On February 6, the day before Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California, the NFL will announce this season’s MVP. Leading the pack over fellow quarterbacks Tom Brady and Carson Palmer is Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
Newton walking away with the honor is almost a lock, but he doesn’t have much time to dwell on it. He’s got something circled on his calendar the next day that is demanding a good part of his focus.
Newton will lead the Panthers into Levi’s Stadium–located in the heart of the Silicon Valley–and try to earn Carolina its first Super Bowl win in team history. Standing in their way is a defensive juggernaut in the Denver Broncos, captained by quarterback Peyton Manning.
Manning and Newton are on opposite ends of another field: Manning will likely be playing in his last game Sunday, completing a career of records and accolades and (for now) one championship. Newton, in his fifth year out of Auburn University, where he won a national championship and a Heisman trophy, is looking to begin his legacy.
Many are wondering if it is Newton’s turn to become the face of the NFL in this new era, replacing veterans Manning and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. This is a far cry from where Newton was not too long ago, when questions of his ability and integrity circled him everywhere he went. Those doubts still persist, but Newton has done his part to muffle them in the last year and, on Sunday, has a chance to silence them.
Newton was told for most of his young life that he didn’t belong at quarterback.
“A lot of athleticism playing the quarterback position was looked down upon,” he says. “Especially the size, the speed … just the stature kind of gave coaches nods to say ‘let’s put him at wide receiver [or] tight end.’ “
It’s at least understandable on the eyeball test alone why coaches may have thought he were better suited for a receiver position. 6’5”, 250 pound guys with that much athleticism don’t walk onto high school or college campuses every day.
“It never derailed me from playing or living up to my dream,” he says of the efforts to lure him away from taking snaps.
Newton also remembers people trying to deter him from the game in general. He says he remembers teachers telling him to have a backup plan, in case football didn’t work out.
“I remember coming to tears telling [my teacher], ‘I really want to be a football player, I’m going to be a football player,’ “ Newton remembers. “These are for the people who dream and believe that no matter what another person might say, they know what they want to be.”
Competitor by Nature
Newton is the kind of guy who will kick it into another gear when there’s someone trying to stop him. Just as true as it is in his personal journey to the NFL, it is true in how he trains.
“The best thing that I challenge myself on is competing, he says. “That’s what I like doing.”
His trainers know this, which is why competition is emphasized in much of his workouts.
“Cam loves to win and the competitive nature [is] inside of him,” says trainer Nate Costa. “I think everybody has it, but for him, it’s through the roof. And [I know] that when I put him in those situations, he’s gonna work harder and harder and harder just to beat everyone. And he normally does.”
Newton’s training is specialized to focus on core strength, agility and functional movement. The exercises involved include box jumps, hip rotations, dead arm hangs, and body saws.
He uses weights in his training as well, but he is known for utilizing TRX suspension tools in order to use his bodyweight to get the best possible workout for athletes. He also does different variations of push-ups to build upper body strength.
The all-pro quarterback knows that determination and a desire for greatness are the foundation of his success.
“It starts when people aren’t looking,” Newton says. “It’s my will, it’s my desire, it’s my heart. It’s what I give for this game.”
After a stellar rookie season in which Newton racked up 35 total touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing), Newton had a sophomore season that was not nearly as stellar. Many called it a typical “sophomore slump” while others thought it was the natural progression of the mobile quarterback, where early successes cease once defenses figure the QB out.
Newton responded in 2013 by passing for more touchdowns and a higher passer rating than the previous two seasons, and led them to a playoff berth where they were defeated by the San Francisco 49ers.
In a 2014 season marred by a December car accident that left Newton with two small fractures in the lower back, Newton led the team to its second consecutive NFC South title before losing to the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs.
After two lackluster playoff years, sports pundits wondered if Newton was destined to be a perennial regular season stud and postseason dud.
But 2015 has thus far sung a different tune. The Panthers were just the sixth team in history to amass a 15-1 regular season record en route to a top playoff seed. During the campaign, Newton has been stellar all year, and will no doubt leave the NFL Awards Banquet on Saturday night with an MVP award in hand.
In this year’s playoffs, Newton has looked great, then not so great, then really good again. What could be his toughest defensive challenge awaits him on Sunday, as Denver yields the fewest yards per game, fewest touchdowns and most sacks.
As it tends to happen, as the playoff teams are whittled down week by week, the media sharpens its focus on the remaining teams’ more prominent players. For Carolina, it is Newton who has taken the brunt of everything, from criticism of his play style to broad questions about race relations in football. But really, Newton has been dealing with this all year as his team was consistently in the spotlight as the best in football.
His signature celebration of mimicking Clark Kent pulling open his shirt to reveal the Superman S gets more than its share of ire. After rushing for a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans this year, Newton was celebrating in the end zone with teammates. Apparently this rubbed one Titans fan the wrong way, who penned a letter to Newton, chastising his celebrations.
Following last month’s playoff win at home vs. Seattle, someone passed Newton a flag with a large number 12 on it — the symbol of Seahawks fans and their “12th Man”. Newton grabbed the flag, crumpled it up, and threw it away.
This prompted another viral letter, this time written by a die-hard Seahawks fan. Because some Seahawks fans literally believe the 12th Man flag is sacred, she wrote to “the Classless Cam Newton” and told him how important the flag was to their community and how he disrespected an entire city by desecrating it.
She went on to tout her team and its fan base as a community that “feeds and clothes the homeless, a community that raises funds for families in hard times, a community that helps a 3 year old girl battle cancer, a community that has more grace and respect than you could imagine.”
Critics like this conveniently forget to mention that while Newton did throw a supposedly sacred flag (which, by the way, is a knockoff of a college team’s flag), he is one of the most charitable, community-focused superstars in the NFL.
He funds shopping sprees for schoolchildren at Christmas time. He fed nine hundred underprivileged children on Thanksgiving. He still wears the hospital bracelet from the 2014 car accident so he can “Never forget the journey.”
He’s also known for scoring a touchdown and then gifting the football to a kid in the stands, no matter who tries to stop him.
Forgive us if we don’t join in the lambasting of a guy who threw another team’s flag.
The New Face of the NFL
It’s been a long two weeks for Newton. He’s pretty tired of the overbearing media and is ready for Sunday to come. When it does, he’ll have Manning and the Broncos waiting for him.
Manning will likely be playing in the final game of his 18-year career, so expect him to be fairly dialed-in. Head coach Gary Kubiak says Peyton looks the best he has all season. That Denver defense allowed the third-fewest rushing yards this season, which could be trouble for the mobile QB.
In spite of this, Newton and Carolina find themselves a six-point favorite on Sunday. It’s well earned, but Carolina–and Newton especially–must stick the landing if the Cam Newton Era is going to begin.
Newton represents, to many, the evolution of the NFL. Athleticism over sheer mass. Versatility over specialty. Talent and entertainment.
Newton is ready, whether you like it or not.
“I guess you’ll have to get used to it,” Newton says, “because I don’t plan on changing.”