CLEMSON — The catalyst might have been trips to Goose Creek to visit his grandmother, often joined by the kindly neighbor brightening someone’s day.
It might have been those weeknights home in Simpsonville helping his older sister with her homework, or sweating through one of many practices over five years in college with the undying encouragement of a warmhearted team manager.
Whether one experience struck more than the others, all contributed to Clemson senior offensive lineman Ryan Norton’s eureka moment not long ago when he realized what he wanted to do with his life once his helmet and cleats are hung up for good.
“I’m planning on getting my master’s in special education with an emphasis on learning disabilities,” said Norton, who will do so at Clemson’s startup program in Greenville. “I’ll be a resource teacher, basically. I want to coach football and track in high school as well.”
Norton will run down The Hill for the final time in a Clemson uniform Saturday when No. 1 Clemson hosts Wake Forest on Senior Day, bidding adieu to Death Valley before the top-ranked Tigers go to South Carolina, the ACC Championship Game and possibly the College Football Playoff in the weeks to come.
And all the while, Norton will keep on keeping on with his headstart into the coaching world.
Norton’s grandfather, Alvin, was serving overseas in the Army when he met his wife, a German woman named Erika. Their son, Ralf, was born on the army base in Germany and moved to Charleston with his parents when he was two years old.
Erika, who became an American citizen last year, lives in Goose Creek today, where over the years she would welcome visits from Ralf and his children. A woman in the neighborhood named Lori Ann, who had Down Syndrome, cooked for Erika and kept her company, which caught the attention of Ralf’s youngest son.
“People don’t understand, even though they have a disability,” Ryan Norton said, “how much they can really impact and help other people.”
When Ryan’s older sister, Blair, was in high school, she was affected by (though never diagnosed with) dyslexia, and struggled in math.
“Ryan saw his mother and I working with Blair constantly on her homework. I guess it was a little confusing at a younger age for him, to see us spend the bulk of our time helping her.” Ralf Norton said. “As he got older, he really started helping me and her with her homework, especially on the math side.”
Ralf figured he had a possible engineer in the family, but Ryan attended Clemson on a football scholarship and graduated last May as a history major. Experiences with Lori Ann, Blair and Clemson equipment manager David Saville, who is part of the Clemson LIFE program that helps students with learning disabilities, shifted Norton’s career plans.
“I wanted to teach,” Ryan said, referring to history. “But (helping those with special needs) is something I would love to do.”
When Norton took the Tigers’ first snap in their Sept. 12 game against Appalachian State, it marked his 40th career game and 26th start at center. Only senior left guard Eric Mac Lain (41 games, three starts at the time) had appeared in more games. No other player on the roster had more than 20 starts.
Entering 2015 as a third-year starter, Norton’s role diminished quickly with a sprained knee suffered the following week of practice.
By the time Norton was healthy enough to return to game action in late October, junior center Jay Guillermo had twice been named the ACC offensive lineman of the week and the Tigers’ offensive line was receiving praise as one of the top units in the country. Suddenly Norton was a backup.
“A lot of times when guys get hurt, they take themselves away from the game,” Mac Lain said. “But Ryan has been in Jay’s ear all the time, right beside him, whenever he needs anything. Ryan’s great at being on the sidelines and looking at what defenses do.
“He’s going to be a great coach one day, because he can see things and pick it apart.”
Said right guard Maverick Morris: “He’ll watch everything Jay does. Jay will turn around and say, did you see anything that last drive? And Ryan will help him correct his mistakes.”
Norton’s knee still ails him, but after missing seven straight games he played 14 snaps at right guard last Saturday at Syracuse.
“I was extremely nervous. It was like playing football for the first time again,” Norton said. “I’m embracing every moment I have to practice or play football, because football is ending for me soon.”
Norton considers pro football a long shot, though still a shot. He plans to go through Clemson’s NFL Pro Day. For now, he’s serving as a player-coach on the sideline and a valuable reserve should the Tigers need one.
“I’m just doing anything and everything I can possibly do to help the team,” Norton said. “If that’s coaching on the sideline from a player’s perspective, if that’s getting to play a little bit here and there, I have the opportunity to help, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
With the practices dwindling away, Norton can remember Lori Ann, think of Blair (now 26, living in nearby Greenville) or look over at David Saville, a daily reminder of what’s to come.
“He has really impacted me, looking at him, seeing his attitude every day,” Norton said. “Seeing someone like that be extremely happy and thankful is an unbelievable experience.
“I’ve seen how that teacher can affect somebody’s life. I’ve wanted to help people my whole life. Help people grow. This is my best opportunity to do that.”