It was a mid-November Sunday in 2015. Cam Newton lunged his 6’4” truck of a frame over the goal line, stretching his arms forward for the touchdown, an explanation point that stretched the game to a three score lead. He got up and dabbed for about eight seconds and was confronted by Tennessee Linebacker, Avery Williamson.
A controversy was born.
Cam Newton didn’t invent the dab. He wasn’t even the first NFL player to do it (that would be Jeremy Hill of the Bengals). But he was the one that made it popular, a national headline and a dance move that made teenagers scurry to Youtube to replicate.
All a natural occurrence for Cam Newton. His moves have always been under scrutiny, his words and dances and, most of all, his play attracting attention beyond his peers. Attention tracks him the way defenders try and stalk the mammoth 260-pound quarterback. And as he does on the field, Newton sidesteps the issue gracefully.
When asked if his treatment is a result of racism, Newton doesn’t take the bait. “It’s not racism. I don’t want this to be about race because it’s not. It’s not. Like, we’re beyond that. As a nation,” he told GQ magazine. Cam Newton wants to play quarterback. He understands that his position commands the spotlight, but he’s savvy enough not to create controversy when it isn’t there.
But controversy has always followed the quarterback. Coming out of high school, Newton was a 5-star dual threat recruit, ranked as the #2 quarterback according to Rivals and received offers from Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Georgia and Florida. He ultimately chose Florida, backing up Tim Tebow and was on the team during the 2008 championship run, although he took a medical redshirt for an ankle injury.
In November of 2008, Newton was arrested for burglary, charges that were eventually dropped, but the damage was already done and Newton transferred off the team, bouncing around Blinn College and ending at Auburn University.
In 2010, he became a household name, leading the school to a national title over Oregon and also winning the Heisman. He would forego his Senior season and go first overall in that year’s draft.
Cam Newton has always dealt with a higher level of scrutiny even though he has taken the high road. He has always been in the center of the spotlight with a larger than life smile and a patented Superman-turned dab celebration. In his very first NFL game in 2011, Newton debuted with a 24-37-422 stat line adding two passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown to one interception. His 422 yards set a rookie record at the time for most passing yards in an opening day. He followed that performance up with a 432-yard day against the defending Superbowl champions the following week, silencing any of his critics left.
The ultimate dual threat quarterback, Newton has found a way to be remarkably healthy, having missed two games in his career (both in 2014), throwing for 117 touchdowns and rushing for another 43 in his five seasons. His 2015 season was a year that he took the leap, posting 3,837-35-10 splits and adding another 636 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. For his efforts, he won the MVP and led Carolina to its second Superbowl appearance.
Still, it seems that no matter what he does, he will attract critics. Carolina was constantly labelled the worst 10-0, then 11-0, then 12-0, then 13-0 and 14-0 team of all time and when he (and the offense) faltered the Denver’s vaunted defense in the Superbowl, Cam took a beating – both on and off the field.
Walking out of the interview, Newton was labelled as “immature” and “disgruntled” and a “poor loser.” His critics pointed to the fact that Newton loved to showboat and prance around when things were going well, but couldn’t handle his emotions during adversity. Yes, quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers don’t get nearly the same flack when they spike the ball and do patented celebrations.
And really, Cam Newton has always tried his best to be Superman. He gives his touchdown ball – always – to a kid sitting in the first row of games. He founded The Cam Newton Foundation to enhance the lives of young people. He is renown in Charlotte for visiting hospitals and interacting with young citizens. He’s larger than life in stature, but never above it all. And he’s been a model citizen since entering the league.
Coming off that 2015 campaign, Newton also broke the career record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback when he ran one in on opening day this year against the Denver Broncos. Since then, he’s been in the news because of the constant hits to the head or knee he has endured – without penalties being thrown. In fact, Newton Newton has been hit 59 times inside the pocket in the past season and a half with zero accepted (one was offset) roughing penalties, according to ESPN’s Matt Bowen. During that time, Brees (10 roughing calls), Brady (five) and Winston (five) all have endured similar number of hits.
Whatever comes of that, it’s certain that Newton will continue to be beloved by some and unfairly hated by many. Perhaps it’s the mammoth size or the child-like attitude on the field. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the fact that Newton is changing the way the game is played as we speak. He is what guys like Vince Young and Mike Vick were supposed to be – 6’5” super humans who possessed the uncanny ability to uncork a fastball anywhere on the field. Except he didn’t flame out, fight with his coaches or get in trouble with the law.
Are some people threatened by his success? Is it troubling to have an intelligent African-American quarterback dominate the league, all while doing it flashing pearly white teeth? Newton won’t point to race, but some of his backers certainly think so.
So what’s next for Cam? If you believe history is a great indicator of the future, then we will undoubtedly see more celebrations, more controversies and more touchdowns. Because the scary part for his detractors is that Cam, at the age of 27, is just reaching the peak years of his physical prime.
Maybe Superman is really about to come out of the phone booth.