Every week throughout the 2015 NFL season, Josh Norman has gone to see a man about a horse. His horse, that is.
In a year in which the Panthers cornerback has transformed from overlooked to bonafide star, his routine hasn’t changed. Between games—after shutting down another team’s top receiver, after “spitting that fire,” as he puts it, to a gaggle of reporters that has grown steadily in size all season—Norman can be found in the same place. His happy place: Bit O’ Luck Horse Rescue, an 108-acre farm in Huntersville, N.C.
“It just helps me get away from the game and everything that’s been going on during the week,” Norman says. “It’s my escape. My great escape.”
Norman spends one day a week there visiting his horse, a striking saddlebred named Delta747 (or simply Delta amongst friends) who sports a gleaming brown coat with a white dot smack in the middle of his forehead. The farm sits on a pastoral plot of land, about 20 miles north of Bank of America Stadium, insulated from its surroundings by a thicket of trees on all sides. The faint din of highway I-77 serves as the only ambient noise for Norman to contend with there, other than horses whinnying or smacking their lips after being treated to an apple wafer.
“It’s usually pandemonium around me, it’s crazy,” Norman says. “But when I’m [at the farm], I just kind of zone out, in my own little world. I’m not in touch with the real world. I’m somewhere else.”
The first thing you notice if you visit Bit O’ Luck is the pendulous wooden sign on the street signifying your arrival: a black and white ying-yang facsimile of two intertwined horse heads. Once you turn down the gravel driveway, you’ll notice the farm’s owner, Greg McCormack, sitting on a tractor attached to a harrow, leveling the ground of a fenced-in arena that sits in front of a grey barn. And then you’ll notice the horses—fourteen in total, 11 rescues and three paid boarders, like Delta—wandering free all around you in different roped-off sections of the farm, separated into friend groups. McCormack cares for them all.
He started the rescue in 2009 with his wife, Toni, and since then they have bounced around to a few different locations, landing at their current spot three years ago, and accumulating more and more horses along the way. (They will be forced to move once again, in about six months, as the owner of the land they are leasing recently sold the plot to a housing developer.)
Their rescue horses all have different stories, intertwined by one aspect: They all come from lives of prior abuse or neglect, overlooked and discarded. Half of them are over the age of 30, in the twilight of their lives but thankful to finally be given the opportunity to relax. “They do what they want to do,” McCormack says. “They don’t have to be pushed around by people anymore.”
There’s Cassie, an old show horse who developed a disease called EPM that attacks the nervous system and has rendered her incapable of performing. And Dolly, with knees the size of grapefruits because she was previously used as a reining horse or as a barrel racing rodeo horse and was not given the proper supplements. There’s Fight Talk, whose great-grandfather sired Secretariat, but who lost 180 pounds in one month away from the farm. And Sadie, tongue sliced nearly in half because she was once used as a bronc, and apparently tying rope around a horse’s tongue is one of the methods to compel them to buck. (That the Panthers are playing the Broncos in the Super Bowl is a coincidence not lost on McCormack.) And then there is six-year old Pep, the youngest of the bunch and Delta’s best friend at the farm, who was abandoned in a field in South Carolina, never even given the chance to be anything at all.
At this point in Norman’s story, his path to superstardom is so well-documented that the connection between him and these horses probably doesn’t need to be limned. Norman, too, was not given much of a chance: He had no scholarship offers out of high school, he was forced to sleep on his brother’s sofa while taking classes at a technical college, he talked his way into being a walk-on at Coastal Carolina, he was drafted as an afterthought in the fifth round. Nobody expected him to be here, at the top of his profession, the apogee of football achievement—except for him. “I knew when I was in high school,” Norman says without pause.
Outspoken, brash, bellicose, and dominant on the field, if you saw Norman at the farm with Delta, you might not recognize him. “He’s a little bit different when he’s here then he is when he’s playing,” McCormack says. “He’s pretty soft spoken out here. He’s not at all exuberant.”
Whenever Norman arrives, Delta recognizes him immediately and perks up—“he knows how the day is going to be,” Norman says. Their routine is always the same: Norman will get Delta from the pasture, and take him out to the barn—no rope is necessary to guide him there, like most of the other horses require. There, Norman will set up his musical accompaniment, usually the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and get out his brushes. He’ll spend as much time as needed to groom Delta, clean his hooves and polish him up.
“That’s one of things I enjoy to watch,” McCormack says. “Josh understands that if you’re going to ride a horse, you want the horse to feel good. He respects the relationship between horse and human and knows how important that is.”
After that process is finished, they’ll head back out to the field and they’ll ride for hours. “He likes to go fast with Delta, just like he plays” McCormack says. “When he’s on the field, he takes off just like when he’s riding his horse.”
“Delta wants to go fast and, shoot, I want to go just as fast as he do,” Norman says. “They want to stretch their legs, so I give ’em what they want. And he gives it back to me because of the joy that comes from riding him.”
Norman grew up with his four brothers on a 35-acre farm on Highway 25 South in Greenwood, S.C., and the family always owned horses. In 2012, Norman’s first season with Carolina, his father called to tell him that their neighbor, Dominic, had recently gotten eight saddlebreds and he just had to come home to see them. Delta was the biggest of the bunch—16.5 HH, or 69 inches—and when Norman saw his “noble steed,” he knew immediately he wanted to buy him. But it wasn’t until early last September, right before the Panthers’ magical year began, that Norman asked his father to bring Delta up to stay with him in Carolina.
He wanted his favorite horse nearby for the upcoming season—a season that saw Norman burst into the highest tier of the cornerback stratosphere and the Panthers become one of only three teams in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl with a 17–1 record. Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe not.
But Norman doesn’t really take kindly to the idea that this has been any sort of breakout year for him personally: “Nothing gone right for me this year that hadn’t been going right last year,” Norman says. “Life’s just magnified what I’ve done.” He admits that being able to regularly visit Delta, being able to escape the grind of the football season each week, has undoubtedly played a role in his success.
“It’s definitely been a key part of it,” Norman says. “I was more focused this year, more laid back. Having Delta here, I was able to get away. I had that freedom.”
As for Delta, well, just like his owner, a dramatic arts minor in college, with a predilection for theater and a small horse figurine adorning his locker at Bank of America Stadium, he is unique. While most saddlebreds are known to be high-strung, sort of like cornerbacks, Delta is famed at the farm because of his easy-going demeanor. “I have not met a saddlebred that is as kind to people as he is,” McCormack says. “He’s very understanding.”
“Delta has a strong personality to him,” Norman says. “He’s spontaneous. And he’s proud, he’s very proud. He holds his head up, and he shows himself off. He knows when the camera’s around.”
When asked if he can see any parallels between Delta’s personality and that of the entire Carolina team this year—a team clearly not afraid to flash some of its charm and charisma, to strut when those bright lights are shining—Norman is quick to agree. Just like the horses grazing free at the farm, these Panthers players, on the brink of completing a historic season, are free to express themselves.