Legend of Cam Newton keeps growing

The latest sign that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is the biggest athlete ever to hit Charlotte has arrived.

Newton is featured on the cover of the latest issue of GQ.

I’m pretty certain that’s a first for the Panthers. And I seriously doubt any member of the Hornets or Bobcats ever made the cover. And Cal Ripken Jr., who played minor-league baseball in Charlotte back in the day, doesn't count because he was playing minor-league baseball.

The Panthers have had some stars (Julius Peppers, Steve Smith, Jake Delhomme and Sam Mills to name a few) through the years, but none have grabbed the imagination of a region and a nation like Newton has. When he’s not posing for magazine covers, you can see Newton on national television commercials.

“We’ve never had anything close,’’ left tackle Jordan Gross, who joined the Panthers in 2003, said last week when I asked him about Newton’s popularity. “Pep was always a big star. He was probably the biggest star we’ve had, but he was always so quiet and kept to himself. Cam embraces it. Cam’s smart to go and throw a ball into the stands at Fan Fest or to sign autographs every day because the people love him and it’s good for our team to have somebody that people want to cheer for and it makes them excited to come to our games. It’s amazing what one guy can do to change that.’’

Carolina’s been viewed as a smaller market since the Panthers arrived in 1995. For much of the existence of the front office and coaching staffs have preferred to keep players out of the spotlight. I understand the reason for that, but Newton is different. He’s a phenomenal athlete, who happens to play the most glamorous of positions. He also appears to enjoy the spotlight and seems more than capable of handling it.

Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, who went to college at Southern California and is a friend of actor Will Ferrell, knows a little about Hollywood hype, but said that really doesn’t apply to Newton.

“From the outside, you can get that sense,’’ Kalil said. “The good thing about Cam and what we’ve come to respect is his work ethic and what he was able to do last year without much offseason in such a complex offense with so many moving pieces. (Offensive coordinator Rob) Chudzinski is the mad scientist because he is constantly evolving this thing. We built on what we did last year and we’re changing a lot of things. It’s a very tedious offense and you have to really be on it every single day and Cam does a real good job of making sure he knows every single bit of it. I think the respect comes from the way he plays as well as the way he approaches each work day and how he makes sure he knows what he needs to know.’’