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Modern-day gladiator: Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman is up for any challenge

After Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman’s leaping interception against Cleveland on Sunday, he returned the ball 33 yards. It was a fine return with a bad ending. Norman held the ball so loosely it’s as if he was allergic to it. The ball was slapped out of his hand, and the Browns recovered.

I know what many fans of the Panthers thought. They thought: “Hey, Josh, why don’t you protect the ball like a normal adult football player.”

Norman, 27, is not normal.

“He has a flair to him, his own way, his own style of things,” says Carolina coach Ron Rivera. “He doesn’t march to the same beat as everybody else. He’s a unique individual. And I like who he is, I like where he is, I think he’s in a really good place. He’s come through a lot, he’s fought through a lot, and he’s learned, and he’s grown.”

Rivera talked to Norman, and the subject of the fumble came up. Rivera brought it up.

“I don’t want to take away who you are,” Rivera told him. “But let’s be a little more careful with the football.”

What did Norman say?

“He said, ‘You got it.’ ”

Norman has it – now. Last season, he was inactive for nine regular-season games. He made a mistake in the second game of the season, a loss to Buffalo, that cost the Panthers a victory. He also was inactive in the playoff game against San Francisco.

Can you imagine the Carolina defense this season without him?

Why would you try?

“From a developmental standpoint, it’s nice to see the swagger that he brings, the confidence that he brings,” says defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. “I think our players feel that, and that was evident (Sunday). Players feed off of Josh’s energy, and that’s an important part of who we are.”

Says Rivera: Norman is “a heck of a football player.”

Says McDermott: “I’m very proud of Josh. We just have to continue to grow.”

Says fullback Mike Tolbert, who like Norman played at Coastal Carolina and who knows the Norman family: “He’s a ballplayer. He wants to perfect his craft. He’s passionate about what he does, and you see it from him on every play.”

Says Norman: “I love everything about the game. It’s just like modern-day gladiators, man. Everybody wants to be (King) Leonidas, everybody wants to be Hector or Percy, everybody wants to be that guy. And I feel like I want to be that guy every time we step on the field.”

You like gladiator movies?

“Really, honestly, I watch a warrior movie every night before the game,” says Norman. “ ‘300’ is No. 1. ‘Braveheart’ is like the classic of the classics. ‘Braveheart’ is No. 2. ‘Gladiator’ is No. 3, ‘Troy’ is No. 4 and ‘Alexander’ is No. 5. After that my list goes on, but I just concentrate on those five. I don’t even bring ‘300’ out unless it’s a very special case.”

Many fans believe Norman is a special case. Why can’t he be humble and calm and professional like many of his older teammates? You winced when he got called for taunting, winced when he fumbled against the Browns and winced when, in the Cleveland game, he was called for a marginal personal foul. He was not fined for the hit.

“My hat’s off to the league,” Norman says.

Spend time with Norman, and I swear that even if you don’t like warrior movies, you’d like him.

He’s funny and candid and confident.

I talked to him after his first minicamp in 2012 and asked the predictable question: What’s it like to go against Steve Smith? Norman offered an unpredictable answer.

“Let’s go,” he said. “I’m up for a challenge.”

No nerves?

“I’m loving it,” said Norman, a fifth-round draft pick. “Going against the best brings out the best of you.”

He added that Smith had been unable to beat him in camp and that Smith had grown frustrated with his defense.

I didn’t find Norman arrogant, at least not for a defensive back (or a receiver). He was in the NFL, he was doing what he had dreamed of, and he was thrilled. Norman loved the work even after the Panthers went to training camp in Spartanburg, and Smith appeared to dedicate every moment of every practice to beating the rookie.

During our conversation Tuesday, Norman several times praised Atlanta receiver Julio Jones. He also praised Smith, now with the Baltimore Ravens.

“You have that type of competitor, you have that caliber of player in front of you, you want to see where you match up,” says Norman. “I think that if you’re passionate about something, you want to go against the best to see if you can beat the best. If you can beat the best, you’re the best.”

Leonidas might have said that. Wrestling champion Ric Flair said that.

“Yeah?” Norman says about Flair. “Well, I didn’t know that. I’m just saying it off my head. If you can match up and overcome all the adversity and win, that’s one of the greatest feelings that you’ll ever have.”

So, Josh, what are you doing Saturday night?

“I’ll be watching ‘300,’ maybe watching that Leonidas,” says Norman. “It’s all good man. It’s all getting my mindset ready. That’s what my mindset goes toward. That’s how I look at the game.”

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