The Wolverine

2014 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 172 of 275

THE WOLVERINE 2014 FOOTBALL PREVIEW ■ 171 it's not about me and what I do. It's who I'm doing it for. I am not playing for Dennis Norfleet anymore. I am playing for the team and putting us in a good position. I have a lot of people depending on me to get us past the 25. I do it for my teammates. When I step back there, I'm thinking about my teammates, the coaches and the fans. That is my job, to get us past the 25 and get extra." In his first two seasons in Ann Arbor, Nor- fleet has certainly made an impact. He returned a total of 75 kickoffs for 1,765 yards in 2012 and 2013, and already ranks second on U-M's career lists in both categories. In fact, with just seven more re- turns and 229 return yards he will break the all-time records set by Steve Breaston (81 returns for 1,993 yards from 2003-06). With Norfleet's career kickoff return aver- age of 23.5 yards per return — which ranks eighth in program history among players who amassed at least 20 returns — he will likely own the yardage record after just 10 more runbacks. At his current pace, Nor- fleet will be more than 1,500 yards ahead of Breaston by the end of his senior year. With every return, Norfleet — whose ca- reer long of 44 yards came against Indiana last season — looks at everything past the 25-yard line as gravy, a way to go above and beyond expectations and do something truly special. It's the same outlook he has on life, in general. After a tough childhood, splitting time between Wisconsin and Detroit — liv- ing with his mother, a friend's family and his grandparents — and struggling with a learning disability, Norfleet earned his way to the University of Michigan. And now that a running lane has opened up in front of him, he's racing toward the goal line. Getting The Offer When Norfleet was 9 years old, he stepped on a football field for the first time as a member of the Steelers, a youth club team in Racine, Wis. In a move that has come to define Norfleet's football identity, the Steel- ers' coaches put him back to field the first kickoff of the season. "My first kick return, it was like, I didn't know what to do," Norfleet recalled. "Ev- eryone was running toward me, and the only thing I knew was just to run as fast as I could. I can remember getting to around the 50-yard line, and how exciting it was when everyone was cheering." Norfleet spent his childhood moving back and forth between Racine and Detroit, where he was born. In Wisconsin, he sometimes stayed with his mother, other times with the family of his best friend, Mitchell Farr, whose father was the head coach of the youth-league Steelers. When he came back to Detroit, he was welcomed by his maternal grandmother, Sarah Mitchell, and her new husband, Kenny Mitchell. Although Norfleet made the best of his childhood, some things fell through the cracks during his nomadic existence. He struggled to read, eventually falling behind in school. Moving from one school district to another made it even harder to catch up. By the time Norfleet permanently moved back to Detroit the summer before sixth grade, he had learned to escape into football, leaving all his outside problems buried for those brief bursts of speed and athleticism, avoiding oncoming defenders rushing down the field. "To be honest, I wasn't looking that far ahead, at college and things," Norfleet said. "I wasn't thinking about playing college football. I just knew I wanted to be on the field, so I cherished every moment I could out there. I was just playing to have fun, because that's what I wanted to do. "As I started getting more and more into it, football became a big part of who I am. When I wasn't having a good day or some- thing was on my mind, the football field was where I went. I loved playing and it was fun, and you could be a part of something bigger than yourself." His grandparents, whom he lived with full time through middle and high school, helped support Norfleet while he continued to excel on the football field but struggled academically. Sarah Mitchell, who grew up playing bas- ketball and baseball, and Kenny Mitchell, who often took Fridays off work to travel to all of Norfleet's games, have been a huge source of motivation and inspiration from which Norfleet continues to draw. "She has helped get me through a lot," Norfleet said of his grandmother. "I rely on her every day. I love making her smile. And my granddad, he has been by my side since I can remember. "Those two are keeping me going. They got me through high school and everything I needed to do." At Martin Luther King High School, Nor- fleet was a force despite his small frame. In his final two seasons, he rushed for an impressive 3,913 yards and 58 touchdowns while adding eight scores on kickoff returns. rated him as the No. 236 over- all player nationally in the 2012 class, but he had just a handful of offers after his senior season. He made no secret about his dream of playing for the Wolverines, going to camps in Ann Arbor every summer with the hopes that he would catch the eye of a Michigan coach and earn an offer. The summer before his senior season, he saw fellow Detroit native Raymon Taylor earn an offer at Michigan's camp — but as time went on, and signing day drew closer, "I have learned it's not about me and what I do. It's who I'm doing it for. I am not playing for Dennis Norfleet anymore. I am playing for the team and putting us in a good position." NORFLEET After bringing back 75 kickoffs for 1,765 yards the past two seasons, Norfleet needs just seven runbacks and 229 return yards to set school records in both categories. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL 170-173.Dennis Norfleet.indd 171 6/19/14 2:43 PM

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