The joy of Cam Newton: How a polarizing QB made (great) football fun

What do you see in Cam Newton? (2:13)

Is Cam Newton a charismatic star and role model, or a villainous character with a fake smile and a sketchy background? When it comes to perception, Newton must play by a different set of rules. Tim Keown reports. (2:13)

His son had a tendency to speak a bit too much in class. The boy liked attention, which caused a problem for his teachers and -- by extension -- his parents. So one day, Cecil Newton had an idea. He told his son, "Cam, since you want people to notice you, you can dress up on Fridays. That way, everybody will notice you."

Starting that next Friday, Cam Newton left the house for middle school wearing a long-sleeve button-down, slacks and dress shoes. He did it without complaint, almost cheerfully, and before long the practice wasn't restricted to Fridays.

"He's enjoying this," Cecil told his wife, Jackie.

CAM NEWTON IS enjoying this NFL season in a way that makes some people proud and others lose their minds. He is nearly a caricature of happiness, smiling when we have been conditioned to expect aggression, laughing when we expect seriousness. The default response to success in a game of rage and combat is belligerence: an angry pose or a violent firing of the ball into the turf. And yet here is the rarest of men: one who can throw his body into a snarling pile of large humans -- all gunning for him with malicious intent -- and emerge on the other side with a radioactive grin and a first down.

So at this point maybe you're wondering whether there's anything that hasn't been said about Cam Newton. Fair point. He's so well-known nationally that he's been charged with the unenviable task of making yogurt look cool. He is going to be the MVP over Teflon Tom Brady -- a fact cherished by some as near historical and by others as something close to chimerical. His post-touchdown dances have spawned overwrought, what-will-we-tell-the-children letters to the editor. He is -- and has been -- viewed endlessly through lenses of maturity, greed and race. So yeah, you probably have an opinion of the guy.

But then again, there's an honest-to-god foxtail hanging from the front left pocket of his pants, he named his son Chosen and he appears to have absolutely no interest in being ordinary in anything. He stands at his postgame news conference with purple shoes one week, swirling black-and-white the next. "I don't know where he gets those shoes," says his father, Cecil Newton. "Really, I have absolutely no idea."

Cam plays football as if he owns the entire field, every single blade of it. As the Falcons were being introduced at Atlanta's Georgia Dome before the Panthers' only loss, in Week 16, Newton stood just beyond the tunnel formed by cheerleaders and band, almost close enough to be singed by two cylinders of flame at the back of the end zone. No other Panthers teammate or coach was near him, and he stood tall and still, an infantry line of photographers crouched at his feet. He stared at each Atlanta player as the Falcons waited for their names to be announced, as if making sure his 6-foot-5, 245-pound body was the first thing they saw as they prepared to play the game.

"I don't know why he does that," says backup quarterback Derek Anderson. "I see it, but I haven't figured it out. I guess because he can?"

You could be angered by this. Your call. It wouldn't take much to perceive it as an affront to the old and phlegmy norms dictating respect and humility on the field of competition. And if you lean in that direction and aren't offended, fear not. Chances are there's another opportunity on its way.

In the second quarter against the Falcons, after an inspiring, borderline-reckless 1-on-11 run for 8 yards and a first down, Newton took a walk through the Falcons' secondary. He was in no hurry -- the officials called for a measurement, which was accompanied by the obligatory eight commercials, and Newton seemed to have a maestro's feel for the game's staccato rhythms. The message behind the walk, conscious or not: I'm going to get here soon enough, so I might as well check it out first.

These are the actions that try men's souls. "Some teams get offended when he does stuff," Anderson says. "He made a good point: If you don't want to watch me dance, do something about it. But then again, when he said that, it was another thing for people to take offense to." Anderson laughs at the absurdity of Life With Cam. It's like the Old Testament: Something is always begetting something else. There is a Panthers staffer who occasionally comes to the sideline between drives and takes off Newton's skullcap, replacing it with a towel. Cam sits on the bench, paying no attention as the guy goes about his business like a waiter refilling a glass. Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, a friend and mentor of Newton's, says, "When people get upset about the towel, I tell them, 'Relax, he's only wearing it because it says Gatorade on it.'"

And then, inevitably, Cam will score, at which point the hyperventilation reaches Peak Cam. This happens often -- 10 times while running this season, 35 by passing -- and his touchdown celebrations are typically three-act plays that straddle the never-before-straddled line between Figaro and Monty Python. Against the Buccaneers in Week 17, for instance, he sneaked in from the 1, and the word sneak -- diminutive to begin with -- has never felt more inadequate. There is nothing sneaky about him. It is a Quarterback Surge, and as he pops up to begin whatever might happen next, it's not unreasonable to believe that the touchdowns have become secondary to what follows.

"Some people don't know how to take it because he's not your prototypical, white dropback passer," says Anderson, who is all three. "He doesn't do things exactly the way people have done it at the position for the past 50 years, and some people get offended. That's on them for not having an open mind."

IN CHARLOTTE'S BANK OF AMERICA STADIUM, the pre-touchdown anticipation is quite a thing. As the Panthers get closer to the end zone, an energy builds -- everyone wants to be in on it, in on Cam, in on whatever he decides might come next. He always gives the ball to a child in the stands, which (of course) is seen by some as charming and (of course) by others as calculating. There's no doubting what the kids think: They come streaming toward the end zone, Kuechly jerseys and Olsen jerseys and mostly Newton jerseys racing out of their seats and bounding down the aisle like skiers on a hill.

After the first of two rushing touchdowns against the Bucs, Newton ran to the right corner of the end zone and gave the ball to a kid who may or may not have been sitting anywhere near that spot, and then he ran airplane-swoop-style across the back of the end zone, 54 yards from one side of the field to the other, where he left-turned it up the Panthers' sideline and gathered speed to do this Euro-step/jump-shot routine with teammates Joe Webb and Anderson -- "We don't have a name for it," Anderson says -- before making his way to the bench.

No dance. No pose. No semaphoric nod to Superman.

Sedate, for him.

A two-alarm celebration.

And while Moon dislikes the celebrations -- "I like that he gives the ball to a kid," he says, "but I think the quarterback gets enough attention already" -- Cecil Newton says, "People go so far as to time his celebrations. They're timing him. They'll say, '4.1 seconds is the norm, and he took it to 8.3.' If you're that scientifically concerned with a celebration, you have bigger problems than whatever he's doing."

And that's the crux of the whole thing, right there. The sclerotic responses to a young man's smile, the granular dissections of each dance move, the people timing his celebrations -- it all stems from a simple fact: Newton is taking a position associated with stern reserve and muted shows of excitement and turning it into Carnaval. He's not a quarterback; he's a Rorschach test.

ON SEVERAL February days in 2011, four students sat before Cam Newton in a classroom at the University of California, San Diego: two boys with a limited knowledge of football, a girl with none and a boy who had played in high school. They were employees of the athletic department, kids who picked up a few extra bucks and an athletic department polo to referee Ultimate Frisbee intramurals. Each sat before Newton with a notebook and an assignment: understand the intricacies of an NFL play based on what you're taught by the large man at the front of the room.

"You're the professor, Cam," said George Whitfield Jr., Newton's pre-draft quarterbacks coach. "I'll know how much you know by what they turn in."

Cecil Newton wanted two words -- athlete and raw -- stricken from his son's record. "Leave no stone unturned," Cecil told Whitfield after he listened to Moon and ignored nearly everyone else by hiring a (then-)relatively unknown quarterbacks guru to train his son.

Whitfield breaks down the NFL's pre-draft Kabuki into three parts: 1) The Runway -- whether you look the part in the NFL's fashion show; 2) The Résumé -- what you've accomplished; and 3) The Campaign -- the buzz swirling around you.

Cecil Newton enlisted Warren Moon and Whitfield, two African-American former quarterbacks (Whitfield played at Division II Tiffin University and in the Arena League) who knew the uniqueness of Cam's campaign. "Whitfield," Cecil told him, "I'm either going to be a genius or a jackass for hiring you."

It's Whitfield's contention that football has 21 positions and the office of the quarterback. It's fine for a wide receiver to know his assignment and nothing else, but not a quarterback. Before he put Newton in front of the classroom, Whitfield told him, "I know you know what you're supposed to do, but that's not enough: You need to bring them with you on this."

And so those four students found themselves sitting there in front of a Heisman Trophy winner, taking notes.

LATE IN THE third quarter against the Buccaneers, in a game that had been decided long before, Newton threw a pass to wide receiver Brenton Bersin, who got a first down, fought for yardage and ended up losing the ball when it was stripped by Lavonte David.

After the fumble, Bersin moved with his teammates along the sideline in the ectoplasmic horde, trying to lose himself in the humanity. Nobody acknowledged him, probably out of sympathy more than spite, until one large man grabbed him by the arm.

"Keep doing that," Newton told Bersin. "Keep being you. Keep making plays and fighting."

Bring them with you. Earlier in the game, Webb recovered a fumbled punt and returned it to the Bucs' 3-yard line. He stood up after being tackled and almost immediately found himself face to face with Newton, who was jumping up and down and running onto the field almost before Webb was tackled.

"I thought we were going to get a penalty," Webb says. "When I saw him my first thought was, 'What are you doing out here?'"

What is he doing out there? Or maybe the question should be: What isn't he doing out there? Or: What is he doing everywhere? -- standing a few steps outside the Falcons' intro line, bombing onto the field during punt coverage, strolling through the opposing secondary after a first down.

There comes a point in every Cam Newton story where the obligatory must be said, and this time it's courtesy of Panthers defensive back Cortland Finnegan: "He's a big kid out there. You can't take what he does personally. You just can't. It's who he is. You watch him and realize he's having a great time, and no game is too big for him."

It's quite different from the whispers that followed him into the league. That he sometimes sulked as the Panthers went 6-10 and 7-9 his first two seasons. That he alienated teammates by lifting weights by himself. (During his two years at Florida, he lifted with the defensive linemen.) That he put up great numbers but hadn't yet mastered the art of bringing them with him. That he was, in Whitfield's terminology, playing the position but not occupying the office.

Football players are notoriously and probably unnecessarily leery of dealing in specifics. Even the most laudatory comments are general ("He can really hit receivers in tight windows") or intentionally vague ("He's got a good feel for the game"). But when Anderson discusses Newton, it's obvious he's got to pull himself back. He wants to lay it all out; he just knows he can't. And so he discusses Newton's transformation from a quarterback who follows directions to one who gives them. "Sometimes he'll see something and I'm like, 'Damn, how did he come up with that?'" Against the Bucs, Newton told quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey he wanted to make a slight change to the receivers' routes when faced with a certain coverage -- "It was something we hadn't worked on for weeks," Anderson says -- and within a series it was creating confusion in the Bucs' secondary on a day when Newton completed 21 of 26 passes.

"The first couple of years, when we'd come to play Cam, we knew he was a big, strong, athletic quarterback," says Finnegan, who has played with three other teams in his 10-year career. "As a secondary, we'd say, 'Well, he's not very accurate; he's not comfortable in the pocket yet.' But now? To see him in person now? It's night and day. It's like -- wow!"

THE CONVERSATION was rattling around the SUV the night before Newton's pro day at Auburn. He was taking his father, Whitfield and Moon on a tour: the campus, the football facility, his favorite barbecue joint. The next day -- March 8, 2011 -- would be the day to cement his spot as the No. 1 pick, and the car couldn't hold his enthusiasm.

"How was your pro day?" Newton asked Moon, who had become a mentor. "You were the baddest dude back then. I bet it was outrageous."

Cecil and Whitfield braced themselves as the question sat there, unanswered, the air in the car suddenly thick.

Eventually, Moon said, "I didn't have a pro day."

Newton recoiled. "Nah. Nah. That can't be true." Newton knew Moon's legacy: conference player of the year at Washington, '78 Rose Bowl MVP, threw for almost 50,000 yards in the NFL after spending the first six years of his career in Canada.

But no pro day? Confused, Newton said, "I thought they had pro days back then."

Moon, offering the bare minimum: "They did."

"Well, were you hurt?" Newton asked.


Newton, for once, didn't know what to say, so he kept finding new ways to express his disbelief.

Moon interrupted: "My coaches told me the scouts wanted to see me catch passes and punts, two things I'd never done before. They told me if I didn't want to do that, I wasn't having a pro day. So I didn't have a pro day."

The tour continued in silence.

LET'S BE CLEAR: Nobody is suggesting that Cam Newton is Jackie Robinson. But within locker rooms, he is viewed as a figure of cultural significance. He came along when black quarterbacks, a group traditionally viewed as monolithic in the NFL, were in danger of being relegated (once again) to catching punts and running routes. Vince Young, taken No. 3 by the Titans in '06, could not transition from college to pro. JaMarcus Russell, just the second African-American quarterback to be chosen No. 1 overall, set the Raiders back several years after they picked him in the 2007 draft. Michael Vick had spent 21 months in prison.

If Russell's only sin had been ineffective quarterbacking, maybe Newton would have had less of a burden to bear. But not only was Russell bad, he was also lazy, more interested in clubs than craft. There had been many, many draft busts before him, but JaMarcus Russell's failure so enraged the league that it created a rookie salary structure to protect its teams from any future JaMarcus Russells.

Cam Newton was not JaMarcus Russell, and he was not Vince Young, but they rode shotgun, like cackling demons he was forced to exorcise. "Cam didn't want the stereotypes to stick to him, so he did everything right," Finnegan says. "All those stereotypes were gleaming right in his face, but he chose to put in the work to get rid of them."

There are videos of Whitfield and Newton on high school and college fields in San Diego, working on the most granular aspects of throwing a football. Cam pointing his left toe at the target, Cam waiting to thread the ball through the only open window when two dummy defenders move to close the one that came before, Cam dancing around cones with helium-light feet while keeping his eyes downfield. Whitfield likes to repeat the words of 49ers offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, who says quarterbacking is like "Jeopardy!": You not only have to be right, you have to be right fast.

"No doubt Cam's the guy who paved the way," says Webb, a quarterback who also returns kicks and has played receiver. "He made it easier for that next guy, and the guy after that. Coming after JaMarcus Russell, he set the tone. Hey, we can not only be great players, we can be great quarterbacks."

Newton's task entering the league was to do everything right: speak right, dress right, train right. It came naturally. "His pride will never let you discount him," Whitfield says. Still, it had to be a stated, calculated plan. He couldn't get away with being just polite in his interviews, or deferential to power or conservative in his dress. He had to be beyond reproach. He wore a button-down shirt, a sweater vest and khakis when he appeared on Jon Gruden's QB Camp show. He kept his shoes tied and his shirt tucked in from the moment he parked his car at a practice field to the moment he started it back up. He threw at the combine, rare for a top quarterback.

He knew where the eyes were trained. His one year at Auburn was dogged and dominated by an NCAA eligibility investigation that centered on claims that Cecil Newton and a former Mississippi State player shopped Cam to the Bulldogs for a price in the $150,000 range. The 13-month probe ended with the NCAA finding no violations, but that didn't stop NFL teams from sending private investigators to Auburn to speak to food service workers, frat boys and sorority girls. They spoke to bartenders, even though Newton has never touched alcohol. "The worst thing they found?" Whitfield says. "Sometimes he rode his scooter without a helmet."

The next year, Robert Griffin III had a DJ playing music -- some of it sung by RG III himself -- at his Baylor pro day. Imagine for a moment if Cam Newton, fresh off his national championship/Heisman Trophy season but hounded by those associating him with a lack of desire, maturity and leadership qualities, had shown up at his pro day with a DJ. He might be playing in Canada.

"There was a heavy cloud and a lot of pressure heaped upon Cam," Cecil Newton says, his voice like a flare in the night sky. "A lot of NFL pundits were advising teams to stay away from the guy for character reasons. There was this whole attitude of him supposedly not wanting to be a leader. They said he'd get money and flop like the rest of them. I know how I'm built and how I helped build my son. I knew it was as far from the truth as you could get."

The cloud stretched across the South. Newton left Florida after an incident involving the purchase of a stolen laptop (the charges were dropped after he completed community service and a pretrial program) and rumors of academic impropriety. Before the draft, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock cautioned against taking Newton with the No. 1 pick, saying, "It's just this gut feeling that I have that I don't know how great he wants to be." And, "Something tells me he'll be content to be a multimillionaire who's pretty good." And, "I think the kid is smart enough. I just don't know if he cares enough."

During an interview with a team psychologist of an AFC North team at the combine, Newton was asked whether he sees himself more as a cat or a dog. When he suggested that the question was not relevant and that he saw himself more as a human being, he was immediately asked whether he had a problem with authority.

"African-American quarterbacks get analyzed in ways that others don't," Moon says. "We've dispelled a lot of those myths, but not all."

As a professional, he has never appeared in a police blotter. He does an amount of charity work that even a cynic must concede is impressive. In the offseason, he fulfilled a promise he made to his mother and returned to Auburn to finish a degree in sociology. It's the kind of CV that generally revs the myth-making machine. And yet after the Panthers won at Tennessee, a Nashville mother wrote a letter to The Charlotte Observer that reached Peak What-Will-We-Tell-The-Children. Addressed directly to Newton, the letter complained about "chest puffs" and "pelvic thrusts" that were so egregious she was left with no choice but to divert her 9-year-old daughter's gaze to the Titans' cheerleaders, apparently because nothing restores purity and innocence quite like half-naked women gyrating in support of professional athletes.

"The lady writing the deal about his dancing?" Anderson says, shaking his head. "To me, that was racist. That was flat-out racist, the most close-minded thing you could say."

Does any other athlete have the power to incite such torment? Or to defuse it? Because the letter-writer, Rosemary Plorin, backtracked after Newton publicly apologized for offending her while continuing to profess allegiance to the basic tenets of having fun. "I am sorry I didn't understand him better until this week," Plorin wrote.

"Here's what people don't understand," Whitfield says. "If Cam was a bank teller, on a wall somewhere in that bank he'd be employee of the month for March, April, May -- something weird would have happened in June, and he'd be back on the wall for July. It wouldn't be about the recognition or the awards, it would be, 'I'm going to be the most outstanding person in this bank, and this bank is going to be the best bank in the neighborhood."

THEY WERE STILL driving around Auburn -- Cecil, Whitfield, Moon, Cam and his brother CJ -- when someone from the Buffalo Bills called. It was late afternoon, and several of the team's decision-makers wanted to have dinner with Cam.

"What do you have to wear?" Moon asked.

"I've got my dark UnderArmour sweatsuit or my gray UnderArmour sweatsuit," Cam said.

Nobody said anything, and by this point he knew what the silence in the car meant. You can't give in; you can't give them what they expect. He had to fight the campaign, and that meant being better-dressed and better-prepared and better-mannered than anyone who came before him.

"You think I should wear something different?" he asked.

"You might want to make this more formal," Moon said.

Cam had no objection.

And so the five guys drove to the mall, in a hurry. Cecil quarterbacked, jotting down sizes and assigning himself the job of finding a shirt. He told CJ to find a pair of slacks. Moon was told to look for a tie. Cam and Whitfield were in charge of shoes and socks.

Within minutes, Cecil held up a light blue shirt and CJ walked around with a pair of navy slacks and Warren got a tie and from across the men's department Cecil gave a thumbs-up to the shoes and socks.

Less than an hour later, Newton walked into the restaurant and shook hands with the Bills' decision-makers looking like he was interviewing for a job at an investment bank.

HE RARELY CONSENTS to interviews, choosing to do only the league-mandated postgame, midweek and network-TV spots, indicating there are levels of fame to which he is not willing to ascend. (Either that or Slightly Mysterious Fame, set against the backdrop of society's demand for overexposure, is its own accelerant.) He cannot accede to any of the countless one-on-one interview requests, the Panthers say, lest he feel obligated to accede to them all. Everywhere but on the field, he plays the fetishized role assigned to him by The Office. He speaks in complete, rote sentences calculated to shine the least light on whatever topic he is addressing.

You can't give them what they expect. In many ways, the campaign can never end. As Cecil says, "There's an audience waiting for him to lose so they can say, 'Now's our time to talk. He's had his time, now it's our turn.' We already know that's out there."

All those Employee of the Month photos lining the wall, and guess what? Something weird did happen. On Dec. 30, Cam announced the birth of his first child, the boy he named Chosen. The mother, Kia Proctor, was described by Newton as his "longtime girlfriend." The announcement, made six days after the boy was born, hit the front page of the local papers (of course) and occasioned another finger-wagging letter to The Charlotte Observer (of course.) Patricia Broderick of Mooresville expressed her disappointment in Newton and suggested he marry the mother of his child. "Congratulations would be in order," she wrote, "if he had been man enough to marry the mother of his child and make a home."

Well, of course she said that. Tom Brady can have a child out of wedlock -- and leave the actress/mother for a supermodel before the baby was born -- and not be blamed for the systemic deterioration of the American family and the scourge of fatherless households. For Newton, it was yet another lens through which to view him, as if maturity, greed and race weren't enough. The son of a church bishop, the middle son of a tight-knit family, Newton had given them something they expected.

"I want it to be known that his mother and I are staunch Christian proponents of marriage and all things pertaining to legitimacy," Cecil says. "I have three sons and one woman, and I have been a living example all his life of what a man should be in a family. Cam is 26 years old, not 18 or 19. He has a heightened consciousness of who he is as a man, and I always tell him the decisions you make you have to live with short and long term. I don't style it as a mistake; I style it as something that can be a gift for him and the young lady. We're going to support them in every aspect -- physically, emotionally and spiritually."

Against Atlanta, after Chosen was born but before the world knew, Newton scored and incorporated a baby-rocking move into his celebration. After the loss, and after he had spent nearly an hour in silence at his locker, he was asked what the gesture meant. He dismissed the question with a wave of his hand and a shake of his head, making it clear it was a private message in a public moment.

The next week, after the season-ending win over the Bucs, which gave the Panthers the NFC's No. 1 seed, Newton walked into the interview room wearing a three-quarter-length sports coat, blue slacks, the swirly black-and-white shoes and no foxtail.

As the news conference wound down, Newton was asked what he will remember from the 2015 regular season. It was a softball, light and fluffy and lobbed over the heart of the plate.

Newton paused, and his smile vanished.

"We shouldn't have lost," he said, his voice trailing. "We shouldn't have lost."

That's it? After 15 wins and 35 touchdown passes and countless dances and all those unnamed Euro-step/jump shots, he will remember the loss? The one loss? It seems the NFL's resident big kid -- has the NFL considered a Big Kid Laureate program? -- would cite a particularly memorable dance move, or a little boy who was especially moved after being handed a ball after a touchdown, or an open-field juke that inflicted exceptional and long-lasting embarrassment on a linebacker.

But no. The one loss -- not the NFL-best four game-winning drives, not the 14 straight wins to start the season, not the records, not the ascension to the illustrious pantheon of the most fetishized gods in sport. No. The loss. The mood in the room shifts. The interview is over, and as Cam Newton walks away from the podium he leaves behind a lingering sense of that rarest of emotions: surprise.