Nevada Wolf Pack’s Jay Norvell has made a habit of overcoming adversity
Jay Norvell will outwork you. Jay Norvell will outlast you. Jay Norvell will grind you down. Jay Norvell is grit personified.
“If I had quit I would have spent the rest of my life wondering what might have happened,” Norvell told the Detroit Free Press as an Iowa Hawkeyes senior in 1985.
Norvell, now in his fourth season as the Nevada Wolf Pack’s head football coach, didn’t quit when it took him five years to become a starter at Iowa. He didn’t quit on his goal of playing professional football even after the NFL didn’t draft him and two teams cut him from their roster. And he certainly didn’t quit his dream of becoming a college head coach even after three decades of frustration.
If you believe for a second that Jay Norvell will ever quit anything, well, you’ve never met Jay Norvell. And don’t get in his way.
Al Verdin, the boys’ basketball coach at Madison (Wis.) Memorial High School, witnessed a 17-year-old Norvell’s determination and drive up close in January 1981. Norvell grabbed a rebound and dribbled to the other end of the court and hit a game-tying 15-foot jumper at the end of regulation against Madison East High. He then scored all six of his team’s points in overtime for a 54-52 victory. Earlier, in the fourth quarter, he took a free throw, missed it, grabbed the rebound, missed the shot, grabbed the rebound again and made the short shot. That has been Jay Norvell his entire life, grinding, working, battling all obstacles and continually moving forward until he finds success.
“Tonight Jay just got that look on his face,” Verdin told The Capital Times (Madison, Wis.). “It’s his ‘don’t-get-in-my-way’ face.”
Norvell has always thrived when people have gotten in his way. It’s always been his opportunity, after all, to work even harder.
“Jay set the tempo and the other guys picked up on it,” Verdin said after that 1981 game. “He’s a kid who doesn’t like to lose. He’s a winner.”
And a winner, of course, never quits. The first time the world saw Jay Norvell’s winning spirit was on the pages of Ebony Magazine when he was all of 3 years old.
The magazine titled its August 1966 issue “The Negro Woman” and one of the women it featured was Jay’s mother Cynthia, a beautiful young model, working woman, wife and mother. The article focused on the Norvell family (husband Merritt, wife Cynthia and son Jay) and the challenges they faced as a young black family living in the predominantly white community of Madison, Wis.
The community Jay Norvell grew up in, according to Ebony in 1966 was, for a black family, “a deceptively pleasant and somewhat unrealistic world . . . seemingly unaffected by race problems due to limited negro residents and absence of negro militancy.”
The article also focused on Cynthia’s career as a switchboard operator for the Ray-O-Vac Battery Co., and model for Manchester’s department store and how she was supporting her family financially while Merritt finished his master’s degree in social work at Wisconsin.
It was young Jay, though, that stole the reader’s hearts. Jay’s boundless energy and commanding presence, even at the age of 3, jumped off the pages of the magazine in numerous photos. He was pictured wearing a stylish sweater while visiting with two of his young friends, towering over both of them. He was also captured jumping on his bed at home and wrestling with his father in a park. It’s a wonder why the Wisconsin Badgers didn’t offer him a scholarship right then and there.
Jay’s seemingly endless energy, boldness, courage and confidence, of course, came from Merritt and Cynthia. Merritt is a brilliant man who has had a distinguished career working for IBM, in college administration and athletics as well as devoting his life to assisting the careers of minority coaches. Cynthia, who passed away in 2019, devoted herself to her family although she likely could have become a nationally known successful model in a bigger city like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. She was also pictured in the Wisconsin State Journal in late December 1962 while pregnant with Jay, flashing an enchanting smile while holding a football and a large bouquet of roses, as one of three wives of Wisconsin football players that would accompany the team to the Rose Bowl a week later. The photo spread was called, “From Kitchen Bowl to Rose Bowl.”
That dynamic family (brother Aaron is six years younger than Jay) is the reason Jay Norvell never thought of quitting on himself. The act of giving up, after all, would have meant he was also quitting on Merritt and Cynthia. And that was never an option.
“It motivates you,” Norvell told the Waterloo (Iowa) Courier in 1986. “He (his father) has always helped out and given advice. He still tells me what I’m doing right and when I mess up. There’s a little pressure that goes with it but it motivates you.”
There was definitely pressure on young Jay as a high school athlete in Madison. He was, after all, the son of Merritt Norvell, who helped Wisconsin get to the 1963 Rose Bowl. But Jay never let his parents down, turning into one of the best athletes (football, basketball, baseball) that Madison, Wis., has ever produced.
Norvell was named to the Associated Press All State football team as a high school senior in the fall of 1980. That season he was also a First Team All-Big Eight Conference defensive back (he had four interceptions on defense and 20 catches on offense) and was then invited to play in the prestigious Wisconsin Shrine Bowl the following July.
As a junior in September 1979 he made a diving catch for a 15-yard touchdown to give Memorial High a dramatic 7-6 win over Janesville (Wis.) Craig High. That same month he intercepted a pass in the end zone to force overtime in an eventual 6-0 win over Racine (Wis.) Horlick High.
As a senior he was also named to the Wisconsin State Journal Second Team All-City Basketball Team after finishing fifth in the area in scoring. That year, in November 1980, he scored 25 points as Memorial High snapped its 13-game losing streak with a 60-47 win over Edgewood High.
Norvell’s dreams of playing college football like his father, though, almost came to an abrupt end in the winter of 1981. He was on a recruiting trip to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa and was headed to a Drake-Bradley basketball game with some Drake football players. The car the athletes were driving in was rammed on the right side by a driver who ran a red light. The only thing between Jay and tragedy was some thin layers of metal and upholstery.
“I wasn’t wearing a seat belt and I’m glad I wasn’t,” Norvell told the Des Moines Register later in 1985. “The seat I was in was folded up by the crash. Had I been wearing the belt I might not be here talking about the accident.”
Norvell spent three days in a Des Moines hospital but somehow was not seriously injured. Drake football coach Chuck Shelton, who would later become head coach at Utah State and Pacific from 1986-95, visited Norvell in the hospital.
“I’m no stranger to adversity,” Norvell told the Capital Times in 1987.
Norvell then stunned the state of Wisconsin by accepting a scholarship offer from the University of Iowa. Norvell’s Memorial High, after all, was just 10 minutes away from Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium and most everyone expected him to become the second Norvell to play for the Badgers.
The occasion was captured by a large photo of Norvell in the Capital Times in February 1981 signing his letter of intent with his mother, father and brother Aaron looking on.
“I had a long conversation with him at the time,” Merritt told the Capital Times a few years later. “I told him, ‘You have been surrounded by red and black (Wisconsin’s colors) all your life. But you choose what you think is best for you.’ I always told him he didn’t have to lock himself in my footsteps.”
Norvell chose Iowa because of the Hawkeyes coaching staff (led by head coach Hayden Fry) and because it was “a chance to play in a program where the fans are 100 percent behind the program,” he said. “I just thought the Iowa program was about ready to explode.”
Norvell’s explosion in Iowa on the field, however, would take five years. He red-shirted his first season (1981) and spent the following year playing on the scout team trying to put on weight and learning a new position (tight end). The next year he moved back to strong safety and missed the bulk of the year with a shoulder injury. He then barely played as a junior in 1984.
“He was frustrated the first two or three years,” Cynthia Norvell told the Iowa Press-Citizen in 1985.
That frustration, though, didn’t make Norvell quit. Norvell, after all, has always sprinkled adversity on his Corn Flakes in the morning and gotten stronger.
Norvell played on the scout team as if his family’s reputation depended on it. His teammates affectionately called him “Scrap.”
“Jay was always flying around on the scout team and getting into fights almost everyday,” brother Aaron told the Wisconsin State Journal in 1990, the season Jay spent as a volunteer coach with the Badgers while Aaron was a linebacker.
Norvell’s aggressiveness in practice was never more apparent than in the Hawkeyes’ preparation for the Gator Bowl after the 1983 season. Norvell, recovering from his shoulder injury, was finally cleared to practice the week before the bowl game.
“I played every practice as if it was my Gator Bowl because I knew I couldn’t play,” Norvell told the Detroit Free Press in 1985. “That was some of the best football in my life in those practices.”
That experience of dominating his teammates in practice might be why Norvell still to this day cherishes and values his players’ efforts in practice as the Wolf Pack head coach. That mentality was cemented at Iowa nearly four decades ago when practice was all he had.
Norvell played behind safeties Bob and Mike Stoops his first four years at Iowa. The job, though, became available in the spring and summer of 1985 after Mike Stoops graduated.
“I came in (as a senior) as the No. 1 strong safety and nobody was going to take my job after all I’d been through,” Norvell said in 1985.
For one season Norvell was one of the best strong safeties in Iowa Hawkeyes history, one of the best in Big Ten history. He intercepted seven passes, was one of the most feared hitters in the secondary in a conference known for aggressive play and was named First Team All-Big Ten.
“Without question the biggest surprise, the greatest gift we’ve had on defense this year has been the development of Jay Norvell,” Iowa coach Hayden Fry told the Sioux City (Iowa) Journal in late October 1985. “I dare say there’s no college defensive back in America any better than Jay Norvell right now. And all he’s going to do is become better and better.”
Norvell had six tackles and forced a fumble against Drake in his first college start in the 1985 season opener. “I think Jay Norvell had one of the best games from a first-time starter that I’ve ever seen,” Fry said after the game. “He played a magnificent game.”
Norvell was a coach on the field, calling the defensive signals for the secondary.
“I have a lot of football saved up inside of me,” Norvell said at the time.
“Jay is trying to put five years of frustration into this one season,” Fry told the Cedar Rapids Gazette in October 1985. “He’s a great practice player and he’s got a mean streak in him. But he also gets more fun out of football than anybody else on the team.”
Norvell got a chance to play his first college game ever at Camp Randall Stadium against Wisconsin in the fifth game of the year.
“I grew up with Wisconsin football,” Norvell told the Des Moines Register the week before the Wisconsin game. “I dreamed my whole life of playing in Camp Randall stadium. I used to play touch football at Camp Randall. We’d sneak in over the fence.”
The Hawkeyes went into the Wisconsin game unbeaten at 4-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country.
“I’m sure he will feel like he will want to play a little harder this week,” Fry told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “But I don’t see how he can. He already plays as hard as he can.”
With Norvell there is always another higher level of intensity and determination. Playing a game at Camp Randall in front of his hometown, well, the moment was 22 years in the making.
“I’ve always just loved the game,” Norvell said in 1985. “My dad had a football in my hands since I was a baby.”
Iowa won 23-13 in front of 79,023 fans at Camp Randall as Norvell picked off two passes. It was the perfect setting, the perfect player in the perfect moment.
“This was a dream come true,” Norvell told the Des Moines Register after the game, “My parents were here and 20 of my relatives were on hand to see me.
“It was the best game of my life. I’ve never had two interceptions in a game before, even in high school.”
Two of those family members, Merritt and Cynthia, sat in the stands beaming with unbelievable pride.
“He’s breaking on the ball real well this year,” said Merritt Norvell of his son after the Wisconsin game. “It was just a matter of time before he got his hands on a couple. He’s a good student of the game. But I was sweating like I was out there playing every play myself.”
Iowa spent five consecutive weeks in 1985 as the No. 1 team in the nation. The No. 1 Hawkeyes stunned No. 2 Michigan 12-10 and rolled over Northwestern 49-10 as Norvell got two more interceptions.
“That kid (Norvell) might be in his fifth year but he’s playing with enthusiasm like he’s got a world of playing experience,” legendary Michigan coach Bob Schembechler told the Detroit Free Press in 1985 before his Wolverines met the Hawkeyes. “He’s tough.”
When Bo Schembechler calls you tough, well, there is nothing that can stand in your way. The highlight of the season for the Norvell family was when the Hawkeyes whipped Minnesota 31-9 in the final regular season game of the year to sew up the Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl. Like father, like son.
“When I was growing up I would always see his (Merritt’s) Rose Bowl plaque and ring,” Norvell told the Iowa Press-Citizen after beating Minnesota. “My dad always wanted me to play in the Big 10 and have an opportunity to play in the greatest bowl game in the world.”
Norvell let his emotions flow after the game while talking to reporters.
“Look at me, getting all crazy like this,” he said, fighting back tears. “Just the look on my dad’s face. I’ve been waiting to see that for five years.”
It was more like two decades.
“When I was a kid there were two things I wanted to do,” Merritt told the Press-Citizen. “One was to play in the World Series and the other was to play in the Rose Bowl. I got to play in the Rose Bowl and I wanted Jay to have that chance, too.”
Norvell spotted his father sitting behind the Iowa bench in the final seconds of the game against Minnesota.
“I pointed at him and pointed at my finger and said, ‘We got the ring. We got the championship,’” Norvell said. “To make him proud is one of the greatest feelings this year.”
That same look and feeling between father and son was repeated once again 31 years later when Norvell was named the Wolf Pack head coach in December 2016.
“The times were rough,” Norvell said in 1985. “It seemed the coaches never gave me recognition and it was so frustrating because so many other guys around me seemed to get attention so easily. For them it seemed like a gift. For me, it was an impossibility.”
There are no impossibilities when it comes to Jay Norvell. Merritt and Cynthia taught him that.
“Everything kept me from producing,” Norvell continued in 1985. “I was red-shirted and they wanted me to move to tight end. So I gained 40 pounds and I was miserable.”
The rest of the Big Ten was miserable in 1985. “I’d have to say Jay Norvell is playing as well as any safety we’ve ever had,” Fry said.
The guy the Hawkeyes used to call “Scrap” now had a new nickname. “He’s Mr. Intensity,” Iowa free safety Devon Mitchell told the Quad City Times.
Mitchell said Norvell was as good as Mike and Bob Stoops, the Hawkeyes’ starting strong safeties of the past six years.
“The only difference is that Jay is black and they are white,” Mitchell said. “Otherwise, he’s just like them. They were smart. He’s smart. They hit hard. He hits hard. They weren’t afraid to stick their helmet in there. He’s not afraid to do it.”
Jay Norvell, after all, waited too long to simply go out on the field or in life and be timid.
“I know one thing,” Norvell said in 1985. “I’m an aggressive football player. When you are aggressive you can make up for your mistakes.”
A total of five Hawkeyes (Chuck Long, Larry Station, Mike Haight, Ronnie Harmon and Mitchell) were drafted by the NFL in the spring of 1986. Norvell, the best strong safety in the Big Ten, wasn’t one of them.
The Denver Broncos, though, invited Norvell to training camp as a free agent but he was cut before the season started. The Broncos thought Norvell wasn’t fast enough to play safety in the NFL and told him to gain weight and learn how to play linebacker. Norvell did as he was told and was cut anyway. “It is really tough to put on weight in a couple months and make it be good weight,” he said in 1987.
The experience only made Norvell more determined to prove he could play in the NFL.
“I made up my mind I wanted to play this game at least one more year,” he told the Quad City Times in 1987.
Norvell spent the 1986 season as a graduate assistant coach at Iowa while he worked on his body to become a NFL player.
The Chicago Bears invited Norvell, now 235 pounds of rock-hard determination and grit, to training camp in the summer of 1987. Norvell chose the Bears over offers from the Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins despite the fact that this was a Bears team loaded at linebacker with the likes of Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson, Wilber Marshall, Ron Rivera and Jim Morrissey, five guys that helped win the Super Bowl just two years before.
The Bears, though, trained in Wisconsin and were exactly the kind of test Norvell wanted.
“They don’t bring in many guys (as free agents) so if they bring you in they think you can play,” Norvell said in 1987. “And they give you a chance to show what you can do.”
A chance is all that Jay Norvell has ever wanted. Norvell had 11 tackles in a spring scrimmage playing alongside Singletary, Wilson and Marshall and earned a spot in training camp that summer.
“Norvell is a guy who works extremely hard and he’s very, very smart,” Bears defensive coordinator Vince Tobin said in 1987. “He’s got a very good chance to get one of our openings.”
Norvell played and acted like a veteran in the summer of 1987. “A lot of guys come here, get discouraged and start thinking of going home,” Norvell told the Chicago Tribune in 1987. “I went through all that in college.”
Norvell beat the odds and lasted in Chicago until the final cuts in early September 1987. He was the last rookie defensive free agent in Bears camp.
“He played extremely hard and gave it everything he had,“ Tobin said. “We couldn’t ask for anything more from him this camp.”
Norvell’s NFL career seemed all but over in early September. Two weeks later, though, the Bears called him back and asked him to become a replacement player as the players’ union went on strike.
“It was really hard at first,” said Norvell, who had to endure being called a scab and a strikebreaker by the veteran players who picketed the training camps. “I wasn’t very comfortable. But it was just something I had to do. I had to do what was best for my future.”
Norvell’s never-ending belief in himself was a big reason why he took the Bears’ offer to become a member of what became known as the “Spare Bears.”
“I’ve always thought I could play in the NFL,” Norvell told the Chicago Tribune in 1987. “It’s something I feel strongly about. I didn’t ever want to sit back and watch games on TV every Sunday looking at guys I knew I was better than.”
Norvell started all three of the Bears’ strike games and the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints. And for those three games he was one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He had two sacks against both and Vikings and Eagles.
“I really enjoyed the games but the rest of the time was terrible,” he said. “I didn’t like it at all. The strike brought out some very bad things in people.”
Norvell’s first NFL regular-season game was at Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia. The Bears brought their players to the stadium at 5 a.m. in order to avoid all of the Philadelphia area union workers who were expected to protest outside the stadium.
“It was a real eerie feeling to walk out there in the stadium and be in the dark at that time of day,” Norvell later told the Capital Times of Madison, Wis.
Norvell had two sacks against the Eagles and followed that up with two more in Chicago the following week against the Vikings.
“Playing this defense is the funnest thing in the world,” Norvell told the Chicago Tribune. “All my life I’ve wanted to do the things the Bears defense does.”
He was now a NFL linebacker. Sort of.
“I didn’t really look at it as the NFL,” Norvell said in 1987. “I just looked at it as a chance to show what I could do.”
Give Jay Norvell a chance and, well, he will make it his own.
“I was a strong safety in college and this (playing in the strike games) was the greatest thing in the world for me to play a full game at linebacker,” Norvell told the Capital Times in 1987. “I got a chance to do all the things Otis Wilson or Wilber Marshall would do.
“I’m not a fool to think this team is really the Chicago Bears. My dream was never to play for a replacement team. My dream was to play for the Chicago Bears and it will always be my dream.”
Norvell realized his dream. He showed the Bears enough grit and determination in the strike games for them to keep him when the strike ended in late October. He got into three more games with the real Bears on special teams.
“Jay came in with the strike team and played very good,” Bears coach Mike Ditka told the Chicago Tribune when the strike ended. “He has the ability to play several positions so we’ll take a good look at him.”
The Bears looked at Norvell again in 1988, inviting him to training camp. “Jay Norvell has put some weight on and really looks good,” Ditka said at the Bears minicamp in May 1988.
Norvell, though, was cut by the Bears late in summer training camp in 1988 and never played another game in the NFL. He then went to Notre Dame and worked as a graduate assistant under his old Iowa defensive coach (Barry Alvarez) for a year before getting his first full-time coaching job at Iowa State in 1989.
Norvell, though, was proven right. He was good enough to play in the NFL.
“I can say I played with the best,” Norvell told the Capital Times in 1987. “I got a chance to sack the quarterback. I got a chance to play the whole game. Nobody can take away that experience away from me. I got a chance to show people I can play linebacker.”
That’s all Jay Norvell ever felt he deserved.
A chance. The Wolf Pack was smart enough to give him a chance to be a head coach in December 2016.
“It is our charge to make this the flagship of the Mountain West,” he said when introduced as the Wolf Pack coach nearly four years ago.
Don’t bet against him. And don’t get in his way.