Jordan Norwood’s Journey From Penn State To Super Bowl 50
Before Derek Moye, Allen Robinson, and Chris Godwin, there was Jordan Norwood.
Jordan Shea Rashad Norwood was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sept. 28, 1986, but honed his athletic skills growing up in State College. Now, he’s about to play in the biggest game of his life on Sunday in Super Bowl 50 as the Denver Broncos’ punt returner and one of Peyton Manning’s sure-handed wideouts. Norwood’s impending appearance marks the 45th time in 50 years that Penn State has been represented on the grandest stage in football.
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) January 25, 2016
It’s safe to say that sports run in the Norwood family. Jordan’s older brother Gabe plays for the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters in the Philippine Basketball Association, but took center stage in 2006 with George Mason on its Cinderella run to the Final Four. Gabe, who also takes the court with the Philippines National Team, will make the trip to Santa Clara for Super Bowl 50 to cheer on his brother. The rest of the Norwoods — including Jordan’s wife, Aleah Tebben, and their new-born daughter Franni — will be in attendance as well. Jimmy Fallon even had some fun with Norwood’s head shot on The Tonight Show during his wildly-popular Superlatives segment this week.
Both Jordan and his younger brother, Levi, had the opportunity to run out of the same tunnel as their father Brian, who was the safeties coach at Penn State from 2001-07 before heading to Waco to fill the same position at Baylor from 2008-14. Brian is now the associate head coach and safeties coach at Tulsa. Upon graduation, Levi signed with another Bears organization, this time landing as an undrafted free agent in Chicago. He was released prior to this season but found a new home with the Pittsburgh Steelers on a reserve/future contract this Tuesday. Jordan also has another younger brother, Zaccariah, and sister, Brianna.
Penn State fans know all about No. 11 (previously No. 24), but the 2015 season was effectively his big debut in the NFL despite joining the League in 2009 as an undrafted free agent with the Cleveland Browns. After posting impressive Combine numbers — 38-inch vertical leap, 4.58 40-yard dash, and a score of 30 on the cognitive Wonderlic test — Norwood had to make a name for himself on various practice squads instead due to his 5-foot-11, 180-pound frame.
The Browns waived Norwood during final roster cuts, but he nabbed a spot giving the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive backs all they could handle throughout the week that season. Norwood returned to Cleveland from 2010-12 before heading to Tampa Bay the following year, making sparse appearances here and there but never really breaking through (he did play in 14 games for the Browns in 2012).
A change of scenery in 2014 with the Broncos rejuvenated Norwood’s career and it appeared he would be a shoe-in to make the 53-man roster given his talent at punt returner. But an untimely torn ACL threw a wrench in those plans. The now-29-year-old didn’t let the injury spoil his dream of hoisting Denver’s third Lombardi Trophy in franchise history alongside his teammates.
After grabbing 22 passes for 207 yards this season (58 catches for 612 yards and a touchdown thus far in the NFL), Norwood has solidified himself as Manning’s fourth option after Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Owen Daniels. It was a heads-up 71-yard punt return for a touchdown that was called back against the Steelers in Week 15 that largely put Norwood on the map. The play would have put Denver up 34-20, but a few Broncos thought the ball had gone out of bounds, trotting onto the field too early and getting flagged for illegal substitution. Pittsburgh would rally back to win 34-27. Norwood was immediately recognizable for his flat-out speed as a wide receiver and punt returner at State High, but was also a standout point guard, leading the Little Lions to the 2003 PIAA AAAA State Championship — the first and only basketball title in school history — alongside his older brother Gabe.
Despite showing an innate ability to come down with a big catch when it mattered most, Norwood didn’t receive much love from Division I coaches due to his size. But when Penn State offered him a grayshirt scholarship late in the process, meaning he would have to sit out the 2004 season before officially being added to the roster, Norwood pounced on the opportunity to play football close to home for Joe Paterno.
Norwood’s sticky hands caught the attention of teammates and coaches alike, and it wasn’t long before the wiry receiver made a name for himself alongside Derrick Williams and Deon Butler. Together, they formed perhaps the most dynamic trio of receivers in Penn State history. All three were instrumental in the Nittany Lions’ run to the 2006 Orange Bowl title — a spectacular 26-23 triple-overtime thriller in Miami that saw Norwood post six catches for a game-high 110 yards as a true freshman. During his sophomore year, Norwood pulled double-duty, practicing and appearing in four games with the men’s basketball team under Ed DeChellis — the only season Norwood was a dual-sport athlete for the Nittany Lions.
Norwood’s toughness has always been on display. It takes a special type of player to line up in the slot, knowing that linebackers and safeties are licking their chops at the chance to deliver a huge hit across the middle. Just ask USC’s Taylor Mays, who surely would have been ejected for targeting in the 2009 Rose Bowl — if that rule had been around back then — after laying a despicable cheap shot on Norwood. The Trojans would go on to win the last game of Norwood’s Penn State career, 38-24, in Pasadena. Norwood graduated from the College of Communications with an undergraduate degree in advertising/public relations.
Norwood dazzled the blue and white faithful throughout his time in Happy Valley, posting 158 receptions for 2,015 yards and 13 touchdowns (good for fifth, fifth, and ninth on the all-time Penn State charts, respectively), but no catch can compare to this acrobatic gem against Buffalo in 2007.
Norwood is no longer a practice player hoping to get his shot; he’s already made it. And when you’re about to play against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl, you get to enjoy everything the Bay Area has to offer leading up to the highly-anticipated showdown on Sunday, Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. on CBS. It’s highly doubtful anyone’s calling Norwood too small now.
Best of luck, Jordan. The State College and Penn State communities will be cheering you on like crazy this Sunday. Bring home a ring.