Broncos WR Jordan Norwood in a 2016 game. (Photo Courtesy: Jeffrey Beall/CC License https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode)
Jordan Norwood played 8 seasons in the NFL with the Browns, Eagles, Buccaneers, and Broncos. In 2015, Norwood won a Super Bowl ring as a member of Denver’s championship team that beat the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
Norwood also holds the record for the longest punt-return in Super Bowl history with a 61-yard return in that win against Carolina.
On September 10, the first Sunday of the 2017 NFL season, Norwood retired from the NFL. An outspoken Christian, Norwood shared his goodbye note from the Pro Football in a post on his twitter page.
You can read the entire note below.
I’m 5’11”, weigh 175 pounds on a good day, run 40 yards in 4.6 seconds, have never even tried to bench 225lbs, and have never been able to say I ‘love’ playing the game of football. So, how did I manage to stay in the NFL for eight years and play a total of twenty-three years of organized football?
Well, the short answer is Jesus. But the long answer; I’ll take a stab at filling you in on. Hang with me.
As I tried to think about where the courage to go across the middle as an undersized slot receiver was born, it brought me back to my childhood. My older brother, Gabe—who is just twenty months older than me—and I used to play this great game in my parents bedroom as kids. My dad would stand with a football about 5 steps back from the foot of his bed, while Gabe and I opposed each other about five steps back from either side of the bed. On my dad’s signal we would sprint toward the bed, diving directly at each other, all while my dad laid the perfect pass out there to ensure a tough catch for whichever of us was more willing to ignore the sure contact. Great game right!? And even better parenting.
My dad has been a college coach for more than twenty years, bouncing around U.S. campuses and now finding himself at Tulsa University. When I say that I never ‘loved’ playing football, there’s no bitterness toward this game that has had such a positive influence on my family, nor is there any annoyance toward being its spectator. The statement has less to do about how football makes me feel and more to do with how careful I am with the word ‘love’. In short, I’d rather reserve that particular word for human interactions and for worshipping my Father in Heaven. When someone asks me if I love my car, for example, my stomach turns and I say “Oh yeah, I really like it” with a faux smile and exaggerated head nod.
But, how did I play a sport for twenty-six years that I didn’t ‘love’? Sounds miserable, right?
Though I joked a bit earlier about my dad’s parenting skills, that’s all it was. My mom and dad both—Brian and Tiffiney Norwood—got me hip to being a lover of people and of Jesus, whether they know it or not. The ‘pleases’, ‘thank yous’ and ‘let me help you with thats’ along with the love, gracefulness, and mercy they showed me, showed me Jesus in action. That introduction to Jesus completely changed the trajectory of my life, the motives of my life, and ultimately my ability to even call it ‘my’ life at all.
I had never really defined my relationship with football growing up. As I remember it, I always enjoyed playing and was always good at it. It was my senior year in college that one of my friends, in the middle of a party, asked me why I played football, in the most non-offensive way that a question like that could be asked. She just wanted to know. The first words out of my mouth, accompanied by a chuckle were, ‘well, I definitely don’t love it.’ Yikes. I went on to say that God had blessed me with the talent to play, so it would be selfish of me not to play and play my best as to honor Him. I wonder if she remembers asking me that?
That question and answer has stuck with me ever since. Unfortunately, that answer sticks a little better when things aren’t going too well. Like when I didn’t get drafted in 2009 (it’s OK you’re playing to honor God), or when I got cut by the Browns the first time (it’s OK just honor God), or when I got cut by the Eagles (honor God), or sprained my foot, or when I got cut by the browns the second time, or cut by the Buccaneers, or tore my ACL, or muffed two punts on national TV—it’s ok you’re playing to honor God.
For me, it was more difficult to honor Him in the midst of my worldly successes than in my worldly failures.
It could take as little as three catches in a Sunday afternoon game, to shift my mind from honoring God to honoring these bottles I was about to pop on West 6th street that night. My NFL career, and life to this point in general, has been an endless cycle of pride to humility and humility to pride. I can only hope that the periods of pride continue to be shorter, fewer, and further apart as I get closer and closer to Jesus.
At the most obedient and humble time of my NFL career, I had been injured, cut twice, out of football for a year, and completely dependent on the strength of God to carry me to Denver for a tryout. When the Broncos decided to sign me, and I soon tore my ACL trying to catch a pass from ‘the’ Peyton Manning, I chalked it up to God saying I needed more humility to prepare me for something big. My ACL tear gave me an opportunity to meet and get engaged to my now-wife, Aleah, and to begin to see a future with kids, which I had all but given up on. But, when it came to football, I knew that God had something in store for me. And I was terrified of it.
After recovering from the ACL and being out of football for two and a half seasons, I lined up on the first play of the game and 2015 season against the Baltimore Ravens. Breaking the huddle in Mile High Stadium with Peyton Manning at the helm and DT and Emmanuel Sanders flanking the outside WR spots was unreal—and I had a feeling that God was about to give me an opportunity to make good on my promise to honor Him. As the story goes, we go to and win the Super Bowl that season, and I, of all people, set a Super Bowl record for the longest punt return ever.
Before that punt return, I was sitting on the bench with Emmanuel Sanders, as I sometimes did while the defense was on the field. He was the starting punt returner for that game and we got on the topic of me going back there for the next punt return instead of him (I won’t go into detail). But, we agreed that he would say something to the special teams coach and get the OK for me to head back there—normal protocol for us that season. Coach D’s call on the field was for it to be an attempt to block the punt, meaning, as a punt returner, I wouldn’t have much blocking for a return. Needless to say we didn’t block the punt, I blacked out catching the ball without fair catching it and I came to as I was running down the sideline thinking that I was about to score a touchdown!
And that’s that.
That 61 yard, non-touchdown punt return and that Super Bowl game will give me a platform to share the good news of Jesus for the rest of my life. Whether it’s talking with old friends, sharing on social media, interacting at a youth football camp, or standing up in front of a church congregation, the platform has been created.
Of course, there’s another side to my life and football career, as I previously stated, that directly opposes the obedience and humility of that Super Bowl story. As quickly as I took the podium after the Super Bowl to shout Jesus’ name as many times as I could, I began to think that I had done something pretty special—that, you know what, I am a pretty good football player. The way I approached free agency that off season and the way I approached the next season was like someone on a mission to make a pro bowl—which, for me, wasn’t a good thing. It meant that I was getting in the way of any of the good things God had for me.
If you want to block yourself from God’s blessings be proud.
Unfortunately, we tend to think that worldly success (i.e. money, nice car, attractive significant other) equals God’s blessings or even signifies favor with God. Although, those could be a part of it, it could also be quite the opposite. God’s blessings often times look nothing like worldly success—just take a stroll through the beatitudes in Matthew 5.
For me, pride has shown itself in all types of ways throughout my career. In one game last season, my pride got torn to pieces! Throughout the week leading up to this game, we installed a punt return play where no one really blocks for me. Lol. Obviously, this was what one would call a ‘trick play’ and though I had major reservations about doing the play in the game, I kept my mouth shut—letting my pride tell myself that “I got this.” Late in November, we had a Sunday night football game and Murphy’s Law was in full effect—for me, at least. After one, muffed punt return that I was able to get back and keep possession in my team’s favor, we later decided to call the punt return play that caused me a bit of apprehension throughout the week. The ball was punted, I caught it, and with little blocking I got hit pretty good in the side of the neck and head. Pride even showed itself on that play—having made a mistake earlier, pride forced me to catch the punt and try to execute the play, although, I could tell there wasn’t going to be time to make it work… I should have waved for a fair catch. At the end of the play the trainers and medical staff noticed that I got to my feet with some trouble establishing my center of gravity. As we see players do every week, I headed to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion.
My pride wasn’t done yet. My pride wasn’t going to let a muffed punt and failed play define that game for me. Plus my pride wouldn’t let the back up punt returner go out there, who I knew did not get much practice at the job that week. My team needed me and I was going to be sure to be the one to get back out there and turn this all around. My pride gets me back out on to the field a quarter later, perhaps, and my first play back out on the field from the locker room is another punt return—my pride’s chance to redeem itself.
If you’re a fan of the Broncos you know what happens next. I drop another punt, get hit in the head again in the process, and this time our opponent recovers the ball. As I get to my feet trying to regain my bearings, the first thought that came to my mind was that, “Jordan, you need to pray.” [Yes in the third person, because I was outside of myself.] Before, I knew it I was being shoved to the sideline by my own teammate and may even have had 70,000+ fans booing me—that latter, I don’t know because my senses were so scattered. My pride had set myself up for ultimate humiliation and humbling. Both of which I needed. I made my way to the sideline, took a knee in prayer, starting and ending with thanking God as I always do.
The rest of that game, was much of the same for me. I don’t recall doing anything right and do recall us losing that very important conference game. The rest of that season kept moving forward, and I did what I would do whenever God finally got my attention that my agenda isn’t His agenda—I leaned on my wife and family, I dove into the Word of God, I prayed, and I tried to get to know Jesus better.
He made it clear that I didn’t have to keep acting like I loved the game of football. He made it clear that the game gave me and will continue to give me opportunities to honor Him. It lead me to meeting my wife in Denver, getting a family started here, and finding a place that I can call home after years and years of moving around the country.
All of that said, I am excited to be able to call myself an NFL alumnus.
If you’ve read this far, I’d like to contradict the world with some quick-hitting encouragements based on my experiences and my faith walk:
It’s OK to doubt yourself.
Love people, not the stuff that people have created.
Don’t mistake your job for your identity.
Be proud if you want to be. Be humble because He wants you to be.
Your feelings and emotions can and will fool you. What does God speak into your heart while you are the most sober-minded and content?
If you’re interested in me elaborating on any of those points just shoot me a message or email—I’d love to chat. In fair warning, my answer to most questions revert back to my aim to honor my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Big thanks to: My parents, siblings Gabe, Levi, Brianna, Zaccariah, my wife Aleah, Coaches Tyke Tolbert and Gary Kubiak, Reggie Hodges, Jason Avant, Pro Athletes Outreach, Joe Paterno, JB Gerald, Mike McQueary, Kenny Carter, Peter Schaffer, David Hutchinson, Dan Ward, Jamil Allen, Deon Butler, HS Coaches Drew Frank, Dave Lintal and Gasporato.