Before his Nevada football team took the field at San Diego State two weekends ago, head coach Jay Norvell asked his players to close their eyes and think of somebody they wanted to honor in that game.
It didn’t take long for Norvell to settle on the person who’d be on his mind. He picked his mother, Cynthia, who died in May at age 79 after a battle with cancer. Norvell etched her initials ("HCN" for Harriette Cynthia Norvell) in black letters onto his white visor before leading his team into battle.
Three hours later, Norvell was near tears after his Wolf Pack picked up a historic victory, a 17-13 win over SDSU, the school’s first road win over a Top 25 team and tied for the largest upset in school history, per the betting line.
“You always play harder when you play for somebody else,” Norvell said. “I told them I put my mom’s initials on my hat. I was just thinking about her and I wanted to dedicate the effort and the day to her.”
After the win, Norvell gave his visor to his father, Merritt, who married Cynthia on July 4, 1962, their marriage spanning nearly 57 years. The SDSU win was the second time Norvell had dedicated a game to his mother this season. After the Wolf Pack’s season-opening win over Purdue, which included a 17-point second-half comeback capped by a game-winning 56-yard field goal by Brandon Talton as time expired, Norvell handed out games balls. One of them went to his mom.
Cynthia Norvell drew up in Big 10 country, moving from Massillon, Ohio to Madison, Wisc., at age 9, where she met Merritt after high school. Norvell said his mom was a big-time Big 10 fan, so she would have loved watching her son’s team beat a Big 10 opponent in dramatic fashion to kick off the season.
“She’s always been a football fan,” Norvell said. “She loved the Big Ten because she grew up in Big Ten country, so she would have loved the Purdue game. We all played against Purdue – my dad, my brother and myself – in college. She was a huge football fan, a huge sports fan and supported me in every way.”
Cynthia Norvell was the perfect mom. She would drive her sons, Jay and Aaron, to every sporting event, cook meals for their friends and offer sage wisdom at important moments in their lives. She was more than just Jay and Aaron’s mom. In many ways, she was the neighborhood mother in tight-knit Madison.
“She was the one taking us everywhere,” Jay said. “If we had baseball practice or basketball or football, she was always driving us. Our house was right next to the church, and there was a big field, so my house was kind of the gathering place for the games, so we’d get on the phone – and kids don’t do this anymore – but we’d get on the phone and say, ‘We’re playing at 2 o’clock,’ and everybody would show up at our house and we’d come back after the game and my mom would feed everybody.
“I had a basketball hoop in my driveway, and I was always out there shooting and my buddies would show up and we’d have the 8-track and the cassette player going, just playing 21 all day long and my mom was always there to feed us. She was kind of the team mom and the neighborhood mom. I have a handful of really close friends I’ve known since kindergarten and we’re all very close and they’re very close with my family and their parents are very close. It was a great time to grow up in Madison, Wisc. It was a great place with great families. Everybody’s mom kind of looked out after everybody else.”
Cynthia was a ground-breaker of sorts. She was an actress and model in the late 1960s and early 1970s after being discovered in Madison’s famed Manchester’s department store and became one of the first prominent African-American models, Norvell said. She was an in-demand print and runway model who was featured in a spread in Ebony in 1966 where it was said she helped define typical beauty standards, set new precedents and popularized fashion trends of the day.
“My mom was a model and she was one of the first African-American models to really get recognized nationally,” Norvell said. “They did a piece on her in Ebony magazine and she was a working-class lady and a model in a city that was predominantly white. There was a story on her and me and my brother and there were a lot of pictures of us as little kids as well as pictures of my mom and dad. Mom was ahead of her time. For a lot of my family members, she was the first block model they ever saw on TV or advertisements or anything. She was a beautiful, gorgeous woman and so kind.”
Cynthia eventually gave up her career to raise her family, instilling values in her sons that still exist today. Nevada’s first team goal is respect. He got that from his mom. Norvell wants his players to be gentlemen in every way and he wants to hear from the community that his kids are genuine role models.
The Wolf Pack coach said he misses talking to his mom this season. He would call her a couple of times a week, one of those conversations coming every Sunday after going to church in the morning. On game days, Norvell keeps his mom’s memory close.
“I’m Catholic and I keep a rosary in my pocket during the game,” Norvell said. “I have a finger rosary that was given to me to remember my mom, so I keep that all the time. I think about her all the time. In pre-game, I’m a pretty ritualistic person. We do the same thing before every game. Before the game, I always kind of stop and pause and think about mom and my parents and my wife and my son.”
Norvell's family was on his mind prior to the SDSU game. So was his team. Nevada's best performances under Norvell, the coach said, have come when his players have been unselfish. That's why he asked his guys to close their eyes prior to the game and think of somebody they wanted to play for. After the win, emotions ran high as Norvell thought about his mom and gave his dad his game-day visor. This victory meant a little more.
“Absolutely,” Norvell said. “I was really lucky to have my son there and my dad there and my brother on the sideline. When I gave my hat to my dad after the game he said, ‘Mom was always good luck.’”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.