Norton Gets Redemption In Record-Breaking Way

FAYETTEVILLE — Over the past two weeks, Jerell Norton has been benched, blamed, punished and rumored to have quit Arkansas' football team.

He also has intercepted a pass, broken a school record and autographed a pair of gloves for his father and uncle.

This is not how Norton thought the first month of his sophomore season would go. The cornerback expected things to go much smoother.

But the past two weeks have been a whirlwind of emotions for him. He's gone from one of the lowest points of his life to celebrating a 100-yard interception return that capped Saturday's 66-7 win over North Texas.

"Whoever thought two weeks ago that he'd have the longest interception return in (school) history?" Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "It's just a credit to him to keep going."

Norton is one of Arkansas' more playful characters, and it's not uncommon to see him joking around with coaches and teammates after practice.

But he had even more reason to smile Monday as he recalled how he intercepted a pass and raced from one end zone to the other to score a touchdown with 31 seconds left against North Texas.

"I knew if I got my hands on (the football) and could stay in bounds, it would be six," Norton said.

Norton set an Arkansas record with his 100-yard interception return, surpassing Orlando Watters' 99-yard return in a 42-24 win at LSU on Nov. 27, 1993.

More importantly, though, Norton's interception came only six days after a "misunderstanding" led some teammates to believe that he had abruptly quit the Razorbacks.

The interception return also came two weeks after he was routinely beat by Alabama wide receiver DJ Hall in a 41-38 loss in Tuscaloosa.

Afterward, Norton — clearly distraught — accepted the blame for giving up too many big plays to Hall. He lost his starting cornerback job the next day.

"Things happen. People have their bad games and their good games," Arkansas strong safety Matt Hewitt said. "I told him to keep his head high, always stay positive, never stay negative."

Arkansas coaches and players tried to give Norton words of encouragement, but it didn't help.

He said he didn't talk to anybody for 2-3 days after the Alabama loss. He didn't answer his cell phone, and he didn't call anybody.

"It was hard to focus," Norton said. "It was hard to do anything — eat, sleep — because every time you close your eyes, you see the same play over and over."

All of a sudden, Norton — who had entered the season with plenty of hype as one of Arkansas' starting cornerbacks — found himself unsure of his role on the team.

The situation got worse Sept. 23, the day after the Razorbacks blew a late lead and lost 42-29 to then-No. 21 Kentucky.

Norton didn't show up for Arkansas' usual Sunday practice, leaving some players to think he had quit. He said the situation was a "misunderstanding," but his absence didn't sit well with his coaches and teammates.

"For me not to show up was basically spitting in everybody's face," Norton said. "And regardless of the reasoning, it should have never happened."

Norton said he apologized to his teammates, talked with the senior players and took his undisclosed punishment like a man.

His interception return against North Texas helped make amends. It also helped his family get over the loss of a loved one.

Norton's father, Clarence, was unable to be in Reynolds Razorback Stadium to watch his son's record-breaking interception return on Saturday night. Instead, he was at a funeral for his step-brother's father.

He missed Norton intercept a pass from North Texas quarterback Giovanni Vizza, race out of the end zone and get several nice blocks from his teammates on the way to a 100-yard touchdown return.

Norton said his family cried when he called to give everyone the news. As a promise, he autographed the gloves he wore during the game to give to his father and uncle.

"You have to go through hard times in life before you can really appreciate the finer things in life," Norton said.

Jerell Norton

Age: 19

Class: Sophomore

Size: 6-foot, 188 pounds

Hometown: Cedar Hill, Texas

Noteable: Norton started the first two games this season, but he was benched after giving up too many big plays in a 41-38 loss at Alabama on Sept. 15. He now sees playing time as a backup, as well as in Arkansas' nickel and dime packages. He leads the Razorbacks with two interceptions, and his 100-yard return for a touchdown against North Texas is a school record.

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