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Faith and Sports

Redskins’ Josh Norman took two trips to Israel this year to see where Jesus walked

The cornerback reads the Bible every day and prays before every game

A look at the intersection of sports, faith and religion.

After the Washington Redskins suffered a devastating 43-19 loss to the New Orleans Saints earlier this month, cornerback Josh Norman broke a three-month streak of faithfulness. He failed to log in to his Bible app, where he goes every morning or evening to read Scripture.

“I was on a hot streak too,” he said. “I missed that Monday. I always read. It won’t happen again. I was on the 90th-something day, and then I missed it. We flew that night and we got back that next day at 6 a.m. and my mind was shot.”

The daily Bible reading gives Norman, 30, the calmness he needs to start his day.

“I’m a believer of Christ,” Norman said. “I walk in faith, and I try to do the right things and stay away from pitfalls, but we’re humans.”

His faith led him to join a six-day sponsored trip to Israel for NFL players shortly after the 2018 Super Bowl. He loved the journey so much that he returned in July by himself.

“It was quite an experience,” Norman said of both trips. “Just lovely, from top to bottom. It was just an eye-opener, just because you are going somewhere else and you are actually able to walk to places where Jesus walked.”

Along with Norman on the first trip were Geoff Schwartz (Carolina Panthers), Mitchell Schwartz (Kansas City Chiefs), Avery Williamson (New York Jets), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Jacksonville Jaguars), Chris Harris Jr. (Denver Broncos) and their families.

They took a dip in the Dead Sea, went on a Jeep ride in northern Israel and visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall tunnels and other sites in the Old City. They met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visited a hospital in Safed, where Syrians in need of medical care were undergoing treatment as part of the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Good Neighbor program.

A highlight for Norman was seeing the Jordan River for the first time.

“The first time they said we’re at Jordan, I didn’t get baptized but my brother did,” he said. “But I was over there by the water and I saw it — it was so beautiful.”

It was especially moving to see where Jesus had lived and preached.

“We got so much from the journeys that I brought it [the experience] back to the States, and now when I go through pitfalls and I go through things that happen in life, I kind of rest back on those times and those moments,” he said.

“It takes your mind to that place where you are standing where he stood and where he walked. It was fascinating, mind-blowing in every part about it,” he said. “It was just an eye-opening experience I will never, ever get back. It’s like that feeling of tranquility. It is just like a misty aura that’s over it.”

The trip was sponsored and organized by America’s Voices in Israel, an organization launched 10 years ago to improve Israel’s image in the United States by organizing weeklong trips for media figures and celebrities. The group organized its first trip for NFL players in 2017, but that one didn’t go so smoothly.

Four of the 11 players set to attend the 2017 excursion pulled out close to the departure date, saying they disagreed with the goals of the trip. The exit was led by then-Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett (now with the Philadelphia Eagles), who withdrew from the trip expressing feelings of being “used” by the Israeli government and as an act of solidarity with Palestinians.

This year, America’s Voices in Israel did not disclose information on the NFL players and the trip until the players arrived in Israel.

Norman said his second trip to Israel this year was prompted by his personal relationship with God.

“I’m really faith-based, and I knew to do the pilgrimage and had to go there,” he said. “It’s just something that kept pulling me over that way. God was speaking to me, and he was just really was working on me, working with me. He always does, but this is the part where it was strong for me to do it this year. And of all the years, I knew it was going to be a tough year; it has been. But this one is something where he had me stop, listen and go forth. And we went forth.”

Norman says faith and sports, for him, are “the same.”

“I feel with faith, you believe, you care, you achieve and we all make mistakes, like sports,” he said. “We’re here for a reason. I don’t have this ability off of a whim — it comes from something. So when you actually go out there and play, you want to give the respect due on which you came from back to him. So we try to go out and be at our best, and we know we need help, we ask for it, he gives us the strength to go through it, through our abilities that he’s given us. So I think the faith actually is the ability.”

Norman, the second-youngest of five brothers, grew up attending a small Baptist church in Greenwood, South Carolina. He played drums and piano while spending time in church several times a week. His father, Roy Norman, is a Baptist pastor. His mother, Sandra, was raised Methodist and worked as a nurse. The two divorced when Norman was 11.

“My dad held Bible study and we’d always go, and, gosh, I hated it,” Norman said. “But we went so much I was baptized in it. I gave my life to him [Christ] when I was at an early age, and then I gave it to him again when I was 12, and then I really gave it to him when I was 16. I’ve really just been following him all my life, and I just knew I was different.”

Norman was a standout quarterback at Coastal Carolina, where he was given the nickname “Dark Knight” after Batman, one of his favorite characters. In 2012, he was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the fifth round. By the 2014 season he was the team’s No. 1 cornerback, and in 2015 he had a career-high four interceptions and was first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowl selection. After becoming an unrestricted free agent in April 2016, he signed a five-year deal with the Redskins.

He knew he would remain a follower of Christ as he matured.

“I’m nondenominational [now], but my roots in everything are Baptist,” Norman said. “I had to sacrifice so much to be where I am today, and for me, I had to take a step back sometimes and look at how far I came, because we as humans, there’s times we don’t do that, we don’t take steps to look back. It’s been a roller-coaster ride.

“We’ve just got to manage, just go in the right directions. Order the steps in the right path. Those stones, those potholes, trust me, they come up. There’s no way to avoid them. So I ask God just to guide me out through the day, because you don’t know what you’re going to run into.”

Norman pauses to pray before each game, and again right before he hits the field.

“I also pray during the game,” he said.

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.