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Returning to Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Josh Norman wasn’t sure which of his former Carolina Panthers teammates that were invited would show up for his annual celebrity basketball fundraiser on Saturday night.

As it turned out, they all did.

Including, as the Washington Redskins cornerback said with a laugh from a hallway at Providence High School, No. 89.

No. 89 is former Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, a player Norman challenged – “insult” might be a better word for it — on and off the field as a fifth-round draft pick out of little Coastal Carolina in 2012.

“But eighty-nine is not 89. Eighty-nine is 24,” Norman said of the number he gave Smith for his Starz24 Celebrity game.

That would be the same No. 24 Norman wears on the football field, the one Panthers fans fell in love with during the 2015 Super Bowl season, when Norman emerged as a household name.

“We got him right,” Norman said of Smith. “So we’re going to have a little friendly competition battle like the old days, and see what we can do with that.”

Norman and Smith share a bond now that goes beyond their time together with the Panthers. It’s their love affair with Charlotte, where Smith lives despite spending his final three NFL seasons with the Baltimore Ravens before retiring and where Norman continues to make his offseason home.

Charlotte, Norman said, will always be home for him because this is where his NFL career began, because it’s only a few hours from where he grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina.

Unlike Smith, who burned a lot of bridges with the Panthers when he was released after the 2013 season, the 29-year-old Norman won’t rule out returning here one day before his career ends.

He only has to look at this year’s free agent moves to know it can happen. Defensive end Julius Peppers (37), who spent his first eight NFL seasons with Carolina from 2002-09, signed a one-year deal to return.

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (29), who spent his first five seasons (2009-13) with the Panthers, signed a four-year deal.

“Who knows,” Norman said of returning one day. “I’m not a storyteller. … I believe the man upstairs writes mine, and if he does see Carolina in the penmanship, then it shall be. Who knows. We still got some time to play yet.”

Norman didn’t burn bridges.

“I treated everybody with respect,” he said. “I was nice to them. Everybody be the same with me. Everything will have its time when it comes up. I don’t hold grudges.”

Norman had every right to be bitter and burn bridges. He wanted to remain with the team, and thought he would be at Carolina at least through the 2016 season, when the Panthers placed the franchise tag on him.

But when he didn’t sign the tag and didn’t report for the start of offseason workouts, and when it appeared negotiations for a long-term deal wouldn’t get done, general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded the tag.

That was on April 20, 2016. Two days later, the Redskins made Norman the highest paid cornerback (five years, $75 million) in the NFL.

Was it a coincidence Saturday’s fundraiser to benefit youth programs fell on the anniversary of his new deal?

“It was fate,” Norman said. “It was just out of the blue. … It’s kind of crazy it all came back full circle.”

That so many former teammates from the 2015 Super Bowl team made an appearance showed how strong the circle Norman was a part of was and still is.

Among them were outside linebacker Thomas Davis, running back Jonathan Stewart, safeties Kurt Coleman and Tre Boston, and cornerback Teddy Williams.

Even cornerback Bene’ Benwikere, who was cut last season after Atlanta’s Julio Jones burned the Panthers for 300 yards receiving, was here.

Norman’s career at Carolina was defined by Jones and his ability to limit his numbers. One of his best lines, when asked why he is so effective at covering the four-time Pro Bowl receiver, was, “Julio completes me.”

So don’t think Norman didn’t pay attention to what Jones did to Benwikere and the rookie corners with which the Panthers tried to replace him.

But if you think Norman took total pleasure in that or Carolina’s overall struggles without him, you’re wrong.

“That was cool to see, but it kind of sucked because you wanted to be there to help as well,” Norman said. “Mixed emotions, obviously. But they’re going to be all right.”

All was right on this night.

Davis got to wear his favorite No. 23 (he’s a big Michael Jordan fan) and jump center. He almost had a dunk, but the ball rattled out after an explosive move to the basket.

Boston got to show off his 3-point shooting prowess. Smith got to show that at 37 he’s still got the quickness to finish off a fast break with a layup.

And Norman got to show he’s still arguably the best basketball player among them, draining a 3-pointer to start his team’s scoring.

Among those in attendance was new Carolina defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who was Norman’s position coach from 2012-15.

Wilks took as much pleasure as anyone seeing all the Carolina players support Norman. He called it a testament to the culture the organization has developed.

“It just shows you the unique thing we have with the Carolina Panthers,” Wilks said. “That locker room is phenomenal. We’ve got brotherhood, and these guys come out and show that support even beyond the years when guys have moved on.

“It really shows exactly what we have there.”

Even Wilks wouldn’t rule out Norman’s return one day, after seeing Peppers and Munnerlyn return.

“You know what?” he said with a smile. “This is the National Football League, so you can never say never.”

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