His father left home when he was a toddler. He grew up in the crime-ridden Uptown area of New Orleans, and two of his three older brothers are incarcerated.
College wasn’t something Norwood thought about in the city, but when he left before an infamous hurricane his life would change for the better.
Two days before Hurricane Katrina hit, Norwood and his mother Charliette Ray and his brother Travis Ray left and headed to St. Mary Parish.
Norwood, known by most as Tootie, was in the seventh grade at the time and made the transition to life in a smaller town.
“Morgan City changed me a lot. Coming from New Orleans I wasn’t the kid you would expect me to be right now if I hadn’t come here,” Norwood said. “Morgan City has good people, the school and all that — they really helped me a lot. They may not know, but everybody in this town helped me a lot. They really did in some kind of way. They helped me a lot and made me the better person that I am today.”
Norwood didn’t participate in sports during his time in the city and admits he wasn’t the best kid back then.
“I didn’t do any athletics in New Orleans, I was just a little bad kid running around thinking ‘I’m the man,’ a little teenager,” Norwood said. “I grew up fast. Meaning I had a sense of urgency where I had to change my lifestyle. Either I wanted to be this way in life or this other man in life. Having three older brothers made me look into that. Seeing the mistakes that they made, I wanted to be better than them. I learned a lot from my brothers and my mom made me the person I am today.”
On Monday, Norwood begins the next chapter in his life and will head to South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, which is about 30 minutes west of Lubbock.
Normally the youngest child in a home doesn’t have a big influence on older siblings, but Norwood’s path in life has made his brothers rethink their choices.
“He has two brothers that are incarcerated and they are excited and thinking back like ‘Dang if I had listened to mom,’” Ray said. “His brother that’s here, Travis, they are close. I think this has shone some light on him. He’s now preparing himself to get his GED and to attend Young Memorial in the future.”
Norwood’s college choice is a leap of faith since he’s never been to the campus, but he’s not worried about that and is focused on school and improving on the track.
“I really trusted my coach on this decision about South Plains,” Norwood said. “Going there will help me develop my skills as a track athlete. Other than that, I don’t care if the campus is boring and stuff like that. I just want to take care of my business and go on from there.”
Norwood ran the third fastest time in the country at 46.61 seconds in the 400-meter dash with a second place finish. Kavaria Jones was first with the fastest time in the country at 46.31.
“That was like the worse feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Norwood said. “Running that fast time and having it taken away. But the people that needed to see it — saw it and I have this opportunity I have now.”
After that race, Morgan City coach Gary Johnson said he got calls from schools all over the country interested in Nor-wood.
Johnson knows how Norwood feels with a life-changing move in his near future. He was a star on the track in the 1980s at MCHS and went on to run at the University of Arkansas and still holds a record at the state track meet.
“Life, he’s about to embark upon his life,” Johnson said. “He’s going to have the opportunity to get an education — a good education — at South Plains. That’s why I chose them, they really stress academics. I know that’s important to Vernon too, but it’s also a school that specializes in his event. He’s about to take a big giant step into grown-up life.”
The similarities between the coach and student don’t end on the track. Johnson grew up in a similar situation.
“I’m no different than Vernon, I came up in a similar way in a single-parent home with no father — no support,” Johnson said. “I kind of did the same thing he did. Of course he’s scared, it’s natural, but you look at your life and say, ‘This is an opportunity for me to change my entire life around and get things the way I want them. I’m happy for him. He’s going to embark on some things. I know he’s seen some things in New Orleans but now he’s about to see some things internation-ally. South Plains is an international school with kids coming from the Caribbean and European countries so he’s going to be in a melting pot with a lot of that talent — it’s going to be a good opportunity for him.”
Growing up in Uptown wasn’t easy for Norwood and he welcomed the change to a smaller town and a chance to get away from the violence that plagues many areas of New Orleans.
“It was like the roughest part of New Orleans where we lived, Uptown,” Norwood said. “Moving out here was very, very good. The stuff I heard in New Orleans I don’t hear out here. I can walk the streets late at night in Morgan City, but in New Orleans you can’t do all that because of the violence and the bad stuff out here.”
His mother had talked about leaving the city before the storm and when the chance came she took it.
“I think God led me over here, Katrina really did help me and pushed me out here,” Norwood said. “My mom always talked about leaving New Orleans and this was a good chance for us to leave. I’m taking advantage of this opportunity — this is once in a lifetime. I didn’t even know it but I had been waiting all my life to get out.”
Norwood has recently been in touch with his father, who now lives in Florida. As a young adult he has started to under-stand why his father left and the weight of responsibility he experienced as a young man with a child.
“I don’t have a grudge against my father for not being there since I was three-years-old,” Norwood said. “He still tells me things like to take this opportunity and use it to do the things he couldn’t do. He’s sorry he couldn’t be there. I understand and accept his apologies. I’m old enough to understand that. He knew he messed up and wasn’t ready and able to raise me. I don’t hold a grudge against my father by him not being there. I look at him as a young man in my eyes and say, ‘It’s OK. I’m still going to be your son.’”
At MCHS, Norwood found several role models that could offer him the guidance he lacked at home.
“Coach (Jeremy Whittington), Coach Johnson and Coach Denver Jackson — all of them are great coaches,” Norwood said. “If it wasn’t for Whitt’s basketball program — I definitely wouldn’t be here where I’m at. His basketball program changed me tremendously.
“I came here and had like three F’s. I’m running every day behind those grades and he was on my butt to get those grades up. His program didn’t just teach me to be a better basketball player, but as a better person outside of school and in school as well. He wasn’t just a basketball coach to me — he was like a mentor. He was always on me. Like that father, the disciplined father that I never had. People just think he’s a basketball coach, but he’s like a mentor or father to me. I re-spect that man tremendously. If he was in a trouble I would do anything for him, Coach Johnson and Coach Denver be-cause they were always there for me.”
Ray said she appreciates the things the coaches at MCHS did for her son and the young man they helped him become.
“They were a big influence on him since he didn’t have a male figure in his life for a long period,” Ray said. “I think they did a tremendous job with him. Being there for him. They really stepped up to it and helped him and encouraged him. I really love those guys — all of them. I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”
Norwood’s mom had simple instructions for him in his new chapter in life: take your time, do your best and keep God first.
When Ray met Johnson for the first time she asked what he thought of her son. He affectionately called her mom and told her his impression of her son.
“I love Gary,” Ray said. “I met him after one of his track meets. He said, ‘Mom, I’m going to get Tootie out of here. I’m going to do my best.’ I asked him what he thought when he first met him. He said, ‘Thank you God. Tootie is awesome.’”