Former Michigan State linebacker Christian Norman speaks on his football memories and passing up the NFL to becoming a pastor.
Southfield — Standing 6-foot-1 and about 230 pounds, Christian Norman has a certain presence about him. His broad shoulders and muscular build belie the friendly handshake and disarming smile that quickly follow an encounter with him.
There’s more to Norman than what’s on the surface.
On the outside, Norman has the build of a menacing football player; beneath that, there’s the undeniable demeanor of a man of God.
Because that’s both who he was — and is.
Norman was a standout linebacker at Michigan State from 2009-12 and was poised for a pro career but made a dramatic decision to move into ministry. To realize that truth, Norman had to turn his back on the promise of fame and millions of dollars in the NFL.
Because, Norman says, that’s what God told him to do.
What he’s gotten instead is more valuable to him than the money or anything else. Through his obedience, Norman has found inner peace and fulfillment. Norman, 27, an associate pastor at Highland Park Baptist Church in Southfield, is tackling bigger issues in the congregation than the foes he faced with the Spartans.
“Are there times when I think about playing on a team right now? Not really,” Norman said. “For me, walking in what the Lord has called me to brings more satisfaction and joy than anything else.
“There’s been some pretty cool things that have happened as a direct or indirect result of making that decision.”
That includes meeting his wife, Kayla, who was a standout basketball player at the University of Florida. The two met in the summer of 2013 at the Ultimate Training Camp, sponsored by Athletes in Action, an organization that helps college athletes connect sports and faith.
After Norman’s senior season, when other NFL prospects were preparing for the combine and draft, he made the decision to forego football and pursue ministry — but that was wrought with obstacles.
Norman had the desire and knew what he wanted to do, but even with a degree in psychology, there wasn’t a pathway blazed for him to have a job or to pursue his passion. A friend who was a football team manager at Michigan State was a member at Highland Park Baptist Church, connected Norman to the pastoral staff, who heard Norman’s story and encouraged him to continue in his pursuit of ministry.
Led by senior pastor Brent Slater, they gave Norman a precious opportunity, including paying for his studies at Moody Theological Seminary and offering him a position in the ministry at the church.
Things just seemed to come together, ordering his steps and rewarding his faith.
“If you look back on Christian’s life, when he made that decision (it was hard). What you see now, he didn’t know,” Kayla said. “He didn’t know where he was going to go to seminary, he didn’t know how he was going to pay for it — he didn’t know anything.
“Once he was obedient, God opened the door for every single thing: fully-paid seminary, a job with part-time salary and an opportunity to do ministry. There were so many things that came along with it. Someone even gave him a car.”
There would seem to be the nagging questions about why Norman turned away from the millions of dollars and the esteem of playing in the NFL. He was projected to be drafted in the third or fourth round and seemed to have a promising future laid out for him.
Those thoughts are long past gone.
Being obedient to his calling in the ministry overtook the desire to play in the NFL — and that wasn’t easy for many in his circle of family and friends to accept.
“That’s what really made it difficult. I love all my family and close friends. I really value their input and what they have to say and think and these are my closest relationships,” Norman said. “Knowing I was doing something that would possibly disappoint the people who are really close to me was hard.
“I had to reach a place: who do I want to live my life for? Do I want to live my life for the thoughts and opinions of others — even when those thoughts and opinions are valuable — or do I ultimately want to follow what the Lord has put for me? It was difficult but it was rewarding because in those spaces of difficulty, I felt comfort and some people came alongside me and were with me in that journey.”
Sunday was the culmination of much of Norman’s sacrifice, as he reached another milestone in being ordained. That was only part of his day, as he did his normal Sunday lesson in Highland Park’s chapel. Donning a gray suit — dressed up only because of the ordination, Norman relents — he worked with 30 young adults and professionals, teaching a lesson about Jesus’ anointing.
It’s worlds away from calling plays and making tackles, but the memories linger. The reputation of a bruising linebacker is washed away. With glasses and the disarming smile, he’s transformed into minister Norman now.
And it’s Norman’s obedience to God’s plan for him that made it possible.
Things weren’t always simple for Norman, who grew up in Detroit and was an all-state linebacker at Renaissance High School. His head coach, Antonio Watts, remembers the transition that Norman had to make to even start to excel in football.
“In ninth grade, he wasn’t even 175 pounds and he started on junior varsity, with little arms and legs, but his body was growing,” Watts said. “He kept getting bigger and stronger and his work ethic was as good as anybody I’ve ever had.”
High school was filled with pitfalls and with the academic rigor at Renaissance, Norman was walking a tightrope of not fulfilling the requirements to stay there.
“Freshman year, he was a knucklehead,” Watts said. “I told him he was not going to be able to stay at Renaissance with bad grades and a bad attitude.”
Things took a turn from there, both on and off the field.
After Norman’s sophomore season at Renaissance, he gained the interest of Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio and then-defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who were eager to recruit him. In that process, Norman’s inquisitive and contemplative nature caught them off guard.
“He asked Narduzzi, ‘What do you expect of me as a linebacker at MSU?’” Watts recalled. “(Narduzzi) said he was the first kid to ask him that. That’s just what Chris did.”
Kayla, who was a co-captain at Florida, had an opportunity to play in the WNBA, but didn’t have any idea who he was when they met. She was an intern for Athletes in Action and after they met at the summer camp, things just fell in place.
“In the beginning, I didn’t even know that. I met him and there were other Spartans who were interns,” she said. “He was there for three or four days and a couple months later, we were officially dating. He drove down to Atlanta to ask my parents if he could date me. He was very chivalrous in the way he went about pursuing me.”
Things steered in a different direction after meeting Norman and they’ve been married for three years — and there are no regrets for either of them. There’s a shared belief that they both made the right decision to pursue a life of faith rather than pro sports.
Getting there wasn’t an easy decision but he’s happy with that choice — and the direction his life has taken.
“If we really follow Christ and do what God asks us to do, it can make things a little easier on us versus doing it our own way,” Norman said. “God just has to get us to a place where we have to listen — and that can be more difficult.”