11:25 a.m. Friday -- It's May in Paris, and Josh Norman and I are standing in the Louvre Museum. We are politely swimming through a sea of tourists, hoping to see some of the world's greatest art. We are sleep-deprived from our trans-Atlantic flight. Neither one of us can speak a lick of French. For Norman, it's his first time out of the United States. Culturally, we're flying blind.
It's the perfect time to contemplate just how gauche it would be to take selfies with the Mona Lisa.
"Man," Norman says, "I'll do it if you will."
We decide, after a few laughs, that we don't care if it makes Ugly Americans. We want pictures. A hundred tourists surround us, all jostling for position, while we linger in the Mona Lisa's gaze. Norman, one of the NFL's best players, goes unrecognized. It feels good to disappear in public.
It's been a wild few months for the 28-year-old cornerback. In rapid succession, he was named a first-team All-Pro, played in Super Bowl 50 and was franchised by the Panthers. Then the team surprisingly rescinded the tag, releasing him and claiming the two sides couldn't work out a long-term deal. To Norman, it was a gut punch, one he didn't see coming. For a full day, he was so shaken, he didn't want to leave his house. He couldn't eat. He felt betrayed. The league was just as puzzled by the unceremonious dumping: Why get rid of a top cornerback just entering his prime?
On April 22, Washington swooped in and made Norman the league's highest-paid corner with a five-year, $75 million deal and $50 million guaranteed. Other teams were offering more, he says, but Washington's dogged pursuit stirred something in him. "They wouldn't even let me leave the building until I signed," Norman says. "They held me hostage." After years of clawing his way to the top of the NFL food chain, after years of feeling like he had to restrain parts of his personality in a buttoned-up Carolina organization, he now feels both secure and free. This Paris trip is an extension of those feelings -- and a search for something else.
"How do you think she got to be so famous?" Norman asks. "What was it about her that was so important and made her the greatest?"
At first, I think he is genuinely curious about the story behind the Mona Lisa. But in the days that follow, I realize Norman's question is actually philosophical.
How do you go down in history as one of the greatest?
Norman has come to France at the invitation of one of the world's greatest soccer stars, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Rumors swirl in the media that tomorrow's Paris Saint-Germain game against FC Nantes might be his last there, that the Swedish striker might be headed for Manchester United.
"[The NFL] is a dictatorship, and [NFLPA director] DeMaurice [Smith] is in cahoots with those guys."Josh Norman
Norman has followed European soccer for years, originally getting hooked by playing hours of FIFA. He met Ibrahimovic, 34, when PSG played an exhibition last year against Chelsea in Charlotte, and they immediately bonded during a postgame locker room conversation.
There's a reason Ibrahimovic is the athlete Norman most admires. Both are brash and charismatic. Both are breathtaking playmakers and unapologetic trash-talkers. Ibrahimovic once told the French media, "I can't help but laugh at how perfect I am."
"When he scores, the whole place does this thing where they yell out his name three times: Zla-tan Ibrahimovic! Zla-tan Ibrahimovic! Zla-tan Ibrahimovic!" Norman says. "I can't wait to be in that stadium yelling along with all those fans, man."
We are walking in the direction of the Venus de Milo when we get an email from the club's spokesman, calling our attention to a tweet from Ibrahimovic.
My last game tomorrow at Parc des Princes. I came like a king, left like a legend.
"He really said that?" Norman squeals. "Oh s---! Man, I love that so much. I'll tell you what, he is something else."
Like Norman, Ibrahimovic is beginning a new chapter of his career. Unlike Norman, his club is celebrating him on his way out. The game promises to be a spectacle, with fireworks, music and a lengthy highlight reel of every goal Ibrahimovic has ever scored. "Kind of funny how that works, huh?" Norman says.
12:15 p.m. -- Spend any time around Norman and it's easy to understand how he became one of the NFL's most interesting, and polarizing, players. Riding in an Uber past the Eiffel Tower and during hours of idle conversation over the next two days, he offers thoughts on everything and everyone, including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ("Horrible. He's straight horrible."), the league's crackdown on big hits ("What happened to us? Society is so soft.") and Washington's nickname ("Redskins is not offensive to me. I'm part Native American on both my mom's and my dad's side. It's kind of a funny thing, though. A redskin playing for the Redskins.").
Now that he's out of Carolina, he feels even less constrained. The Panthers wanted him to tone down the trash-talk, and he reluctantly complied. But in Washington, there are no such restrictions. Yet. In that sense, this season sets up to be either the next step in Norman's ascendance or a huge mess. He knows that every comment might open him up to criticism, but he's not holding back. As he has said: "That's just not me, man. I'm not fake."
More than any other topic, Norman can't help himself when it comes to Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Their near brawl during Week 15 last season is the reason much of America is now familiar with Norman. It started innocently enough. Norman, who playfully refers to himself as Batman, felt like Beckham was trying to send him a message by wearing cleats and gloves featuring the Joker's face. "You have the top cornerback and a top receiver facing off, and it's like Batman and the Joker in a showdown in Gotham City," Norman says.
The bad blood intensified when Norman swung a baseball bat on the field during pregame warm-ups. "It totally unnerved him," Norman says. Harsh words morphed into scuffles, then worse. During the game, Beckham head-butted Norman and stuck a hand inside his face mask. Norman shoved, slapped and at one point body-slammed Beckham.
The two players combined for five personal fouls (Beckham three, Norman two), but it was Beckham who escalated their feud in the third quarter. On a running play, he sprinted downfield, then ran at Norman's back. He left his feet and put the crown of his helmet in Norman's ear. Norman, dazed, immediately felt like a line had been crossed. He went after Beckham and had to be restrained. Neither was ejected, but the NFL later suspended Beckham for one game and fined Norman $25,000. Norman says effects of the hit lingered more than a week.
"I get that he makes the owners money, but literally anyone could do that. A dog could. He's a dog in a suit. ... Horrible. He's straight horrible."Josh Norman on Roger Goodell
The melee was ugly and embarrassing for the league. "I don't think I'm going to change the way that I play, but I think I'll change the actions that were on the field that Sunday," Beckham later told reporters. "It's not something that I would want the kids looking up to and learning from me."
As for Norman's role in what transpired, he has no regrets. He claims he did not bring the bat to the field to threaten or intimidate Beckham. He says the black Louisville Slugger became like a member of the team after Panthers coach Ron Rivera used it in a motivational speech about standing up for yourself. Norman says a practice squad player took it onto the field and handed it to him. "I was just swinging it for fun," he says. When I raise a skeptical eyebrow, Norman just laughs.
The two players have been trading barbs on Twitter and in the media ever since, with Beckham recently telling GQ: "The reason he's become so relevant is because of me."
With Norman now in Washington, it means they'll face off twice a season in the primes of their careers, and Norman has zero interest in letting bygones be bygones. "Everybody saw what he was," he says. "People from around the league were coming up to me afterward and saying, 'He does that crap all the time.' He lost so much respect from people for that little tantrum. I've already got a couple people telling me, 'OK, I've got a hit out on him.' It's going to be rough for him this year. And he brought it on himself.
"He's skilled and talented," Norman says. "I won't take that away from him. But he's never been through any adversity in his life. It's like, when are you ever going to grow up?"
2 p.m. -- When we arrive at Paris Saint-Germain's training facility, we're offered a tour. Norman is in awe. The grass on the practice field is so tightly manicured, it looks like a two-acre putting green. He's brought a duffel bag full of Washington T-shirts, jerseys, hats and gloves, and he starts handing them out to PSG players. Many of them approach with gleeful enthusiasm, intrigued to see an American athlete so fascinated by soccer.
An assistant working for RedOne, the world-famous music producer who won three Grammy Awards working with Lady Gaga, is at the facility, shooting footage for a music video. His new pop song, "Don't You Need Somebody," would be released later that month. RedOne wants to know whether Norman would like to join a few PSG players for a cameo. The video will be packed with celebrities: Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Seacrest, Cristiano Ronaldo, Milla Jovovich. "Man, I'm going international!" Norman says. "Three sixty-five, worldwide, baby!"
Eventually, Ibrahimovic emerges, flanked by a multi-person entourage. He glides across the room and hugs Norman, as if they are old friends.
"[Beckham] lost so much respect from people for that little tantrum. I've already got a couple people telling me, 'OK, I've got a hit out on him.' It's going to be rough for him this year."Josh Norman
"Remember the last time I saw you?" Ibrahimovic says. "Remember what I told you?"
"I sure do," Norman says.
"I told you I was getting too old," Ibrahimovic says. "It did not matter. I still destroy everybody this season."
Norman doubles over in laughter. Ibrahimovic congratulates him on his new contract, then abruptly announces that he needs to depart. He is not practicing today. "I want to talk to you more," he says. "I have to pick up my kids. I don't want to miss the train. We will talk more about training and working hard. Come to my celebration."
After practice, several PSG players coax Norman onto the field, encouraging him to take a few shots on goalkeeper Kevin Trapp. Norman can't stop grinning. He dribbles awkwardly, then rips a low shot toward the net. Trapp easily deflects it, but Norman gathers the rebound, squares up again and blasts his second shot over Trapp's fingertips and into the back of the net. Trapp smiles as his teammates erupt into laughter, and Norman sprints to the edge of the box, slides to his knees and roars in mock celebration. Half the team dogpiles on him, a genuine celebration for a fake goal. For Norman, this scene had been a fantasy for years.
8 p.m. -- The Hotel Costes is one of the nicer restaurants in Paris, renowned for its wine list, gold-and-red Napoleonic ambiance and trendy cocktail bar. It is extremely difficult to get a reservation, but Nicolas Serres, who works as PSG's brand and communications manager, has secured one for us. Norman cuts right to the chase with our waiter. "Do you have chicken alfredo?" he asks, grimacing as the waiter shakes his head. "How about a filet mignon?" He settles on the steak but wrinkles his nose when it arrives with thin-cut European-style frites. "Can I get some regular french fries?" he asks.
The mood is light. Norman is still beaming over his goal. He wants to post a video to his Instagram, and he has his phone out when he gets an email from a friend. He turns to show me the screen. There's a video clip circulating of a Panthers fan burning his jersey over a barrel. "F--- Josh Norman!" the fan growls.
How does that make you feel? I ask.
"Man, I don't think I even really care," he says. "It is what it is. Those people weren't even with me last year. It was only this year they loved me."
It stings a little, though. After all, he wanted to sign with the Panthers. He was willing to play under the franchise tag. It was general manager Dave Gettleman who decided he wasn't going to sign Norman to a long-term deal, then released him, leaving Norman feeling blindsided. He says the Panthers never really gave him a reason; they simply moved on. Shouldn't fans be mad at them, not him? (The team responded to a request for comment by wishing Norman "nothing but success in Washington.")
"Have you ever once been one of the top 20 quarterbacks in the league? Not that I remember -- and you want more money? I can't wait to play him twice a year."Josh Norman on Eagles QB Sam Bradford
It's hard for Norman to let past slights go, going back to when he was overlooked and underrated coming out of high school. He grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina, the fourth of five brothers. His father was a chaplain at a medical prison, his mother a nurse. He stayed out of trouble, but he didn't mesh with the rigid structure of high school, and he didn't have the grades or the SAT score to get a Division I scholarship. "I felt like no one knew me," Norman says. "Rivals was a big thing back then, but you had to go to these big camps to get noticed. I couldn't afford to go to any of them."
He ended up sleeping on his brother's couch, going to junior college for a year and then walking on at Coastal Carolina, where he blossomed into a star. "I always put my head down and worked," Norman says. "Just me and my spikes, hitting the grass. ... I knew I had that killer instinct, though. If you don't have that killer instinct, that annihilation killer in you, you'll never be great."
His confidence hasn't always endeared him to authority figures. In college, he developed a reputation as both a playmaker (13 career INTs) and a gambler for his willingness to take risks outside the structure of certain coverages. It led to a tense relationship with the Coastal Carolina coaches. In the lead-up to the 2012 draft, teams grilled Norman about his freelancing, and he felt under attack. Several predraft scouting reports included ambiguous notes about "character concerns" and "maturity level."
The memory of one meeting -- with the Giants, interestingly enough -- still infuriates him. They were "trying to get me to admit that I wouldn't listen to coaching," Norman says. "That I was a dirtbag. They kept asking me the same question, wanting me to admit to something I didn't do. I ended up breaking down in the room." Norman stormed out and called his agent in tears, he says. "I don't ever want to go there," Norman told him. "Ever. I'd rather play against them."
When he ran a pedestrian 4.66 in the 40 at the NFL combine, it sealed his fate as a late-round pick. Fourteen corners were chosen ahead of him before he went in the fifth round. He still carries that slight with him today. Now he has a new one to fuel him: The scuttlebutt is that Gettleman let him walk this offseason because he was a "system corner," unable to cover both sides of the field. Like a wronged superhero, Norman does not forget.
"I knew I had that killer instinct. If you don't have that killer instinct, that annihilation killer in you, you'll never be great."Josh Norman
Despite his bravado, Norman is often his harshest critic. He is still furious with himself for not reeling in two Peyton Manning passes he thinks could have been interceptions in the Super Bowl loss to the Broncos. But in the next breath, he points out how badly he shut down Demaryius Thomas, who had just one catch for 8 yards. "I don't know what he was out there for," Norman says. "He was supposed to be an all-world guy, and I shut him down."
After dinner, Serres and two other members of PSG's communications team meet us for a drink. They seem fascinated by Norman and are eager to understand more about the NFL.
"It seems there is lots of controversy with your officiating," says Serres, a tall and wry Frenchman. "Why do you think this is?"
"I think it's the mob," Norman says. "I think the refs are in cahoots with the mob."
The whole table laughs. It's difficult to discern whether he's joking. He delights in playing it straight, making us scan his face, looking for a tell.
"What will you do if ESPN uses that quote in your article?" Serres asks, gesturing with his drink in my direction.
"I mean, if he thinks it should be in there, he should put it in there," Norman says.
"Would you say you are the best cornerback in the league?" Serres asks.
"Nah, man," Norman says. "I'm the best cornerback on Earth."
10 a.m. Saturday -- We plan to do more sightseeing, but first Norman asks if we can return to the Louvre. He forgot to fill out the paperwork that allows U.S. citizens to apply for tax refunds on goods purchased in France. He wants to make sure he gets the roughly 20 percent refund on the $400 in items he purchased at the gift shop.
"People look at you like, 'C'mon, man, you got it. You got paid. Can you hook me up with $5,000?' Well, that's what happens to people," he says. "They stop paying attention. All of a sudden, they don't have it anymore. That won't be me."
Over lunch across the street from the Notre Dame Cathedral, I ask if there's anything he'll miss about Carolina. It's complicated, he says. Unlike Ibrahimovic with PSG, he didn't arrive a legend. The Carolina coaching staff helped him mature, he concedes. He still has warm feelings toward Rivera. Owner Jerry Richardson was a genuine mentor. The organization taught him about accountability and integrity, he says.
But when he became a star, he also felt muzzled by the Panthers' conservative front office, which made it clear his brashness wasn't welcome. Norman wonders whether that factored into their eventual divorce. "They kind of shunned me," he says. "They turned down a lot of stuff for me, interviews, sponsorship deals, stuff I didn't even know about. They wanted it to be about the two main guys, Cam [Newton] and Luke [Kuechly]."
Will things be different in Washington? I bring up the fact that the franchise doesn't exactly have a reputation for stability. In a competitive media market like DC, reporters will be eager to pounce on his words. He seems undeterred.
"I just feel like I can grow," Norman says. "In Washington, it feels like everybody can say whatever they want. It's a free-flowing kind of place. It's like going from a dictatorship to freedom."
8:30 p.m. -- Inside the Parc des Princes, on the field before the game, Norman is standing on the sideline, beaming. Ibrahimovic spots him from midfield and playfully points like he's recognizing an old friend.
A member of the French TV media wants to know whether Norman would do a quick on-camera interview. He's relaxed in front of the camera, such a natural that Fox has signed him to do segments for its NFL coverage. Norman jokes to the French crew that he'll do it as long as he can wear one of the paper masks of Ibrahimovic that fans were handed as part of the goodbye celebration.
"I promise I won't ask you about Odell Beckham Jr.," the reporter says. "Unless you want me to."
"Nah, I'm good there," Norman says.
When the game begins, he is on the edge of his seat, agonizing over every corner kick, every sloppy pass, every missed chance for Ibrahimovic. The crowd hums and crackles. Nobody will burn Ibrahimovic's jersey here. They want his last game to be a good show, for him to leave PSG with warm feelings toward the club he helped elevate.
In the 17th minute, Ibrahimovic gathers a pass just outside the box, then taps it wide to teammate Angel Di Maria. Di Maria crosses over his defender and sends a beautiful left-foot service toward the goal. Ibrahimovic runs toward it like a missile. He deflects the ball with his chest, redirecting it low and past the goalkeeper. Ibrahimovic leaps in the air and throws a pretend uppercut, his ponytail bouncing. The entire stadium joins in a thunderous celebratory chorus. Our seats shake.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic! Zlatan Ibrahimovic! Zlatan Ibrahimovic!
Norman is on his feet, thumping his chest, roaring with pride. This, he sees, is what it feels like to go down as a legend, to be thought of as the king. This is what he will chase for the rest of his career. Winning and money are not enough. He wants to be remembered.
Afterward, he sits in silence for a minute, still processing what we've witnessed.
"Man," Norman says, holding up his phone to take a selfie with the field. "This is the best day ever."