, like, 'Yesterday was rough. My teacher, my coach, was awful to me.'

"They're in the same boat, so they have more of a camaraderie, instead of getting in your head with trash talking and that sort of thing."

So there's no trash talking in dancing?

"Honestly, there isn't," Burgess said. "You don't try to break anyone down because you know how dang hard it is to do it in the first place."

But Norman did have a fun moment with Chris Mazdzer, the 29-year-old Olympic luger, prior to their dance-off in Round 2 of the semifinals.

"The worst thing I said about Chris the other day was like, 'Chris, you're a luuuuu-ger,'" Norman said, making luger sound like loser, which Burgess quickly corrected.

Dancing apparently has softened Norman to the point where he wouldn't even bite when asked how he would get into Beckham's head if the Giants receiver were on the show.

"Dancing is different from football," Norman said. "I can't go out and talk trash to them on the dance floor. I'm not dancing across from him. I'm dancing individually. It's the sense of, 'OK, go out and break a leg.'"

Benched in dancing?

There was a moment in Week 2 of "DWTS" when Norman reverted to his rookie season at Carolina and began improvising while performing the paso doble.

"Freelancing" Norman said. "We picked it up from the spot where we wanted to ..."

Burgess interrupted.

"We?" she said. "You went there. I had to catch up."

Norman admitted it wasn't technically sound.

"But it was that freelancing thing I was telling her about [in football]," he said. "That guy just comes out sometimes."

As Burgess explained, "You need to lock that beast back up in the cage. There is no room for him on 'Dancing with the Stars.'"

But it's that freelancing that got Norman benched in the NFL that ultimately made him a star once he learned to control it. He still takes chances trying to bait the quarterback into throws, but he does it within the defensive scheme.

"I came back stronger than ever," Norman said.

But beyond freelancing, as well as his obvious swagger, Norman has a belief in himself that always has been unwavering -- even when he was sleeping on his brother's couch.

It's why he's not afraid to take chances on things such as skydiving and "Dancing with the Stars."

"Why would you just jump out of a perfectly good plane?" Burgess asked.

"To get past fear," Norman said. "God pushes the best things in life once you get past fear. So we have to get past it to reach our other destiny and that path-finding self-reward."

Sweet home Carolina

There's a picture in Norman's "DWTS" dressing room trailer of him on the sideline in his Panthers uniform.

"He's still supposed to be there," Phillip said.

Norman never wanted to leave Carolina. He was making long-term plans with his foundation in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area. He still talks to former teammates such as middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and quarterback Cam Newton.

"Are they going to vote for me?" Norman said, referring to the fan vote that will figure into who wins Monday night. "I'm sure they are. But still, go ahead and push for that. I need everybody."

Norman has the vote of Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks, his former position coach with the Panthers. Wilks sees the same "confident, fearless and passionate" person on the dance floor that he saw on the field.

"He's resilient and determined to succeed in all areas of his life," Wilks said. "He does not like to lose, and he's willing to put in the time. He's one of the hardest workers I have ever been around."

There's a part of Norman that would love to return to the Panthers, although at 30 and with three more seasons left on his current deal, that's not likely.

But it's the Carolinas where Norman grew up as a football player and a man. It's where he still has a ranch with about 30 horses and where he goes to escape the pressures of the NFL.

It's where he learned to dance.

Not like he's dancing now, mind you. Norman didn't know what the paso doble was growing up. The two-step that he would do in the backyard during family picnics was about the only dance he knew.

But Burgess saw in her quick trip to Norman's hometown, where he still gives back through his foundation, what makes her partner tick.

"It was so incredible to see the humble beginnings you came from, what you've been able to create for yourself and your family through persistence and dedication and hard work and just fighting for your dreams," she said, looking at Norman the entire time.

"And to see where it all started, it's still there. You haven't walked away from where you came from. You hold it very dear and, to me, that's incredible."


The chemistry between Norman and Burgess as they interact during a 25-minute interview is incredible.

There's a connection.

But no, they are not dating despite some rumor websites that suggest otherwise.

"I'm not going to lie ... we have a lot of fun," said Burgess, the only single female on the show. "We bicker and fight like an old married couple ... let's say cats and dogs. But we do have a great chemistry.

"People get that confused, that it's more intimate than it is ... I can't remember all of your brothers' names."

Norman, also single, stepped in, "So how are we going to get married? ... People are, 'Oh, you're so cute together. Y'all look so good together. Why don't you just go ahead and be there with her. Date and get married. If you don't get married, you're a fool. What?"

Born to perform

Norman dabbled in acting at Coastal Carolina. He had visions of being the next movie star, but football practice always seemed to get in the way of "the darn plays."

"So I had to choose one or the other," he said. "If not, I would have been in Hollywood with Denzel [Washington]."

There's still an actor's flare about Norman that makes him perfect for "Dancing with the Stars." Once asked who he'd be if he were an actor, he quickly replied Russell Crowe and the character he played in "Gladiator."

"Win the crowd and you win the day," Norman said.

Norman is winning the "DWTS" crowd and the judges. But he still has to find a way to out-dance Rippon, who consistently has received the highest scores.

If that means taking chances, Norman isn't afraid. On his last move in the dance-off with Mazdzer, he lifted Burgess and then let her spin in his outstretched arms within fractions of hitting her head on the floor.

"She got up and looked like, 'Where am I at?'" Norman said proudly.

A few minutes later, Norman found out exactly where he was at -- the finale.

"Got to go back, work out with my team and go to dance practice again and start this whole thing over and try to put on another great show and win it," Norman said. "Win it if you are in it.

"That's something I can go back and show my kids with Starz24 and let them know anything you do with hard work, it pays off."

It might even get you a studio trailer.

"It is definitely Hollywood movie stars," Norman said. "You know you're in the big leagues when you have a trailer."