The last Carolina Panther to break training camp Thursday is the last player to leave practice every day since camp began. He ends camp with the same drill he ends every practice.
Cornerback Josh Norman sits on the ground at the far end of the field. One Carolina Panthers equipment man stands on Norman’s left and another stands on his right, and they take turns firing passes at him. They throw only a few seconds apart, all the passes hard and some of them bullets.
Norman learned the drill from Chris Houston, the veteran Panthers’ cornerback who retired this month after being unable to come back from a toe injury.
The temperature when camp ends Thursday is in the upper 80s, and the humidity is thick. The last two practices, joint affairs with the Miami Dolphins, were intense, especially Wednesday. Players have earned the right to get off the field, into their cars, onto I-85 and back to Charlotte.
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As the Panthers leave the field, Norman runs drills with other defensive backs. When the backs finish, Norman assumes his customary position on the ground, sitting at first and then falling to the grass with his head up.
"Oh man, that’s hand-eye coordination with the ball," says Norman, who will enter his fourth season in the NFL and with the Panthers. "Chris Houston gave me that nugget. See, every time somebody new comes in, a veteran, I like to soak in what they’ve got so I can use some of it and put it in my game.
"I took Chris’ drill to a whole different level and catch two balls instead of one. You never know what position you’ll be in or what situation might come up. Sit down, prop up, catch from every angle, one hand, two hands, lay on my back with my head up and boom, boom!"
Norman devotes 15 minutes to the drill at the end of every practice.
I ask Panthers’ coach Ron Rivera if he notices.
"Definitely," Rivera says. "Before I leave the field I take a step back and look. I most definitely notice who stays. I also notice the players who leave as soon as practice ends and run to the showers."
Before Rivera meets with the media, he pauses to watch Norman.
"He really wants it," Rivera says.
You must want it.
"Man, that’s every year," says Norman. "There’s no substitute for hard work. No matter where you go, no matter what level you go to, there’s no substitute. At any given moment I could be in that position (on the ground) in a game. So I put in something extra until it becomes second nature."
I don’t know how fans perceive Norman. He is the guy, after all, who got in the training camp tiff with quarterback Cam Newton. He’s the guy who says things that are, depending on your sense of humor or lack of one, really funny. He’s the guy who watches gladiator movies to get pumped up for games. He’s the guy who this off-season drove a race car at Charlotte Motor Speedway, jumped out of an airplane (with a parachute), surfed, snowboarded and rode his horses.
Catching a football on your back or knees might not make you a better cornerback. But it might. Carolina’s defensive players do numerous drills to enhance their ability to catch the ball, and when a player drops a pass in practice, he drops to the ground. He doesn’t catch passes down there. He does pushups.
How do you become a better player? There are lots of ways. One of them is to approach veterans and ask them to share their secrets. You treat those secrets as if they’re opportunities. And practice after practice, in the nasty Spartanburg heat, you practice some more.
When his drill ends Norman walks to the chain link fence and signs posters, jerseys and footballs for fans of the Panthers and, based on their attire, the Dolphins. He poses for pictures. He signs until all the fans have what they want.
You know, practice ended almost a half hour ago. Aren’t you ready for training camp to end? Do you want it to continue?
"Oh my gosh," Norman says. "This has just been the longest. The longest.
"l love South Carolina. South Carolina (Norman is from Greenwood and attended Coastal Carolina near Myrtle Beach) I love you! You know what you’re going to get in Spartanburg. But it’s long. It’s too long."
The last player to break camp finally is ready to go home.