Cheatham Norrils’ near death experience fuels Toledo’s run

Courtesy Cecil Anderson

It started with a sharp pain in his side. That was followed by bad headaches, drowsiness and weakness. Then there was the temperature that soared to 103.

What could possibly be tearing through Cheatham Norrils’ body?

Family, friends and teammates could only hope that whatever it was would release its mighty grip.

Toledo-Ball-StateWhat the Toledo defensive back experienced during the summer of 2014 was nothing short of pure hell. Norrils was working out after the July 4 holiday when he started to feel down and out. Tests and physicians and more tests and more physicians yielded frustratingly little insight as to what was afflicting the young man, who would be hospitalized for 10 days and lose 25-30 pounds.

Ultimately, pneumonia proved to be part of the package and Norrils was told he also had a viral infection. There was  never an exact diagnosis.

“They never knew exactly what the viral infection was all about,” he said this week. “I had pneumonia for sure, but they did not know what the viral infection came from, what it was and that it just had to run its course. It was a bad situation and basically life or death.”

As Norrils struggled with the illness he could see the toll it was taking on his family. His mother, Willa, became his biggest concern even as he was in his hospital bed unsure of what tomorrow would bring … or if there would be a tomorrow.

“I was really very worried about my mom, dad and little brother having to see me go through that in the hospital,” he said. “I am pretty sure as a parent, to watch one of your loved ones, especially your own child, go through something like that with nobody able to provide answers can be very frustrating. I did not want to see my mom go through that pain. The way my family remained strong with me I think is why I am here today.”

Norrils was able to leave the hospital after medications targeting pneumonia and viral infections stabilized things a bit. However, because there was a stretch of five days during his hospitalization in which he did not so much as walk, he developed blood clots. That meant taking blood thinners on top of all the medication he was already on.

It would be a couple of months before Norrils felt somewhat normal and was cleared for physical activity. At first it was back to the basics of life. Forget about preparing for what would have been his senior season.

“I was basically just trying to eat and I was still real weak,” said Norrils, who redshirted last year. “I looked real bad and eventually started to work out, but not straining at all. I did not want to put my body through that and I just took it slow.”

It was indeed a slow process for Norrils. The months peeled off the calendar as he worked on his stamina and getting his weight back up. By the time spring drills commenced, eight months after he was ill, Norrils was still not 100 percent, but close.

His spirits were lifted more in May when he received his undergrad degree in criminal justice. His line of study was fitting because Willa is a Toledo police officer and his father, Eddie, is a probation officer. Norrils, who is pursuing a Master’s in recreation administration, may not go the law enforcement route as a career path.

“With my criminal justice and recreation administration (backgrounds) I want to do something involved with kids,” he said. “I do not exactly want to be a police officer, but I want to have a career helping youth.”

With his youthful exuberance fully restored and his strength all the way back by the time fall camp began, Norrils was ready to contribute to Toledo’s cause. The co-captain has 18 tackles and five passes broken up in helping the Rockets to a 3-0 mark heading into Saturday’s 3 p.m. ET MAC contest at Ball State.

Norrils will be wearing No. 1 after wearing No. 11 his first three seasons. The change signifies a new beginning for him as well as a tribue to his father, who wore the number as a receiver at Defiance College.

One other change: Norrils’ outlook on life.

“What I went through made me grow mentally and also physically,” he said. “I see football from a different viewpoint and also growing and maturing to see what I can do to better myself on and off the field. I made changes in what I eat and just living in general.”

 On the cover: Cheatham Norrils is finally back to 100% after a mystery illness paired with pneumonia devastated his body. (Photo courtesy of Cecil Anderson )
Above: Video courtesy Toledo Athletics;  family photos courtesy Norrils family.
Tom Layberger

Tom Layberger

Tom Layberger is a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa.