In Appreciation of Cam Newton

The flamboyant QB’s return to Charlotte brings back good memories

by Ken J. Makin

A single throw sold me on the prospect of Cam Newton being drafted by the Carolina Panthers — a fourth-down, fourth-quarter rope during the 2010 Iron Bowl.

It was a throw that Newton wasn’t supposed to be able to make. He was only a running quarterback, they said. Newton’s throw to Darvin Adams — a sidearmed dart toward the sideline where only the receiver could grab it — suggested something entirely different.

I’d seen a season full of highlights, and win or lose, I didn’t need to see anything else. It was big Terrell Owens energy after that — “that’s my quarterback.”

Of course, Newton led Auburn to an improbable 28-27 win over rival Alabama, having turned a 24-0 deficit into dust. Just over a decade later, Newton is back for a second stint with the Panthers, after a previous nine-year run that included an MVP award, a Super Bowl run and undeniable status as the franchise’s greatest quarterback.

Back in 2011, the decision on whom the Panthers should draft was easy. Andrew Luck decided to stay at Stanford. Jake Locker? Blaine Gabbert? They didn’t have Newton’s ceiling or credentials.

I knew what a Black quarterback would mean for the Carolinas. I watched as the city of Atlanta rallied around Michael Vick, and how he seemed to always be a step ahead of my Panthers. Now, it was our turn. Thankfully, the Cats picked Newton. There was inexplicable talk about how Cam wouldn’t be able to get it done as a passer, an assessment that was shattered in his first two NFL starts. He threw for 422 yards against the Arizona Cardinals, which broke the rookie opening day record set by Peyton Manning. He outdid himself with a 432-yard passing effort the following week against defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay.

Newton’s partnership with wideout Steve Smith was electric, and he won various awards, to include Rookie of the Year. It’s tough to compare that Cam with the injury-riddled player who struggled to get the ball downfield during the 2019 season.

I can appreciate Newton getting a second shot — largely because of his willingness to get the COVID vaccination shot. However one interprets Cam’s fashion sense or media presentations, one thing is indisputable — his love for the game of football.

That love extended to his play on the field. For all of the touchdown balls given to children in the stands, the play that I believe captured Cam’s essence happened in the 2016 NFC championship game.

Seven years prior, the Cardinals came to Charlotte and ruined a 12-4 season. Then-Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme turned the ball over six times in a 33-13 season-ending loss

Things went differently for Cam and the Cats.

Up 27-7 late in the third quarter, Newton turned the corner and had a sure touchdown. And then, he went full Superman, dived over his offensive lineman and somersaulted into the end zone.

It was the type of play that some might deem “reckless.” A more choice word would be exuberant, or headstrong. 

That’s how Cam plays the game — flamboyantly and fearlessly, with a warmth extending to young fans and casual onlookers. He was a superhero of sorts, at times, less Superman than Meteor Man, where even as his powers waned, he remained true to himself.

At his best, he was a trash-talking savant who would run you over just as fast as he would flick a dart down the field. It didn’t matter whom he had as teammates, either. Newton had to do more with less, and that was a problem that led to some of his prime years being wasted. 

That 2015 year was special, though. It wasn’t just about the 15-1 regular season mark. It was about Cam’s candor, how he made it known that he was an “African-American QB that may scare a lot of people.” It was a statement as complex as Cam — loud in its delivery, yet subtle because in the case of how the NFL has historically treated Black quarterbacks, what’s understood doesn’t need to be explained.

Cam pulled back on some of those comments after the Super Bowl loss, which should be attributed to political influences within the Panthers organization. Still, with the rising influence of Colin Kaepernick, Newton looked to be lesser than as it related to social justice issues.

He wasn’t. He was a man trying to do it his way while figuring out the way to go. He regained his footing in 2018, when the Panthers started out 6-2 and Newton found some of that MVP SuperCam magic. Then a big hit from T.J. Watt in a blowout loss to the Steelers on a Thursday night led to a nagging shoulder injury. Just like that, the Black Cat mojo was gone. He became the Prince of a Thousand Enemies, some merited, some unmerited. 

But what a wild ride it was.

Newton’s journey is a cautionary tale. In the short term, it’s a call to get vaccinated. COVID largely derailed Cam’s career as a New England Patriot. From a long-term perspective, Cam’s time up North offered an unfortunate refrain — the thoughts of doubters who nitpicked his personality and his playing style.

Newton has always responded to those doubters with confidence, and I sense he will do the same now that he is back in Charlotte. Maybe this time, the franchise and certain Charlotte outlets will appreciate him. Perhaps once more as a heir to McNair, with his own flair, Newton will press his fists together, then move them away from each other in a show of strength. Here’s to Cam continuing to show people what he’s made of — pure heart.

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