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Criminal past overlooked for latest hero named to Jackson Sports Hall of Fame

fr athleticA new plaque coming soon to the Jackson County Sports of Hall Fame will no doubt raise some eyebrows of those who pass it in the entry foyer of the justice center.

A man convicted of first-degree rape who served 13 years in state prison for the crime will soon join the wall of sports heroes in the Jackson County Sports Hall of Fame.

John Henry Norman by all accounts was a fabled basketball player. Playing for Sylva-Webster High School in the late 1960s, Norman played during an era still remembered fondly as the golden era of high school sports in Jackson County. 

“He was a fabulous basketball player. I remember going to see him play,” said Phyllis Fox, who’s on the Jackson Sports Hall of Fame selection committee. “He was a big tall guy. He went after that ball and when he got it you could hear it all over the gym. He slapped that ball.”

When Norman was 25, he was convicted of raping a 20-year-old college student after offering to drive her home from a party. 

That was 40 years ago. Norman is now 65. 

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“Forgiveness is not the issue. We do not get into people’s personal lives. Athletic ability and accomplishments are what we consider,” Fox said.

Character isn’t a criteria for the Jackson Sports Hall of Fame, agreed Carey Phillips, who’s also on the selection committee. 

“There is nothing in the hall of fame guidelines regarding anything of that nature. So by rule, he was eligible to be inducted,” said Phillips, sports editor for the Sylva Herald.

However, it is common practice among other sports halls of fame to have unspoken criteria for serious offenses.

Don Fish with the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame said they would never induct a convicted felon.

“He would not be eligible as a hall of famer,” Fish said. “When you get into the hall of fame, it is your past life and present.”

The sports hall of fame at Western Carolina University has never specifically dealt with that conundrum, but it’s likely something the selection committee would take into account, said Daniel Hooker, WCU’s Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations.

“I don’t think it is an extinguishing factor, but that might weigh on someone’s individual decision,” Hooker said.

“Depending on the circumstances I would say that would potentially be a disqualifier, sure,” added Billy Cooper, president of the Mountain Area Amateur Athletic Club, which hosts the annual banquet for the WNC Sports Hall of Fame.

Under the rules of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, students with a felony conviction aren’t allowed to play high school sports.


Making the grade

The Jackson County Sports Hall of Fame was created in the mid-1990s to recognize local high school sports figures.

There was a lot of catching up to do at first.

The selection committee culled sports champions going back decades and nominations pored in by the bucketload. A dozen sports heroes were getting inducted each year at the start.

There’s now more than 80 athletes in the hall of fame, with the county’s most important historic sports figures checked off the list.

Except Norman.

“If you recognize someone for whatever you recognize them for you’d like that person to be a shining example for the world, but we have all sinned and fallen short,” said Boyce Dietz, a member of the Sports Hall of Fame selection committee. “We are recognizing him for what he did when he was 19 years old. I know what a good player he was, and I know how he conducted himself in school and up until this incident.”

Dietz said he pondered long and hard what to do, thinking back to his days as a high school coach when he held a decision like that in his hands.

“If I had to decide whether to kick a kid off a team, and I knew it may be the only thing they had in their life, I had to look at myself in the mirror at night and do what I thought was right and not what everyone else thought was right,” Dietz said.

Dietz said he tried to think about it the same way when deciding about Norman’s nomination.

“Of course when someone has been in trouble like John, the first thing you think is ‘Oh we’ll get criticism and we shouldn’t do that,’” Dietz said.

Dietz said the rape was a tragedy and he isn’t insensitive to what the victim and her family went through.

“We ask a certain thing of people when they do something wrong and that’s pay society for what you did. And he done that,” Dietz said.


Looking back

For some kids who are either poor or come from hard backgrounds, sports was the only shining light in their lives, Dietz said.

“It’s kind of sad, but there are kids today who look back and say the best time in my life was when I was on the field in high school,” he said.

That may well have been the case for Norman.

He didn’t go college after high school, and as an African-American his career choices were limited in the early 1970s in the South.

He picked up random work, but nothing steady, until he landed in prison in 1975.

When he got out in 1987, he was back where he started — no skills and no education — only he was 37 now.

Norman spent the next 25 years in and out of trouble with the law.

He went back to prison a few times for short sentences, primarily on drug charges, from simple possession of marijuana to selling and delivering crack. But he also had an assault, a theft and possession of stolen property, usually netting him probation, which he often violated. His most recent drug charge — a simple possession — was two years ago.

Boyce said the selection committee didn’t know about all the other trouble Norman got in since his rape conviction 40 years ago.

Phillips also said they weren’t aware of that.

“We aren’t doing background checks,” Phillips said.

They were aware of Norman’s major rape conviction, however.

The crime was highly sensitive due to its racial elements. It was 1975. Norman was African-American. The victim a white college student. 

Local court files and police records from the case no longer exist. The only record of what happened resides in state court archives in Raleigh, based on a brief recap included in a Court of Appeals ruling.

Norman offered a woman a ride home from a party and then forcibly raped her at knife point in the backseat of his car, according to court filings. A doctor’s examination the following day noted bruises on her arms, legs, back and breasts. Her torn clothing was submitted as evidence in court. Norman had testified they had sex consensually. The party was the first time they’d met.

Norman was inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame at a banquet on Sunday. When asked whether there was any awkwardness surrounding Norman at the banquet, Phillips said “no, not one bit.”

One other player was inducted as well: Colton Hunt, an all-conference basketball and football player at Smoky Mountain High School who graduated in 2009.

Rules stipulate five years have to pass since the player was in high school before they can be named to the Hall of Fame.

There are 11 people on the selection committee for the Jackson County Sports Hall of Fame. Each year, they vote on the list of nominees — there were about eight this year — by secret ballot.

Not everyone who’s nominated makes it. There were eight on the ballot this year, and only two were named to the hall of fame. Nominees who don’t make it are carried over to the following year.

Carey Phillips said this year was the first time Norman had ever been nominated.

“For an athletic standpoint there is no question that he is the greatest basketball player Sylva-Webster ever produced,” Philips said.

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