Cam Newton has a past: a reputation sullied by an arrest at Florida. And Cam Newton has a present: as the nonpareil playmaker of a BCS title contender. And Cam Newton has a future—a very, very bright future indeed
They were alone together, driving through the darkness of southeast Texas on a winter night in January 2009. Cruising westward down Highway 290 in a rented four-door Chevy Corsica at 55 mph, Cecil Newton looked at his son Cameron, who was in the passenger seat staring out the window. The father and son were 800 miles away from their home outside of Atlanta, and with every click of the odometer, that distance grew.
"This next year is either going to make you or break you, Cam," the father said. "You'll either go onto the big stage from here or you'll fade into obscurity. Are you that thug that people have made you out to be or are you the good son that I raised?"
Cam remained quiet. Minutes later they rolled into the town of Brenham, about 70 miles northwest of Houston and home of Blinn College, a two-year junior college. It was nearing 10 p.m. when Cam stepped out of the car and into the chill of the evening. Carrying a suitcase, he walked into the house of Blinn football coach Brad Franchione, the son of former Alabama and Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione. Brad's wife, Rebecca, had put a sheet, blanket and pillow on their living room couch, which is where the 19-year-old Newton—exhausted, scared and still silent on why he had withdrawn from the University of Florida three weeks earlier—slept his first night in Brenham, the unlikely place that would offer him redemption.
Before he left to return to Georgia, Cecil, a pastor, put an arm around Cam. "Just be a man, son," the father said. "Just be a man."
Last Saturday in Auburn, Ala., on the biggest stage of his life to date, Cam was indeed the man. Behind the play of the 6'6", 250-pound Newton—now a junior quarterback for Auburn who has emerged as the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy—the No. 5 Tigers toppled sixth-ranked LSU 24--17 to raise their record to 8--0 and move the team to No. 1 in the BCS rankings. Facing the top-rated defense in the SEC, Newton ran for a career-high 217 yards and two touchdowns and passed for another 86 yards. His Heisman moment occurred early in the third quarter on an electrifying 49-yard touchdown run. Zigzagging across the field, Newton broke two tackles, sidestepped two more and dragged All-America cornerback Patrick Peterson the last eight yards into the end zone.
"Cam is the most talented quarterback I've ever been around," says Auburn coach Gene Chizik, who has been on the coaching staff of teams that featured Vince Young and Daunte Culpepper in his 23-year coaching career. "When he walked through my office door the first time, I was blown away. I thought, We don't have any defensive linemen that look this good."
Newton leads the SEC and ranks sixth nationally in rushing (134.6 yards per game). He's first in the country with 27 combined touchdowns rushing (14) and passing (13) and third in passing efficiency (172.1). He also has a chance to become the second player in Division I-A history to pass for 20 touchdowns and rush for 20 touchdowns in the same season. The only person to accomplish the feat was Tim Tebow, in his Heisman-winning year of 2007—the irony of which we'll return to later.
"I've grown so much as a person in the last two years, and it all goes back to my time in Brenham," says Newton. "I made a mistake that almost cost me everything. I'm an example of why people deserve second chances."
Newton has always been big. At the age of eight, standing 4'8" and weighing almost 100 pounds, Cam would awaken before dawn on fall Saturdays and throw on his shoulder pads, cleats and uniform. Helmet in hand, he'd be at the breakfast table of his College Park, Ga., home by 6:30 ("It was the only day of the week that he didn't have to be woken up," says his father) but often didn't eat. "Cam was in a weight-based league, and he'd do whatever it took to be under the maximum weight," says Cecil, who played safety and linebacker at Savannah State from 1979 through '83. "Sometimes he wouldn't eat for an entire day before a game. If he didn't make weight, he'd cry like he was going to have his leg amputated."
Young Cam was constantly in the shadow of his older brother, Cecil Jr. (who spent the 2009 season as a backup center for the Jacksonville Jaguars). Cecil Jr. would frequently invite friends who were three years older than Cam to play backyard football. Cam dominated, displaying a rare grace and silkiness whenever he had the ball in his arms, as if the game was as easy for him as whistling.
By 17, Newton had grown into a 6'4", 230-pound quarterback for Westlake High. He could throw the ball 75 yards, run 40 yards in less than 4.6 seconds and power over defenders like a fullback. Rivals.com rated him the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the nation in the 2007 class. Nearly every school in the SEC offered him a scholarship; he chose Florida, hoping to become the next Tebow, who was finishing up his freshman year.
Newton played five games as a freshman, rushing for 103 yards and passing for 40 in mop-up duty. As a sophomore in 2008, he sprained an ankle in the season opener and ended up redshirting. "Not playing was hard on Cam," Cecil says. "He didn't handle it well."
As the Gators charged toward the national championship that autumn, Newton's life unraveled. On Nov. 21 University of Florida police officers came to his dorm room in search of a laptop that had been reported stolen. According to the police report, they entered the room and found the computer, at which point Newton asked to speak with his lawyer. The officers stepped out of the room, and, in a panic, Newton tossed the laptop out of the window of his third-floor room. The officers found the computer behind a trash bin outside the dorm. Newton was arrested and charged with burglary, larceny and obstruction of justice—all felonies.
Newton says he bought the laptop for $120 from a man selling electronics out of the trunk of his car, though the computer was valued at more than $1,000. "It was really too good to be true," Newton says of the transaction. "It was just a dumb move." After completing a pretrial diversion program, the charges against Newton were dropped.
Gators coach Urban Meyer suspended Newton from the team (he has been one of 25 Florida players arrested since Meyer was hired in 2005), and in the days following his arrest Newton could feel judgmental eyes following him every time he walked across campus. Still, Newton wanted to stay in Gainesville—as long as he'd have a chance to start in '09. But a few days after Florida beat Oklahoma to win its second national title in three years, Newton was sitting with his father on their living room couch in College Park when the news flashed on the television screen: Tebow was returning to the Gators for his senior season. That was the final piece of information Newton needed—he immediately told his father he wanted to transfer. When Cecil and Cam packed his belongings in Gainesville, the father struggled to hold back tears.
Less than three weeks later Cecil dropped his son off in Brenham. The first order of business for Blinn coach Franchione was to nurture Newton's leadership skills. Franchione asked his wife, Rebecca, to buy Leadership Is an Art by Max DePree for Newton. Several times a week during his first months at Blinn the quarterback and the coach would hold their own book club, discussing the finer points of the popular management strategy book. Newton, who moved into a one-bedroom, on-campus apartment, didn't have a TV, so for the first time in his life he read at night before falling asleep. "The book taught me little things about leadership, like always have a watch on, always shake hands firmly, always look people in the eye when you talk to them," Newton says. "I didn't have much else to do, so I did a lot of reading."
It didn't take long for Newton to impress his teammates. During one summer workout Franchione organized what he calls the Tire Drill. The rules are simple: Two players grab each end of an old car tire, and they must keep their hands on it until one pulls the other five yards from where he started. Facing an offensive lineman who was 6'5", 300 pounds, Newton wrapped his hands around the tire. Franchione blew his whistle. Within a few heartbeats the offensive lineman was flying toward Newton. The quarterback won. As his teammates went wild, Franchione, in awe, uttered to himself, "Holy Toledo."
Slowly, the joy of the game came back to Newton. At fall practices Franchione's wife would show up with a cooler full of Popsicles for the players. "Cam always made it a game to see if he could be the only player to get two," Franchione says. "When he did, he'd sprint around the field and jump around yelling, 'I got two Pop-si-cles. I got two Pop-si-cles.' His happiness was infectious."
Cecil could hear the newfound inner peace in his son's voice; Cam spoke to his father and mother, Jackie, several times a week over the phone. "Blinn was like a remote rehab process for Cam," says Cecil. "That was his resurrection."
Newton led Blinn to the junior college national championship, passing for 2,833 yards and 22 touchdowns while rushing for 655 yards and 16 scores. One of the hardest days of his life was when he said goodbye to the Franchiones on his last night in Brenham. "We all cried," Rebecca says, "but we knew he had bigger things to accomplish."
Last December the choice of which college to attend came down to two schools—Auburn and Mississippi State. Newton preferred Starkville because of his close relationship with Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen, who had been Newton's offensive coordinator at Florida. But Cecil thought his son should choose Auburn, which had an experienced offensive line (four starters were returning) and was only a two-hour drive from Atlanta. Newton let his father make the final decision, and a few days before Christmas, while sitting at the dinner table in his brother's house in Jacksonville, Cecil Sr. uttered two words that would radically alter the college football landscape: "It's Auburn."
As soon as Newton arrived on the Plains last January, he could be seen jogging around campus day and night—usually for 90-minute stretches. He lifted weights on the weekends by himself. Word soon spread among the Tigers' players that Newton, the onetime Florida Gator, the player with the tarnished reputation, was working like a man who knew he was out of second chances.
"Cam came in here, kept quiet and earned our respect by working hard," says senior defensive tackle Zach Clayton. "It didn't take long for him to win us over." It didn't take long for Newton to win the coaches over, either, as he was named the starter after spring practice.
He has been a near-perfect fit in offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's power-running offense. Though he's still a work in progress in the passing game—he struggles with his accuracy on down-the-field throws—Newton, like Vince Young, possesses a talent that can't be taught: the ability to turn a busted play into a positive one. It's his signature skill, and the main reason why he could become the first junior college transfer to win the Heisman.
"We didn't know how good a runner he was going to be, because in the spring he wasn't tackled," Malzahn says. "Then, in our first game, he went off and scored on a 71-yard touchdown run, and we were like, We've got something here."
NFL scouts have taken notice as well. One AFC scouting director compared Newton with a two-time Super Bowl--winning quarterback from the Steelers. "Newton is Big Ben--like," he said, referring to Ben Roethlisberger. "He has the size you look for in a quarterback to survive the physical beating, and the ability to avoid a lot of the big hits. I worry about his [passing] accuracy; he misses open receivers. But he's got the traits, other than that, of a winning NFL quarterback."
But the league will have to wait because he's Auburn's quarterback now. Minutes after Saturday's win Newton bounded around the field as if he were on a pogo stick and then leaped into the front row of the south stands, where he was engulfed by a mass of orange-clad fans who chanted "Heis-man! Heis-man! Heis-man!" As Cecil watched from across the field with a smile as big as Texas, it was clear:
His boy has become the man.
"CAM IS THE MOST TALENTED QB I'VE EVER BEEN AROUND," SAYS CHIZIK, WHO HAS COACHED FOR 23 YEARS.
SAYS NEWTON, "I MADE A MISTAKE THAT ALMOST COST ME EVERYTHING. I'M WHY PEOPLE DESERVE SECOND CHANCES."
Photograph by BOB ROSATO
TWO-RRIFIC Newton, who ran for a career-high 217 yards against LSU, has the legs of a Heisman front-runner—and the skills to be a top NFL draft pick.
SON OF A PREACHER MAN After Newton (above, right) left Florida, Cecil Sr., a pastor, challenged him to be "the good son that I raised."
[See caption above]
JUST PLAINS UNSTOPPABLE Newton lived in the vast shadow of Tebow at Florida, but he owns the crowd at Auburn.