Aug. 26, 2012
Denial, disappointment and doubt filled up inside Warren Norman. Football is what he had done since he was running around the youth football fields as a child growing up in Stone Mountain, Ga. He couldn't get enough of the sport, but now when he wanted it the most, he couldn't have it.
Norman's last snap in a game came early in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss at Arkansas on Oct. 30, 2010. He would go on to miss the final four games of the season and then all of the 2011 campaign with a separate injury.
Now, exactly 22 months after that forgettable night in Fayetteville, Norman will see his first game action when the Commodores host South Carolina on Thursday, Aug. 30.
Twenty-two months seems like an eternity ago for Vanderbilt's football program. A lot has changed since that time for the Commodores, as well as for Norman.
"It was just humbling," Norman recalled. "Up until (getting hurt), my whole life was surrounded by football. Having to sit out kind of made me think about what would happen if I couldn't go on with my football career."
Before getting injured in 2010, Norman was on pace to become the most decorated running back in school history. As a freshman in 2009, he broke what some believed was an unbreakable record when he surpassed Herschel Walker's SEC freshman all-purpose yardage mark and earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors. In 2010, he led the team in rushing despite playing just eight games.
"Two years ago, he was one of the best backs that I'd seen," senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers said. "I hadn't seen a combination of his speed, field awareness."
Norman's first two seasons were just supposed to be a preview of things to come as he prepared for his third season in 2011, but that opportunity never came.
"Coming off my sophomore year, I had people telling me they were expecting big things out of me and in some ways there was a lot of pressure on me with people telling me I've got to do this and do that my junior year. Missing that whole entire year really hurt me."
Before donning the Black and Gold, Norman had missed a total of three games in his youth and prep career. He's now missed 17 straight. The time away has been the most trying period of his football career.
Missing the first few games was incredibly difficult, mentally, on Norman. And as the games added up, he became even more frustrated. People saw how much it pained Norman to be away from the game and reached out to lend their support, but Norman didn't want any of it and he just let his frustrations boil inside.
"At the time I was in a bad place and was kind of cutting people off," Norman said. "I was just being really stubborn I guess you could say. "
"I thought about reaching out to a couple of guys who had been in similar situations, and I had the resources to do so, but I wasn't ready to."
Being around his teammates and remaining part of the team helped Norman get through the disappointment of not being able to play. He did everything he could to be as much a part of the team as his body allowed him. He practiced as much as he could, locked himself in the film room for hours at a time and spent countless hours just going through mental reps. On gameday, he became the team's biggest cheerleader.
"It was pretty tough having to watch from the sidelines and not being able to contribute," Norman remarked. "I guess as the season went along, I just embraced it I guess. I tried to cheer on the team as much as I could and be there for them."
His time away from the field also made him reevaluate his football future. What if football was no longer in the cards?
"It definitely made me think about careers outside of football and definitely humbled me more and helped me mature as a person as a whole," Norman admitted.
One of the post-Vanderbilt career options Norman zeroed in on was teaching. A sociology major, Norman has also entertained the idea of going to grad school. "It definitely opened my eyes and ears up to other things."
Norman's injury provided him time to think about life after football, but for now he's back playing the game he loves.
On Aug. 11, Vanderbilt held its first preseason scrimmage inside Vanderbilt Stadium. That night the Commodores got their first look at the major renovations inside the stadium. For Norman the scrimmage provided him with his first exposure to full contact since 2010.
How would he hold up?
"It was a shock," Norman said of his first hit. "I got up and felt a little strange. It was like 'wow, I hadn't felt one of those in a while.' "
Norman now feels back to his regular self. "I feel like I'm doing everything; I'm cutting and running well."
"Seeing him get back on the practice field and not being tentative and keep going at it, that is the Warren that we remember," junior lineman Wesley Johnson said. "I'm sure it has been difficult, but he handled it like a pro. We're glad to have him back."
The return of Norman gives Vanderbilt one of the SEC's deepest backfields. In addition to Norman, Vanderbilt's backfield consists of Zac Stacy, Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow. Stacy broke Vanderbilt's rushing record a year ago and Seymour finished 2011 with 420 yards and five touchdowns. Kimbrow, just a freshman, is one of, if not the fastest, player on the team and has shown his speed throughout camp.
"(Warren) adds an element that is going to be something really special to this team, giving us more versatility out of the backfield," Rodgers said. "It is good to see him healthy because he is making plays like the old Warren did. It is fun to see out there, and he is going to be a huge part of our offense this year."
Just how big remains to be seen. But it's a question that may be answered as early as Thursday. And for Norman, kickoff can't get here soon enough.
"I'm not going to say that I'm glad that it happened to me, but it was definitely something that made me a better person."