Redskins practice is over, and Josh Norman plays me a pass. I’m wearing loafers, but I do my best to trap the ball and send it back to the league’s highest-paid defensive back.
“I like soccer,” I tell Norman.
“Oh, I couldn’t tell,” Norman said.
This is a story about the strongest bond in football: Josh Norman and his soccer ball. He brings it basically everywhere he goes. When he’s training, he always has it. When he’s with teammates, he’s passing it to them. “And when I’m around the house,” Norman said, “I’m kicking it against a wall.”
Will Blackmon narrates Josh Norman's soccer skills pic.twitter.com/b0U6LLsOec— JP Finlay (@JPFinlayNBCS) July 26, 2017
Norman is one of the best players in football. At age 29, the Pro Bowler is a lockdown corner. Only two players in the NFL allow fewer receptions per snap this season, per Pro Football Focus, and only seven allow fewer receiving yards per snap. His $20 million cap hit this year is $3 million more than any other defensive back in the NFL, but his most valued possession is a white Adidas soccer ball with multicolored stripes—a replica of what they used in France’s Ligue 1 last season.
The way Norman tells it, the ball isn’t just an obsession—it’s a useful tool. While normal football drills are important, they’re also repetitive. Norman believes that they just don’t give your feet the type of adaptability and improvisational skills that playing around with a soccer ball might.
“It helps my feet,” Norman said. “My footwork is essential to what I’m doing in my career. I’m trying to guard receivers and I need to keep my feet moving, so I keep my feet moving with the ball.”
It’s not just a training tool, though. When the team’s mulling about the training field after practice, Norman loves passing the ball to an unsuspecting teammate just to see how he’ll react, similar to what he did to me.
“I just like getting guys involved—I think it’s a social-skill thing. You pass it to them, have a conversation with them, and you can also see their footwork, see who does a good job,” Norman said. “I started to implement my DBs with it because it helps footwork. If you can do different things on the field with the ball, if you can [Norman makes some dramatic cutting noises], you say, ‘Oh, OK, maybe that footwork has something to do with it.’”
Plenty of his teammates enjoy it.
“He shares the ball with everyone,” said defensive back D.J. Swearinger. “It’s a team-bonding thing. It’s how he connects with everyone on the team.”
Others have mixed reviews.
“I cannot kick the soccer ball,” said defensive back Deshazor Everett. “I don’t want to be involved because I would be the guy who steps on the ball and slips and falls.”
In 2000, Norman, like most kids, started playing FIFA with his brother. He developed an appreciation of soccer through the video game, but he became obsessed in the summer of 2015, when PSG played an exhibition match in Charlotte while Norman was still with the Carolina Panthers. He went to the game, met PSG star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and decided he’d have to see a game in Paris for himself.
“I’ve been rocking with them ever since,” Norman said. He struck up a friendship with Ibrahimovic and attended the Swedish superstar’s last-ever home game with the club in 2016. “He gave me some tips here and there,” Norman said. He has trained with PSG for two consecutive offseasons now. He’s hung out with stars like Manchester United’s Paul Pogba.
“Those guys don’t think [American football players] can do much on the pitch,” Norman said. He was happy, then, to prove himself over the summer against PSG goalkeeper Alphonse Areola. “I was kicking it with Areola and we decided to do penalty kicks,” he said. “I hit three of five. I kept setting him up [Norman again makes some dramatic cutting noises] and scoring. The ones I missed were wide left. He didn’t block any.”
Like most of us, Norman is better at FIFA than actual soccer.
“He busts me pretty good,” Swearinger said.
Norman claims he’s by far Washington’s best FIFA player.
“I’ve played all the FIFA heads on the team,” Norman said. “I don’t know who is second because they are all fighting for that second spot, and if you are the top, you don’t look down.”
But not everyone is so sure. During training camp, Su’a Cravens, who’s not currently with the team, told me that he twice beat Norman 3-0 before the Browns-Redskins game last October and that Norman then swore off playing him.
Norman has a different version of the story: “I got a $200 entry fee. If you don’t pay the fee, you can’t play, because I’m the best.”
Whatever happened between the two, Norman takes the “entry fee” very seriously. He told me that he was upset that an undrafted free agent, Nico Marley, wanted to play against him during camp. “I told him his entry fee is $500. You can’t come from the bottom and expect to play the top guy.”
For all of Norman’s talk about his FIFA bona fides, he’s been humbled by the Beautiful Game. “Right now, I’ve been working on my bicycle kick,” Norman said. “It hasn’t been going very well lately.” Rather than waiting for someone to set him up with some crosses, Norman found another solution: “I bought a machine that throws the ball to me. I got it a few months ago.”
As you might imagine, Norman’s Tom Hanks–in–Cast Away relationship with his ball has invited plenty of jokes around Washington’s facilities, but as he’s become more adept with the ball at his feet, the jibes have begun to disappear.
“You get the jokes—but it’s not like, ‘What’s this ball doing here.’ It’s more, ‘You can’t do anything with that ball.’ But once they see me, they get it,” Norman said. “So there aren’t any jokes anymore.”