January 29, 2012 – Cam Newton arrived on the campus of Auburn University in January of 2010 a virtual unknown.
A handful of message board posters distributed grainy footage from his one-year stint at Blinn College in Texas and jokingly touted him as the next Auburn Heisman Trophy winner. No one outside of those few Auburn fanatics had any real expectations.
Most who had any idea who Newton was, including the majority of Auburn fans, saw the 6-6 250-pound former Florida Gator who had washed out of The Swamp as a two-year project at best. He was more likely to be the next Jeremiah Masoli – the former Oregon quarterback who fizzled after his transfer to Ole Miss – than he was the new and improved Tim Tebow.
When Newton came to Auburn that January he was a nobody.
Fast forward two years. How do you like him now?
Cam Newton is a household name. He’s a cultural icon with the kind of magnetic mass appeal restricted to a select few. Newton is on the same plane as the Bo Jacksons, Michael Jordans, and LeBron James’ of the world.
Newton has graced the pages of GQ, done a set on David Letterman and seen his image expanded to superhuman size on the billboards of Times Square in New York.
His fame stretches globally. One can travel on foreign soil, and the customs official who can barely speak English will notice an Auburn logo on a traveler’s jacket. He’ll point at the logo, smile broadly and utter a few of the English words he knows: “Ah, Cam Newton!”
In his one season at Auburn Newton shattered school, league and national offensive records. He led the Tigers to the BCS championship.
He won the Heisman as the message board sages had facetiously predicted. He collected virtually every award and honor available, save those denied him out of spite or petty jealousy. Yes, we’re looking at you, SEC coaches.
In that one magnificent season he made everyone forget about his former Florida teammate Tim Tebow who had been hailed as possibly the greatest college player of all time. Newton’s fluid running style, his rocket armed accuracy, and his prolific offensive production made Tebow (and everyone else who ever played the position) look pedestrian in comparison.
What made Newton’s ascension to the top of the college football world even more amazing was the circumstances he overcame to achieve it.
When he came to Auburn from Blinn, Newton had an impressive junior college resume but he also had his own baggage.
He did not respond well to the glamour of the college football culture in Gainesville. Like so many of the players on Urban Meyer’s watch, Newton found himself on the wrong side of the law. He allegedly purchased a laptop that proved to be stolen and then foolishly attempted to hide his error when confronted by campus police.
He left Florida and enrolled at Blinn in an effort to refocus himself and regain the potential that had originally caused the Gators to recruit him as the heir to Tebow’s throne.
Newton shined at Blinn, but even the most ardent and hopeful Auburn fans were skeptical that the raw talent shown against juco competition would translate to the best and most competitive conference in the country.
Newton had his doubters.
When he was used sparingly in Auburn’s A-Day game prior to the 2010 season the chorus of doubt grew louder.
Newton tuned that out, accepted the starting job when it was awarded him shortly after spring practice and went to work. He pushed himself physically and mentally, determined to exploit his vast potential.
It wasn’t about quieting the doubters, Newton’s focus was on being the best he could be one play at a time.
He turned in one jaw dropping performance after another and his Tigers kept winning. By the time Auburn’s November date with LSU rolled around the Tigers were undefeated, SEC and national championship potential was in their sights and Newton had begun to garner legitimate Heisman attention.
After he dissected LSU, the Heisman was presumably his to lose. Ten months into his Auburn career, Newton rocketed from an unknown to the top of the college football world.
And then his world turned upside down.
Allegations that Newton’s father Cecil had been involved in discussions with Mississippi State boosters about a potential pay for play scheme erupted.
Reckless reporting on ESPN, FoxSports and in the New York Times fanned the flames as the story spread like wildfire, amplified and exaggerated at every turn.
Newton had erased doubts about his athletic ability. Now his character and that of his family was on public trial day after day.
Every detail of his past life – even those details that were fabricated, never corroborated, never proven and never legitimately sourced – were held up for public scrutiny. His integrity was assailed. His dignity trampled.
Few could handle that type of media crush without breaking, without crumbling without faltering. We’ve seen countless celebrities and athletes disintegrate under far less.
Not Newton. He thrived.
Under pressure that would have shattered a normal man’s psyche Newton’s performance rose to new heights. He maintained his composure, he continued to play the game with the same infectious enthusiasm and boundless joy he had all season. His team continued to win.
He vanquished Georgia, led the greatest comeback in Iron Bowl history (enraging an unhinged Harvey Updyke and a legion like him in the process), demolished South Carolina in the SEC Championship game, and led Auburn to a BCS championship game win over Oregon.
In the shadow of an NCAA investigation and despite being tried and convicted by the pious judges in the media, all Newton did was complete what most objective observers consider the most prolific and productive seasons in college football history. In the face of relentless attacks, Newton delivered arguably the greatest single season performance of all time and earned college football’s most significant individual and team awards.
Even as he closed in on the Heisman there were those in the hysterical media who railed against him with nothing more than rumor and innuendo to support them.
Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel left Newton off his Heisman ballot.
“Honestly, Newton wasn’t going to be my No. 1 choice even before the latest allegations. I have wrestled with the integrity issue all season in regards to whether I should vote for Newton. “
At least six others boycotted Newton.
Despite their snub, Newton was still the runaway winner of the Heisman he clearly deserved.
After one magnificent year at Auburn Newton opted to enter the NFL draft. Assault from a new direction commenced almost immediately.
Attacks on his character and integrity continued unabated, but now Newton detractors had new avenues to pursue.
They said he wasn’t smart enough to make it in the NFL. They said his Auburn offense was the equivalent of backyard football and he didn’t have the skills necessary to transition to the NFL game. They said he couldn’t. They said he wouldn’t.
Gil Alcaraz IV of Yahoo Sports said Newton was immature:
“He doesn’t have it all together upstairs. Newton has the mentality of a 14 year-old, but is stuck in the body of a soon-to-be NFL quarterback. What’s going to happen when he signs a multi-million dollar NFL contract? Is he going to give it all to his father? How about go and frivolously spend it on unnecessary things? No one can be sure, but I wouldn’t place my bet on him going and putting it in savings or making some smart investments to secure his future. “
Nolan Nawrocki didn’t like Newton’s smile.
“Very disingenuous — has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law — does not command respect from teammates and will always struggle to win a locker room .”
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper questioned Newton’s work ethic, compared him to one of the biggest busts in draft history, Akili Smith, and while saying Newton had tremendous upside, also characterized him as one of the biggest risks in the history of the draft.
Draft analyst Todd McShay echoed the criticisms of Newton’s work ethic and said he thought Blaine Gabbert, a quarterback out of Missouri, was better.
Auburn fans who spent a season watching Newton dedicate himself heart, mind, body and soul to the game, who saw him become a selfless team leader and the kind of field general teammates follow with total devotion, who watched him become the emotional cornerstone of the team, the program and the town and who saw him handle the unrelenting media scrutiny with class, dignity and aplomb knew better.
We knew what Kiper, Nawrocki, Alcaraz, McShay and the hundreds of others who joined their bawling chorus of doubt and disdain in regard to Newton didn’t know or refused to see. We knew they were fools for doubting him. We’d seen him overcome too much to believe that anything was beyond his reach.
Cam Newton is not an ordinary man. You cannot subscribe ordinary traits to him. Not only will he defy your expectations, but he will hand them back to you, twisted and smoking, reduced to rubble in his talented hands. He’ll hand them back to you with a broad smile, radiating a contagious glee that makes you like him even more for making you look so foolish in your attempts to apply normal human limits to him.
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera saw through the naysayer’s fog too. Carolina took the risk and claimed Newton with the first pick of the NFL draft.
Shortly thereafter, despite an NFL strike that limited his preparation time, the former Auburn quarterback took the starting job away from incumbent and ex Notre Dame flash in the pan Jimmy Clausen. He tried but wasn’t able to secure Clausen’s #2 jersey number, the number he had worn at Auburn, so Newton settled on wearing number one on his Panther’s jersey. Mark it down because it was one of the few battles Newton lost.
Awash in a cloud of external doubt and with Kiper and the media horde sharpening their knives, prepared to step in and wave the “I told you so banner” Newton maintained his focus.
He turned back the critical assault with a record-setting debut. He shattered the mark for passing yards by a rookie in an opening game and tied the all-time record for passing yards by a rookie in any game with 422 yards through the air .
Fox Sports analyst, Super Bowl winning quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers and NFL Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw still didn’t like Newton.
“ I’m not a Newton fan. I actually like Jake Locker down in Tennessee, Christian Ponder in Minnesota and Blaine Gabbert down in Jacksonville. These young kids, as far as I’m concerned, are far ahead of Newton as far as being an NFL quarterback.”
If the scrutiny Newton endured as he led Auburn to a national title didn’t break him, petty criticism by a bald part-time actor or the nagging doubts expressed by those who predicted his ultimate failure certainly weren’t going to daunt him.
Newton was undeterred. The explosive start wasn’t an anomaly.
A season after putting together what is unquestionably one of the greatest individual single season performances in college football history, Newton delivered what is without question the greatest season by a rookie quarterback in NFL history.
He was the first rookie ever to throw for more than 4,000 yards. He set the single-season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. He completed 60% of his passes. He was voted Rookie of the Year in the NFL. By a landslide.
For those keeping track that’s back-to-back once-in-a-lifetime performances.
Kiper, McShay, Nawrocki, Bradshaw and countless others had their words shoved back down their collective throats.
This week Newton makes his first Pro Bowl appearance. Selected as an alternate behind Drew Brees, Aaron Rogers and Eli Manning, all of whom have Super Bowl rings, Newton earned a spot on the Pro Bowl roster when Manning’s New York Giants advanced to the Super Bowl. For what it’s worth NFL legend Jim Plunkett never made the Pro Bowl once in his 15 year career.
In an interesting side note that transpired during his record-setting rookie season, the NCAA cleared both Newton and the Auburn Tigers after a lengthy and exhaustive investigation. In an unprecedented move, the NCAA announced the close of the investigation saying it uncovered no violations. Congratulations Mike Bianchi, your sanctimonious stand and your frivolous Heisman ballot was wasted. Apologies from Bianchi or the rest of the horde who crucified Newton during his Auburn campaign were mysteriously absent.
What’s more frightening for the straggling few who still doubt Newton’s ability, ethic, focus, drive or maturity? This is only the beginning.
Few players in the history of sport have the same combination of charisma and talent that Newton possesses. Bo Jackson had it. Michael Jordan had it. Tiger Woods had it. Each of those three, like Newton, also had a burning desire to win, to be the very best at what they do. Jackson, Woods and Jordan were all blessed with extraordinary innate talent but for each of them raw talent alone wasn’t enough. Each worked relentlessly to hone that skill to perfection. Newton appears cut from the same cloth.
What sets Newton apart, however is that he endured and excelled at the highest level while simultaneously bearing the burden of a torrent of scrutiny that might have derailed almost any other.
Jackson was never tarnished by the perception of scandal nor was he battered by public doubt. He carried the same confident swagger that Newton does, albeit in a much quieter manner, and amazed the world with his unlimited ability.
Jordan was touched by a gambling scandal late in his career, well after he established himself as one of the greatest players in NBA history. He was never called on to be his very best when his private life or his desire was being excoriated.
Woods, considered one of the greatest golfers ever, wilted under the crush of media hype during his sensational divorce. Despite a legendary competitive fire and a wealth of talent, Woods was unable to withstand the scrutiny. His performance faltered. He has yet to regain his form and there is no guarantee he ever will.
Newton weathered a media maelstrom greater than any of those ever suffered. He shouldered the assassination of his own character, slander of his family’s integrity, criticism of his ability, work ethic, intelligence, maturity, commitment and desire. He emerged from that vicious swirl unbroken, smiling, resilient and still full of the same joy, hope, enthusiasm and energy with which he entered it two years ago.
His smile never faltered.
Despite their best efforts, their words, their allegations, their insinuations, their vindictiveness and their disdain those who assailed him didn’t destroy Newton. They didn’t break him. If anything he’s even stronger.
Dare to doubt him now?