On a night when he wore a lucha libre wrestling mask at the request of a Hispanic reporter, Panthers cornerback Josh Norman provided some interesting theater at the first Super Bowl Opening Night by grappling with former NFL cornerback Deion Sanders.
Sanders approached Norman’s podium at the SAP Center on Monday night to ask him about the fallout from Norman’s highly publicized scuffles with Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on Dec. 20.
Beckham was suspended for a game and Norman was fined $26,000 for their roles in a series of fights and after-the-whistle hits, the most egregious of which involved Beckham launching himself at Norman’s head after getting a running start.
Sanders, an NFL Network analyst, tried to broker peace between Beckham and Norman after the altercation, but Norman didn’t respond to Sanders’ offer.
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With the NFL Network cameras rolling, Sanders asked Norman why he never heard back from him in December.
“I felt like you had taken his back on some stuff. You said something like if he was your son, you would’ve gave him props or something like, ‘Go out and do your thing,’ ” Norman said. “I know you said that. It feels like, OK, but this man is running 10 yards at me full speed like trying to take me out or something. That’s what you’re going to pat on the back and say, ‘Good job’ ”
Sanders responded by saying he respected how both Norman and Beckham handled the situation after the fact.
And Norman said for the first time that he had asked Panthers coach Ron Rivera to take him out of the Giants game, which Rivera refused to do.
“It definitely could have been a different perspective. I told coach to take me out of the game, because I couldn’t be in there with that. But I understood the situation; I had to go through some things. I think coach let me go through that experience to not only make me better as a person but make me better as a football player.
“To understand at life those things come to you. How you fight back and how you handle that determine the type of man you’re going to become.”
The exchange was broadcast live to a national TV audience, watching the annual Super Bowl event in prime time for the first time after the league moved it from its traditional Tuesday morning spot.
Norman, the Panthers’ loquacious and colorful corner, was expected to be a popular draw among the hundreds of media representatives in attendance.
He didn’t disappoint, pulling on the Mexican wrestling mask and leaving it on for about 10 minutes while answering questions. Norman later asked an elementary school-age reporter to put on the mask before she asked him what his favorite animal is.
“A black panther,” Norman said.
Norman was less willing to discuss the Beckham situation in much detail, at least until Sanders approached.
During earlier questioning about Beckham, Norman said: “I don’t want to talk about that guy.”
He only mentioned Beckham by name once and said it was “very disappointing” the Beckham situation created a hangover effect for him the following week.
Norman had one of his worst games covering Atlanta’s Julio Jones the next week in the Panthers’ only loss of the season.
“It’s disappointing the game got out of hand like it did. It was disappointing coming back from a win feeling like we felt,” he said. “I didn’t get myself back right until a couple days after the fact. There was just a lot of stuff going on at the time.”
Injured cornerback Bene’ Benwikere watched the Atlanta game from home and knew immediately that Norman wasn’t himself. He said his first clue was watching Norman pat Jones on the butt after an early reception.
“When you have something like that, you get fined like that, you tend to relax,” Benwikere said.
It was an eventful season for Norman, beginning with his training camp fight with quarterback Cam Newton. Norman said his fight with Newton strengthened the relationship between two intense competitors.
“It maybe got a little heated and sparks start to fly. Once those sparks start to fly, you saw greatness that came from it,” Norman said. “We got closer. I know I’m a lot closer to our quarterback than I ever was.”