ELIZABETHTOWN — East Bladen graduate Abby Norris will long be remembered for her academic and athletic accomplishments, held in high esteem by other student-athletes who hope to mirror Norris’ successes.
But last weekend, it was Norris who experiencing a memorable time and looking up to athletes who have taken their youthful successes to much higher levels in life.
Norris spent the weekend in Canton, Ohio, for the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Weekend as part of the U.S. Army-Pro Football Hall of Fame Award for Excellence celebration. She was one of three student-athletes from North Carolina and 20 nationwide who were finalists for the honor.
“Athletes and Army soldiers alike know the importance of adaptability and versatility when working as a team,” said Mark Davis, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for marketing. “We are excited to partner with the Pro Football Hall of Fame to recognize these outstanding student-athletes; athletes who excel in their chosen sport, shine academically, and are outstanding members of their communities.”
For Norris, the weekend was the culmination of a high school career that saw her honored with numerous accolades. Among those was the 2014-15 Mountaire Farms/Civitas Media Female Athlete of the Year; graduating in June as the class valedictorian; the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s Wilburn Clary Medal Award; several all-conference selections in basketball, volleyball and softball; and many others.
“My biggest goal was to get in at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is why I did everything I did,” Norris said recently. “Once I got in, I didn’t want to stop there. I wanted to be the best I could be.”
Norris will enter UNC this fall with an eye on a degree in biology.
The weekend in Ohio — which included being honored at a luncheon, being guests at the annual Enshrinement ceremony at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium and attending the NFL Hall of Fame Game, where the finalists were honored at halftime and the overall winner announced — capped off the summer for Norris in a huge way. It was also a big weekend for those who made the trip with Norris, including her volley ball coach Jennifer Hair and her athletics director/coach Patty Evers.
“It was an experience of a lifetime,” Evers said. “It was a great opportunity for Abby to be among the best of the best. The student-athletes and their guests were treated with so much respect.”
Evers said Norris was an equal among the 19 other finalists.
“Abby was definitely one of the best in the country,” she said. “Her GPA was one of the highest of the group and her athletic honors definitely stood out.”
During the Enshrinement Weekend luncheon, Norris and the other finalists were joined by numerous NFL stars — such as Michael Irvin, James Lofton, Chris Doleman, Michael Haynes and Anthony Munoz — each of whom spoke with the finalists. Others in attendanece included Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Hines Ward and Ben Rothlisberger.
The fact that the Hall of Fame Game pitted the Minnesota against the Pittsburgh Steelers — as well as the fact hat former Steelers star Jerome “The Bus” Bettis was being inducted — was especially fun for Evers, who is a big Steelers fan.
“My favorite part of the trip was watching Jerome Bettis being inducted into the Hall of Fame and listening to all of the speeches,” she said. “It was very inspiring and it’s what sports and life are all about.”
But the biggest star of the weekend, at least for the local contingent, was Norris.
“We are very proud of Abby and this capped off an amazing career for her at East Bladen,” Evers said. “She will definitely be missed next year.”
Evers added that Norris’ name will accompany the other 19 finalists on a plaque that will permanently hang in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Norris, who is off to her freshman year at UNC, was not available for this story. She and Melissa Macon (2013) are the only East Bladen graduates to be a finalists for the Award of Excellence.
Courtney Cecere from Forest Hills High School in Sidman, Pa., was selected the overall winner of the Award of Excellence.
— W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.