TUSCALOOSA, Ala. and D'IBERVILLE, Miss. -- Kevin Norwood can hardly believe it's going on nine years since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, uprooting a tree that fell through the roof of his mother's Gulfport, Mississippi, home. In the days that followed, Kevin, who was 15 at the time, took to his bicycle, riding down closed roads and climbing over fallen trees, looking for safe water and food for his family. The storm did such damage, changed so many lives. Nothing would ever be the same.
Since then, storm clouds, in one form or another, have continued to follow Norwood. In high school. During his five years at the University of Alabama. As he prepared for this week's NFL draft. But here's the thing about Norwood: Where others see dark and foreboding skies, he'll find rays of sunshine. A brighter day, a better time. "I really can't explain it," Norwood says. "I'm blessed. I just know that I'm blessed."
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Kevin Norwood says his collegiate goals were to graduate and to win. Checkmate.
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Now 24, Norwood departs Alabama with a bachelor's degree, a master's degree and three national championship rings. It wasn't easy, but his career was unquestionably a success. The wait for playing time, the lessons learned after a big drop against Auburn, the endless hard work. All of it was worth it. "I left," Norwood says, "with no regrets."
In a draft class that is rich at wide receiver, the 6-foot-2, 198-pound Norwood gets lost in the shuffle. He brings a lunch-pail mentality to a position known for divas, and his career numbers -- 81 receptions, 1,275 yards, 12 touchdowns -- aren't eye-popping. His intangibles, however, might be off the charts.
"He's very conscientious and he's very smart," Alabama coach Nick Saban says. "He's always going to know what to do. He's going to do it exactly like you tell him to do it."
The Alabama faithful called him "Mr. Clutch."
"I think one of the things that separates the good from the great is being able to make plays, big plays in big moments," Saban says. "Kevin's always done that. He's always been reliable for that."
Saban and Norwood became close over the years. Saban believes the team that drafts Norwood will get "a fantastic player." It might be that Saban respects not only how far Norwood has come but how he got there.
"I don't really think you can be a great competitor -- which I think Kevin Norwood is -- unless you have the ability to overcome adversity," Saban says. "And if you've never had any, who knows if you can overcome it?"
It seems Kevin Norwood has been proving his ability to overcome for most of his life.
A year after Katrina, Kevin surveyed his situation and made a difficult decision to move away from his mother, Sandra, and live with a cousin in nearby D'Iberville. His mother had four older children; Kevin was the baby. His father, with whom Kevin never had much contact, died of a heart attack when Kevin was 10.
For Kevin, it was tough to watch his mother struggle with health issues and financial insecurity as she moved through jobs in hotel housekeeping and food service. This would be a fresh start, he decided, a sacrifice of an uncertain present for a chance at a more promising future.
Sandra supported Kevin's decision, but it wasn't easy. Unlike her other children, Sandra said, Kevin never got into trouble. "You know," she says, "you could look at him (and) say, at least you got one out of the bunch that did wonderful."
During high school, Kevin got a job at McDonald's, partly to help his mother. Sandra now works as a dietary aide at a nursing and long-term care facility. She now anticipates enjoying a Mother's Day celebration after Kevin is drafted. Kevin looks forward to the day when he can make life easier for his mother, whom he calls "amazing."
"Yes, they are very happy times," Sandra says. "I think about it every day, how my child made it."
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Though the seeds must have been planted earlier in his life, Kevin Norwood's success story -- and it is already that -- began to take shape after he arrived at D'Iberville High School. He might not have had much, but he wore a constant smile and was embraced in the classroom and on the playing field.
"Unbelievable," says Jason Hockaday, a D'Iberville assistant who then coached receivers. "You could throw the ball up to him. You knew Kevin was gonna come down with it."
Says school principal Cheri Broadus: "The teachers would always talk about him as an excellent role model, excellent student in the classroom."
In D'Iberville, Norwood met three men who would become instrumental in his life: Bo Mandal, a supporter of the high school athletic program; Rusty Waites, offensive coordinator during Norwood's junior and senior seasons; and Joe Seidule, a U.S. Border Patrol Agent (now retired), whose daughter was a school friend of Kevin's.
All of them were drawn to Norwood because of his unwavering optimism in the face of less-than-ideal circumstances; Seidule, in fact, wasn't even a football fan. Though all of them are married with two children, all grew to consider Norwood part of the family, like a son, and maintain regular -- even daily -- contact with him today.
"All of us have three kids now," Mandal says with a laugh. (When he returns home these days, Kevin gives Mandal's mother advance notice, so she can have her gumbo waiting for him.)
And all of them, independently, volunteer that Norwood's academic achievement -- he was the first person in his family to attend college -- is more significant than his football prowess.
"When I met Kevin, I thought he was almost a throwback -- always saying, 'Yes sir, no sir,' -- and he had a glow about him, always was smiling," Mandal says. "He was more mature than a lot of kids. I thought he had a lot of potential, not just in football, but in life."
Says Waites: "Kevin has the education and the background to be able to be successful in life, regardless (of) if he ever plays a down on Sunday. He's worked hard to get to where he's at today and will continue to work hard and be successful in life."
Added Seidule: "We're all wanting the best for Kevin. We love him."
In response to all of this, Norwood shakes his head and smiles.
"They're great guys," he says. "They all just took me in. I mean, they didn't even know much about me. And for them to take me in the way they did and show me the love that they did, it was real special. I'll never forget (that)."
Seidule's first impression of Norwood was a unique one: He was lifting weights at the Border Patrol office in Gulfport when Kevin made a surprise visit, looked Seidule in the eye and asked permission to take his daughter, Joycelyn, to the homecoming dance. Impressed with Norwood's sincerity and confidence, Seidule said yes -- and added that he have her home by midnight. (Kevin did.)
During part of high school, Norwood lived with the Seidule family. After he went to Alabama, he would stay at their house on visits home. When Joe's mother died in November 2009, Norwood made the trip back for the funeral.
"There's a genuine goodness about Kevin," Seidule says. "There's no phoniness to him at all. Kevin has the ability to draw the best out of people."
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It was Waites who told Norwood after he received his first scholarship offer that there would be more to come. After a senior season in which Norwood racked up 1,100 receiving yards -- and 10 interceptions as a defensive back -- Saban visited D'Iberville, sealing the deal that delivered Norwood to the Crimson Tide.
Norwood always made friends easily, and in Tuscaloosa he forged a tight friendship with quarterback AJ McCarron, who calls Kevin the best teammate he's ever had. The two struggled together as redshirts during Alabama's 2009 national championship season -- and ultimately, Norwood emerged as McCarron's most trusted target. They proceeded to win two more titles, as both were elected team captains.
Norwood, who has good hands and is regarded as a savvy route runner, turned 79.1 percent of his receptions into first downs over the past two seasons. His agent, Deryk Gilmore of Priority Sports, believes Norwood is regarded as "one of the most consistent pass catchers in a draft loaded with receivers." And McCarron, knowing others get far more publicity, believes Norwood "is the most underrated player in this whole draft, probably."
A two-year starter, Norwood caught just 38 passes for 568 yards last season in Saban's run-first offense. His seven receiving touchdowns led the Crimson Tide; his career average of 15.7 yards per catch ranks with anyone in the program's proud history.
But when Norwood is asked for a defining moment in his Alabama career, he points not to success but to failure: His dropped pass against Auburn on Nov. 26, 2010. He dropped it, he says, because he was not properly prepared. Norwood, who recounts every single movement on the play, ends with this: "We lost the game. ... I let the team down. From that day forth, I never wanted to feel like that again."
Says McCarron: "That's a great mindset to have. You might knock him down, but he gets right back up."
Norwood knows there always will be obstacles. Over the past few months, he knew there was one in particular. "People," he says, "thought I was slow."
So Norwood hooked up with Lyle Henley's combine training program at D1 Sports Training in Madison, Mississippi. For eight weeks, they trained, focusing specifically on Norwood's time in the 40-yard dash. The emphasis, Henley says, was on Norwood's "acceleration phase" and stability coming out of his start.
Norwood lowered his time from 4.61 seconds to an official 4.48 in Indianapolis. Henley's reaction: "Mission accomplished."
The next step -- the next unknown -- is the 2014 NFL Draft. The call could come on Friday night or perhaps Saturday afternoon. Either way, Norwood has no apprehension. The hard times, he says, "made me the guy I am today." He says he loves his family, his extended family. He is grateful. And he is ready.
"I can get it done, I really can," Norwood says. "In my heart, I know I can get it done at the next level."
It's funny how things work out. The future is uncertain. But for Kevin Norwood, the skies have cleared.