Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Zach Read
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins
n 2001, Eric Otis and his wife, Africa, moved to Gastonia, North Carolina, from Rochester, New York. Eric, a former defensive back at the University of Buffalo, had accepted a position as a guidance counselor in the Gaston County school system. Together, they were raising Africa’s 10-year-old daughter, Brianna, and looking forward to expanding their family.
The move marked the next phase in their lives. For Eric, uncle of Tar Heel bandit Norkeithus Otis, relocating to North Carolina brought him closer to McComb, Mississippi, where his family lived, and gave him the chance to reconnect with the region he was from. Africa, a U.S. Army reservist and active duty veteran, had enjoyed military travel and was excited to experience a new part of the country.
In the fall of 2001, however, as they were still acclimating themselves to their new home, tragic events altered their lives more significantly than any geographical relocation or job change could. First, on October 5, Eric’s half-brother Lester was murdered in Knoxville. Then, less than six weeks later, on November 14, his sister Ayesha died of leukemia.
“It was a lot to take in,” says Eric, who serves as dean of students at Grier Middle School in Gastonia. “But we’ve always stressed perseverance, therefore we had to keep going.”
Eric had a close relationship with his sister. He remembers her competitive approach as a track athlete in high school—an approach he shared with her, one that translated into his own physical style of play in college.
She was never one to give up, he recalls. That’s why she’d proven such a reliable provider for her five kids, working factory jobs in various industries in Mississippi to make sure their needs were met.
When Ayesha passed, Eric and Africa worried about their niece and nephews. Without her support, where would they live? Who would look after them?
Rather than waste time deliberating over the pros and cons of taking in their niece and nephews, weighing options that wouldn’t solve the kids’ immediate needs, Eric and Africa decided to move them to North Carolina and become their guardians.
“We sat down and had a conversation about what was in the best interest of the kids,” Eric says. “We knew that we could send money to Mississippi to help them. But that wasn’t enough. We were in a position to provide more than money, and that’s what we wanted to do.”
Africa, chief financial officer for the City of Mount Holly, calls the decision to bring her niece and nephews to Gastonia a “no-brainer.”
“Now that I know the position … I’m ready to fly around the field.”
“We moved them here to support them and give them a different perspective on the possibilities and potentials that life could offer them,” she says. “They were from a small town in Mississippi. There weren’t going to be a lot of job opportunities for them and there wouldn’t be much expectation of going to college.”
Although neither Africa nor Eric had doubts about bringing the kids to Gastonia, Africa credits her husband for the decision.
“As the first of his mother’s children to graduate from college, Eric’s perspective has always been, ‘I want to reach back and help my family,’” she says. “He thinks, ‘I didn’t accomplish the things I have in life and God didn’t afford me the opportunity to graduate from college so that I could have this all on my own. He gave me this opportunity so that I could reach back and help my family and anyone else.’”
Among the five siblings who moved east to be with their uncle and aunt was Norkeithus. The second oldest of his siblings, he was only ten years old at the time his mother died, the same age as Brianna.
“It was a rough period of my life,” Norkeithus says. “But my uncle and aunt helped me and my siblings understand that my mom is always looking over us and that we have to move on and do what’s best for us.”
Today, Norkeithus, who saw the field as a true freshman and last season had 42 tackles—11 for loss—and 6.5 sacks, is closing in on receiving his degree from Carolina. And he isn’t the only one of his siblings in college. His older sister graduated from Southern Mississippi in May, and two younger brothers attend Wingate University and Tennessee Temple University, respectively. His youngest brother is currently a junior in high school.
“My uncle had a plan and he stuck to it,” laughs Norkeithus.
As he heads into his senior season, Norkeithus has plans of his own. After learning new defensive philosophies and schemes under coach Larry Fedora’s staff, which culminated in starting all 12 games last season at the bandit position, he believes that his grasp of the position has finally reached the level of his athleticism and determination.
“Now that I know the position—now that I can explain it to other guys and I’m comfortable talking about it—I’m ready to fly around the field,” he says. “When something becomes second nature to you, when you understand it, you can begin to add your own flavor to the mix.”
Norkeithus acknowledges that the bandit has been difficult to master because of the number of responsibilities that come along with it: dropping into coverage, rushing the passer, and serving as a solid run stopper. But he has worked diligently in the offseason to improve areas of his game, and as the Tar Heels embark on the 2014 season, he expects to step up as a run-stop linebacker and become an even better pass rusher than he was a year ago. For the former, he’s been working on getting better leverage and holding the point. For the latter, he’s been working on hand placement.
“I’ve been doing a lot of hand work,” he says, crediting graduate assistant Tommy Richardson for his offseason improvements. “I don’t play well with my hands. I’m one of those pass rushers that gets off the ball and just goes. But sometimes when you’re tangled up, you need to get the offensive guy’s hands off you. I expect to become a more complete pass rusher this season. … It’s been a challenge, but learning the bandit has helped me become a better linebacker and a better player.”
One intangible that Norkeithus carries with him on Saturdays and that garners praise from his coaching staff is the consistent effort he gives from kickoff until the final seconds tick off the clock. Much of Norkeithus’s motivation comes from inside, from his personal experiences and his desire to be the best player he can be. But self-motivation is only part of the story. Norkeithus is well aware that if he doesn’t play with energy on each and every possession, Eric will be more than happy to share his feelings about it. While Norkeithus was at Ashbrook High School, Eric trained and coached his nephew, so on Saturdays there’s always an extra set of eyes on him, evaluating his play.
“He knows my top speed,” says Norkeithus. “When he watches me play, he can tell if I don’t give it my all, and he lets me know what he thinks.”
Eric admits that he keeps close watch of Norkeithus’s level of effort and reminds him never to take a play off.
“If I think he took a play off, I get on him,” says Eric. “I’ve never been one to tell Norkeithus or any of his siblings what they want to hear. I tell them the things they don’t want to hear, and for Norkeithus, it motivates him. When he comes off the field at the end of each game, he knows that everything should be left out there—every little bit of energy, every ounce of enthusiasm. He has to have the feeling that when it’s all said and done, he gave everything he had.”
These days Norkeithus has plenty of reasons to remain motivated and to leave everything he has on the field. Last year, he became a father to Arianna. As he talks about Arianna, he lights up, and it’s clear she’s always front and center in his thoughts. He goes home to see her every chance he gets and FaceTimes with her daily when not in Gastonia.
Eric and Africa believe that becoming a father has helped their nephew mature.
The Otis family makes giving back to others a central tenet of their lives.
“He realizes that he needs to put himself in a position to provide for her,” says Eric.
For Norkeithus, becoming a father has also crystallized the lessons of service—to family and to those in need—that Eric and Africa have always tried to teach their kids, of which, with the addition of their three-year-old girl to Brianna and their niece and nephews, they now have seven. From serving on the United Way Youth Council, volunteering at the Salvation Army, feeding the homeless, participating in the March of Dimes, the Otis family makes giving back to others a central tenet of their lives.
“Our motto is that the film doesn’t lie,” says Africa. “That’s true on the field—are you giving it your all every play, every game?—and off it. Your actions on the field show what kind of player you are and off it what kind of person you are.”
With providing for Arianna his top priority, a life in football would seem to be Norkeithus’s end goal. But he doesn’t get caught up in whether his future includes the game he loves. A self-described country boy who can often be found at a fishing hole in Gaston County with his uncle or out on Lake Norman with friends, he would like nothing more than to spend his time after college in North Carolina, living out the lessons his uncle and aunt instilled in him.
“I don’t think about playing in the NFL,” he says. “If I play at the next level, I’d love it and I’d consider it a blessing. But that’s not my main goal. I’m looking to get my degree, and hopefully one day become a social worker, give back to the community, and help the people who helped me get to where I am.”
It’s as a person, not as a player, that he wants to leave his biggest mark in life. Down the road he envisions working in schools with students or in a group home with kids in need.
“Just like my uncle helped me and my sister and brothers,” he says. “He could have easily let us go to a group home, but he had a plan, stuck to it, and it worked. We’re all in college and getting our degrees so that we can be successful. He’s been our rock, and I’d like to do that for others.”
During the past few years, associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning has been impressed by Norkeithus’s development on the field and as a person. In fact, according to Koenning, his biggest jump during his time at UNC has been in his leadership, which impacts his individual level of play as well as the play of his teammates. Halfway through last season Koenning began noticing a change in Norkeithus.
“He has always been a great person,” says Koenning. “But that’s now becoming part of his play on the field. He has developed as a leader, grown as a man, and stepped up to be the one that everyone listens to….When our staff first got here, Kevin Reddick was that guy. Norkeithus is now at the point in his career where he has earned the respect of guys on this team, and when he talks, they listen. That speaks volumes about their trust and respect for him as a person. To me, that’s the tell-tale sign that a player has gained the trust and respect of his football team.”
Koenning believes that Norkeithus and his teammates are ready to make a leap defensively. The trials they went through as younger players in a new system, while difficult, have prepared them to execute at a higher level on the field. For Norkeithus, with knowledge should come the freedom to fly around the field and play the bandit position the way it’s designed to be played.
“That first year, everyone struggled because what we were doing was so different,” says Koenning. “But they’ve always been motivated to play hard and to succeed. This year we want Norkeithus to chill out and relax and let the game come to him. We want him to be confident in what he’s doing. It means so much to him—and to a lot of our guys—that sometimes they actually become their own worst enemies at times. Changing that comes with confidence and experience … I’m expecting Norkeithus to be at that level where he could coach the position if he needed to, which means that he can go out there and just play.”
For Norkeithus, how he plays on the field reveals more about him than simply his football abilities. Every time he steps between the lines on a college football Saturday, he thinks about the people who have invested in him and given him the chance to attend Carolina.
“I want the people who gave me this scholarship to be proud,” he says.
He and roommate Jeff Schoettmer talk all the time about what an amazing four years they’ve had in Chapel Hill. Out of all the scholarship offers he received, he feels blessed and honored to have suited up for the Tar Heels and to have been part of the fabric of UNC life.
"He has developed as a leader, grown as a man, and stepped up to be the one that everyone listens to."
“Most people don’t get the chance to come here,” he says. “When I walk off the field, away from the great fans, people, and coaches, it’s going to be tough. Whether you’re a student or a student-athlete playing football, basketball, running track, or playing soccer, it’s a family here, and that’s what it’s all about. We’re all different people, from different backgrounds, but each and every person I’ve met tries to understand each other. I’ve learned so much from meeting new people, different people, and it’s helped me grow as a person.”
As a father, a student, and an athlete, one would think that the demands on Norkeithus would sometimes be too much, and that maybe he’d lose perspective on how he’s made it this far in life, all the way from McComb to becoming the Tar Heels’ senior defensive leader. But as he progresses in his career, he finds himself thinking a lot about his route to Chapel Hill and the woman who made it possible. He tells his uncle and aunt that he wishes his mother was there to watch him play. He wishes she could see all of his siblings and meet her granddaughter.
“She’s watching,” Eric tells him. “She’s looking down at you, she sees what you’re doing, and she’s very proud.”
And what would she tell him if she could?
“She’d tell him to go as far as he can go and to work hard,” says Eric. “And she’d probably be pushing him hard.”
As hard as you?
“Harder,” he laughs.