With his football career over, Vanderbilt running back Warren Norman doesn’t know what lies ahead.
Until he graduates in December, Norman plans to remain a fixture at practices and games to help and encourage his teammates. In the process, coach James Franklin hopes he can groom a future coach.
With one chapter of his life ending, Norman is willing to keep an open mind on the next.
“I want to be as close to this program as I possibly can as long as I’m here,” Norman said. “If that is something that happens, I’m not going to fight it. I love football and the game. Coaching will definitely be a way to keep me around it.”
At an emotional press conference on Wednesday, Norman announced he would forego his final year of eligibility due to knee injuries. The 2009 Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year described the decision as a grueling process, one that started in 2010 when he suffered wrist and knee injuries.
He held out hope he could return for his fifth year. But even after sitting out the 2011 season and undergoing multiple surgeries, pain lingered and limited him from regaining his explosiveness.
“Considering my current health, long-term health and whether I’d be able to help the football team win football games next year, I thought it was the best decision for me,” Norman said as he choked back tears. “Though I hate to say I have to stop playing, this is the reason why you go to Vanderbilt. You can’t play football forever — we all know that. For me to be able to fall back on such a strong education and a strong degree here I’m so glad I came here. I’m so glad to be a Commodore.”
Norman, a native of Stone Mountain, Ga., walks away with several notable accomplishments.
His 1,050 kickoff return yards and three kickoff return touchdowns in 2009 are single-season school records. He also broke the SEC freshman records for all-purpose yards (1,941) and total kickoff return yards. His 1,660 career kickoff return yards are the fifth-most in program history. He finished with 1,317 rushing yards on 243 carries and 12 total touchdowns.
But what Norman took joy in more than the personal milestones was watching the program’s quick evolution. He endured consecutive 2-10 seasons — or the Dark Ages as he called it — before watching the Commodores enjoy back-to-back bowls and this year’s historic nine-win season.
“Just seeing where we came from back then and to where we are now it has been truly remarkable,” he said. “I was telling coach Franklin the other day how excited I am for this team and the direction this program is headed. I’m just proud to say I was part of the building blocks for the brand new Vanderbilt.”
Franklin arrived before the 2011 season and regrets he never got to see Norman at 100 percent. But he was immediately impressed with how Norman carried himself despite the numerous setbacks and a mere 21 rushes after his sophomore year.
“He is a guy who has handled adversity at his age as well as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Franklin said. “The guy has handled it with unbelievable class and conviction the whole time. This is about a guy who came into this program with class and is leaving with class. This is a guy that gets the big picture and that’s why we’re so proud of him.”
The 22-year-old will study abroad in London in May before returning in the fall to finish his degree in sociology.
In the meantime, with spring drills beginning in two weeks, he plans to lend a hand in practice to senior running back Wesley Tate and promising underclassmen Brian Kimbrow, Jerron Seymour and Rapheal Webb.
Perhaps he’ll settle on a career along the way. Franklin is willing to make a suggestion.
“He is such a smart guy and he has tremendous experience,” Franklin said. “He relates very well with the guys. He has what I would describe as an old soul, very mature for his age. We would love to have him. He made sure that I knew he doesn’t want to be keeping the same hours that we are. He is going to come when he can come. Whenever he can be there we want him there.”