Carolina Panthers

Panthers rookies James Bradberry, Daryl Worley ready to move out of Josh Norman’s shadow

Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin looks forward to playing Josh Norman

Carolina Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin is looking forward to Monday night's matchup with his former teammate, Washington cornerback Josh Norman.
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Carolina Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin is looking forward to Monday night's matchup with his former teammate, Washington cornerback Josh Norman.

The Carolina Panthers drafted James Bradberry and Daryl Worley on the same night, and neither was really expecting it.

A few days earlier, nobody was really expecting Carolina to be in the market for two starters at cornerback, let alone the possibility both would be rookies. But when general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded Josh Norman’s franchise tag offer and Norman signed with Washington as the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback, Gettleman’s priorities had to shift.

Who would replace Norman, the team’s shutdown corner in a Super Bowl season, for 2016? And who would start on the other side?

“It was a question mark,” coach Ron Rivera said, in a grand understatement.

Days later, through a Gettleman-induced twist of fate, there were the candidates – Bradberry and Worley.

One taken in the second round, the other in the third.

One from little Samford University, and one from on-again-off-again Big 12 contender West Virginia.

A small-town boy from Pleasant Grove, Ala., (population of 10,000, and nicknamed “The Good Neighbor City”) and a worldly cat from North Philadelphia, a city not known for its friendliness.

“They are kind of opposites,” said Rivera. “One’s kind of quieter; one’s a little flashier.”

And both were thrown into the post-Norman chaos.

High character

Rosie Bradberry brought up her son in structure, around examples of high character.

She and Bradberry’s grandmother Glennie raised him to be a good person, and a humble one. Rosie and Bradberry’s father, James, are divorced. They talk more now, but Bradberry did not see his father much as a kid.

That left much to Rosie, whom Bradberry describes as a formidable woman. Strong. Prideful. Resilient and dependable. She has a master’s degree and recently became a pastor.

“My mom, she handled everything,” Bradberry said. “She was pretty much like my mom and my dad. She pretty much held everything down.”

And lifted James up. Rosie used to drop him at school every day after telling him three things:

▪  “Always do right.”

▪  “Take heed (of others).”

▪  And, “Everyone’s not your friend, so don’t be quick to follow someone else – be a leader.”

Those three directives got so stuck in Bradberry’s head that when he started driving himself to school, he heard her voice anyway. And he took the lessons to heart.

Charlotte Observer reporters Joseph Person and Jourdan Rodrigue preview Monday night's NFL matchup between Carolina and Washington.

He did right: Bradberry’s high school coach, Scott Lowery, said he never had to worry about James, whether it was his play or his behavior.

He took heed of others: Bradberry loved hanging out and playing sports at the local Boys and Girls Club as he grew up, and when he got older he became a counselor at the facility. It was his first job – to earn gas money – but it was also a place that was important to him, and he wanted the younger kids to enjoy it too.

And he became a leader: Bradberry said his proudest moment was getting his degree from Samford, because he knew how much it meant to Rosie. She cried when he graduated, he said.

Those weren’t Rosie’s only lessons. She also reminded him that as he progressed through football, there was always going to be someone out there who was more talented.

“She was trying to keep me grounded, but I guess it was also motivational,” he said. “Like, work on your craft and try to be the best you can.”

And stay humble. When Rosie saw Bradberry eyeing the television and stressing himself out as Day 2 of the NFL draft unfolded, she sent him upstairs – to fix the toilet. That’s what Bradberry was doing when he got the call from the Panthers. No fancy draft party, no fanfare, just mom’s instructions and a toilet.

The NFL really hasn’t changed much for Bradberry so far. He did the interview for this story so fresh from practice that a strip of grimy athletic tape still encircled his wrist and thumb.

“I’m sorry,” he said, sincere as he extended his hand to shake. “I don’t want to get your hand dirty.”

That, Worley said, is typical Bradberry.

“James doesn’t really dress flashy,” he said. “And he doesn’t like expensive things.”

Bound to be a billionaire

Worley likes nice things, especially clothing, and he’ll be the first to tell you.

He goes by “Bruce Wayne” on Twitter, halfway in jest because he likes Batman, and because he wants to live like the comic-book billionaire.

He’s not at mansion-level yet, he acknowledges, laughing, “but hopefully in the future.”

Worley was raised in North Philadelphia, the youngest of three siblings. His brother is 40, and his sister is 33. Worley is 21.

“My parents are old, as you can tell from the ages of my siblings,” he said. “They’re very no-nonsense. … I grew up in a tough neighborhood, but at the same time I knew the right from the wrong. I stayed away from the wrong crowds.”

Worley played football in the street with the neighborhood kids, who were older and bigger and stronger.

He said he learned how to talk smack by playing in those street games. That’s also where Worley got his self-assured nature – and learned how to back it up.

“They were, like, really good. They used to laugh at me,” he said.

And those neighborhood kids loved to talk about how they were going to make it to the league one day.

“No,” Worley told them. “I’m gonna make it to the NFL.

“And it just so happened that those guys didn’t make it, and I did.”

Worley is still cocksure – easy with his grin, an answer for everything.

When the NFL Draft Advisory Board told him that he shouldn’t leave West Virginia a year early for the NFL draft, he did anyway.

“With life, you have to believe in yourself,” he said. “It was a decision that I wanted to make because I knew whether it went right or wrong, that I (was the one) who would have to live with it.”

Something Worley is still living with is an incident that occurred during his final season at West Virginia. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor assault after being accused of grabbing a woman by the throat and pushing her to the ground outside of a nightclub. He said he was defending his girlfriend, and video of the incident corroborated his story. After he performed community service, his record was expunged.

Worley showed the footage of the incident to all 32 NFL teams.

“(I wanted) to show people that there was nothing malicious that went on, and that the incident was truly what my words spoke,” he said.

“I was raised better than to ever put my hands on a woman. I feel as though anywhere I go, I have to present myself (in a) positive image and show the Panthers that when they drafted me, they made the right decision.”

A shared trait

As different as the two rookies are, both are doing something that has impressed Rivera: Evolving.

And despite their apparent differences they have two striking similarities: They are both earnest and genuine, with no hidden agenda. And any ego they have, quiet or not, is matched by the desire to prove themselves.

Each fought through an injury (in Worley’s case, two stints in the concussion protocol), and each has played better as the season has gone along. Worley led the team in tackles and had his first career interception against San Diego in Week 14. Bradberry has started to show his adaptability in coverage, and, according to Pro Football Focus, hasn’t given up a pass longer than 28 yards all season.

They’ve reached a good place, Rivera said.

“There is a point where you were hoping this is (where they) would be,” he said. “Because these are guys who have the ability to be here for awhile.”

They’ve already been around long enough for one thing: A nickname from quarterback Cam Newton.

He seems to have a nickname for everybody, and in a news conference earlier this season he said Worley’s was “Lil Daryl,” although Worley didn’t seem aware of that this week.

Bradberry is “Major James” because of his bald head.

But if Newton ever had a nickname for Norman other than the one Norman arrived with – J-No – he never shared it.

That’s where Bradberry wants to be. He wants to be known by his own name, his own reputation – not in a comparison with the player who came before him.

“That thing where they try to compare me to (Josh Norman),” he said, shrugging. “I just want to do my own thing. Make a name for myself. I just don’t want to be a replica or a duplicate of anybody else. I want to be my own person, with my own strengths and weaknesses.”

And that’s up a level up from where Bradberry, who wears Norman’s old No. 24, was when he arrived.

“I used to be ‘Lieutenant James,’ ” he said. “Hopefully soon it’s just ‘James.’”

And, Bradberry and Worley hope, soon, they won’t just be the guys who came in after Josh Norman.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue