Remembering a legend: former teammates reflect on Bob Norris
Published: Monday, February 19, 2007
Updated: Sunday, July 19, 2009 05:07
The exact details of Delaware's season-opening game against Rhode Island on Sept. 6, 1986 have faded a little in former Hen Ted Kempski's mind, but the outcome and the man who made the difference have not.
The game-time temperature and humidity were so high the team's medical personnel seriously considered postponing the game until later in the afternoon or even Sunday.
Coming into the game, Rhode Island, the defending Yankee Conference champions, was a heavy favorite to not only win, but take the conference once again.
However, when Bob "Bullet-Bob" Norris plucked the opening kick-off from the suffocating air and weaved his way through defenders all the way up to the Rhode Island 35-yard line, a different story began to unfold.
With quarterback Rich Gannon, who went on to NFL stardom, orchestrating the offense, Delaware scored quickly thanks to two more clutch plays by Norris.
He broke off several more big plays on the following possessions until the second quarter when he went into the game to return another Rhode Island punt. As the high-arcing ball was coming down, Norris passed out due to the extreme heat. The ball bounced off of his helmet and he collapsed on the ground.
Medical staff revived the 5-foot-9, 210-pound running back on the sideline but told him he could not play again during the half.
However, Norris, nicknamed "Bullet Bob," took the field again after halftime and gutted out the heat on the way to a 44-10 romp over the defending champions. Ultimately, he helped lead the Hens to a tie for the conference championship that season by rushing for a team-high 804 yards on 152 carries and scoring eight touchdowns.
On Feb. 12 a gunman, upset over an investment deal opened fire at a business meeting and killed Norris, 41, and two other executives.
Kempski, who was the offensive coordinator and backfield coach during Norris' 1984-86 career at Delaware, said the game against Rhode Island was just one example of how Norris not only stepped up for big games, but gave it his all every day.
However, Norris' impact went far beyond the football field, he said.
"First of all, he was an outstanding young man and everything he did both on and off the field, that I was aware of, was right down the straight and narrow," he said.
Kempski said Norris, a father of three, was the last person he thought would be a victim to such a violent crime.
"Everything about him was top-drawer and it's a big loss for everyone," he said.
Besides being a prolific running back, Norris also returned kicks and led the team in receiving his junior and senior year. His 4,870 all-purpose yards set a school record until it was broken more than a decade later.
During his senior year, Norris scored six touchdowns on plays more than 40 yards, including an 80-yard punt return against William & Mary.
"He was one of the very best, versatile players that has ever played at the University of Delaware," Kempski said.
A year after graduating from Delaware, Norris was given a tryout with the Seattle Seahawks. He did not make the team but went on to enlist in the Marines and served in Kuwait and Iraq in the Gulf War, Kempski said.
Later, Norris served as an officer for the New Castle County Police force for 14 years before retiring to embark on a new business venture.
Tubby Raymond, head football coach from 1966 to 2001, said he remembered Norris well.
"He was a very fine athlete, an exceptional leader and just a No. 1 kid," Raymond said. "He was just one of those guys you never forget."
Raymond said he followed his former player's career after college and had a chance to catch up with Norris again at the Gannon golf tournament last spring.
"He was an admirable young man and I just thought the world of him," Raymond said.
Norris' teammates said they were shocked when they found out about the death of their friend.
Chris Coyne, the center during Norris' era, said he was watching "Good Morning America" the morning following the incident and saw something about a shooting in Philadelphia, but did not think anything of it. Coyne went to work and then later received a call from a teammate telling him one of the victims was Norris.
"We were in total disbelief," he said. "Something like that shouldn't happen to somebody like Bob Norris. I still just can't believe it. I can't believe it."
Coyne said he and Norris met for lunch in December at Klondike Kate's and talked about a new business interest of Norris' - trying to start up a country club in his hometown.
"Bob was always a very positive and upbeat kind of guy," he said. "Things were going well, beautiful wife, beautiful family. His life was just going in the right direction."
Another former teammate, Joe McGrail, said he saw Norris for the first time in 20 years last spring at Gannon's annual golf tournament.
"He looked like hadn't aged a day," McGrail said. "It was like looking back and watching 'Bullet-Bob' Norris."
He said it feels like that football team from more than two decades ago has once again become united, because of the tragedy.
"When you play football like that you're sort of an exclusive group," McGrail said. "But then you graduate and sort of go your separate ways. It's unfortunate but something like this has brought a lot of guys back together."
As Kempski mentioned, it is a loss that will be felt on many different levels.
"I feel so sorry for his family, his parents, and his wife and children," he said. "And it's a great loss to the football family of Delaware."
"It's a tragedy and nothing short of it."