He's android-perfect, a video-game avatar of a quarterback. Last year Cam Newton busted NFL records, threw for a historic 4,051 yards, and fulfilled all the promise of his number-one-draft-pick hype. And that was just his rookie year. This season? Prepare to be entertained
"This is kind of a weird time to be meeting me," says Cam Newton. And, sure, you can see what he means: The Carolina Panthers quarterback is midway through the off-season following perhaps the best season ever recorded by an NFL rookie, and the thing about a best-ever rookie season is that it demands a best-ever sophomore season. So, "weird" as in a time of transition. Right?
Well, no. The awkward moment dissolving in a mischievous grin tells a different story. It dawns on a visitor that Newton has been holding one hand conspicuously out of sight behind the door from which he's just emerged...the door marked with familiar "man" and "woman" icons, the hand, oh right, holding a small cup of freshly produced pee. "Sorry, man," he says, grinning wider and handing the cup to a scientist wearing a Gatorgum-green polo shirt.
We are at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI), in Bradenton, Florida. The lab announces itself as "committed to helping athletes optimize their health and performance through research and education in hydration and nutrition science." It is also, unmistakably, a showplace: as polished and high-tech and ready for its close-up as a CSI set. In addition to the quarterback and a clutch of scientists, the room is crowded with a Gatorade PR team, two of Newton's agents, a crew shooting footage for a partnership with NFL Films, an ESPN photographer, and me.
Newton now lies on a sleek, hard, gray plastic bed. He is strapped down and told to stay still as a mechanical arm inches across the length of his body, measuring his bone density. Through a glass wall, we regard him, hushed Lilliputians observing a sleeping giant. Unlike 99 percent of people experienced primarily through the -aggrandizing frame of a TV camera, Newton is actually bigger than expected in person: His hands are enormous, his calves the size of lampposts and pocked with a Jackson Pollock skein of scars, scrapes, and bruises, though when asked to narrate them later, Newton can't remember where a single one came from. "Just wounds," he says. "If you don't get a few of these every game, you haven't played."
These are the legs that propelled Newton to a record fourteen rushing touchdowns, the arm that threw for 4,051 yards. This is a body—six five, 245 pounds—that suggests enough speed, bulk, and athleticism to play nearly any other position on the field, from receiver to linebacker. (For that matter, it's a body that led NBA players, in a Sports Illustrated poll, to vote him among the most likely to succeed in their league.)
The GSSI is located in a featureless concrete building on the campus of IMG Academy. The place is a Shangri-la of elite jock culture, a destination for the fortuitously gened from around the world. Zipping around its 450 acres by golf cart, you pass immaculate expanses of football, soccer, and baseball fields, rows of tennis courts, shimmering in the sun like perfect blue David Hockney swimming pools; on call are mental conditioning coaches, improv teachers running leadership exercises, vision-training specialists, all clad head-to-toe in Under Armour, the Academy's main sponsor. Somewhere, one assumes, are the hidden greenhouses where lithe, tan boys and girls are grown like so many hydroponic turnips before being packed off to kindergartens where they learn to recite interview clichés in perfect, affectless unison. Just driving past the Under Armour-wearing guard at the entrance, you get the feeling you have raised the campuswide BMI by a significant factor.
Newton grew up in College Park, outside Atlanta; did time in Florida, Texas, and Alabama during his infamously peripatetic college career; and now owns a $1.6 million condo in the same downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, building as Michael Jordan. But here, resting behind glass, inside a private lab operated by one of his sponsors, on a campus owned by his management company and under-written by another company he's paid to endorse, with the media waiting outside and a blue Truman Show sky above, is perhaps as close as he or any modern sports superstar gets to a natural habitat.
Newton's mom, Jackie, a smiling woman in a brightly colored dress, slips into the room. The whole family is here this weekend for the IMG Academy football program 7-on-7 National Championship, in which Newton's foundation is fielding a team, and for the kickoff event: the Cam Newton Skills Challenge. Jackie watches as the scientists measure the circumference of her son's arms, legs, torso, as though fitting him for a suit. Cam leans his forehead on the wall.
"He's tired," she murmurs. "Baby boy, you needed to get to bed at a decent hour!"
"I did," Newton says, sheepishly.
Now the fun tests begin, the Six Million Dollar Man stuff, though, of course, that number seems laughable in light of a reported $22 million, four-year contract with the Panthers. Newton is put on a treadmill for a so-called FatMax test to measure how his body processes calories. His face is covered with a mask from which two plastic hoses protrude to measure his air intake and output. Over the next ten minutes or so, the speed of the treadmill increases until Newton is flat-out running, grimacing beneath the mask.
When he finally calls uncle, unable to go any more, he tears the mask off, his face a mass of sweat and spit.
"Thirsty," he manages to gasp. There's a flurry of activity from the various PR people.
Someone rushes in with a frothy protein shake, but Cam brushes it away.
"Are you sure you don't want one of these?" somebody says significantly, pressing a carton of Gatorade 03 into his huge hand.
Newton looks down, then up at the room of expectant faces, all the cameras. Over his shoulder, printed right on the wall, are the words "03...consumed shortly after training and competition will promote protein synthesis and glycogen restoration."
A big, brilliant smile splashes across his face.
"Well, yes, I do!" he says, and takes a big slug.
Whatever the tests may reveal about his bone density, his ability to oxidize fat, or his carbon dioxide output, one thing is conclusive: Cam Newton is that thing known as the Whole Package. On the field, a tantalizing glimpse of the One—a player who unifies the speed of the great modern running QBs like Michael Vick with the pocket skills of more traditional passers like Tom Brady. Off it, a star in the making.
What's hard to fathom is that, less than two years ago, all of this was in doubt. In the weeks leading up to the 2011 draft, serious, professional football prognosticators took to the airwaves, warning against taking Newton with the first pick. The Auburn offensive system, they said, was too simple, dumbed down to take advantage of Newton's physical gifts without taxing his—it was implied—dim mental ones. They rehashed the incidents that marred his college career: forced to leave the University of Florida after being found with a stolen laptop (he claimed to have bought it from a fellow student, and charges were eventually dropped); reported to be the subject of an academic cheating investigation; most recently, and seriously, plagued by a cloud of suspicion about how he wound up at Auburn after a year of exile in junior college.
The quarterback showed up at IMG Academy straight from the draft, a copy of the Panthers playbook in his hand and a chip on his shoulder. He spent hours in the classroom under the tutelage of Chris Weinke, himself a onetime Panthers quarterback and now head of the Academy's football program. Weinke claims to have never seen a better work ethic as, day after day, they picked their way through the byzantine language of an NFL offense.
"You've got to understand, it's like trying to teach a guy French," he says. "Not only teaching him French but asking him to speak fluently. And then asking him to speak fluently while a 300-pound man is trying to kill him."
In his first professional game, on the road against the Arizona Cardinals, Newton threw for 422 yards, breaking Peyton Manning's record for a rookie debut. Mission, it was fair to say, accomplie.
How he got here is both as simple and as complicated as anybody's passage to age 23. By 8, Newton was four feet eight and almost 100 pounds, a winner at whatever he did. Aware of his middle son's trajectory, Cecil Newton drove him hard.
"I was all about preparation for my son," says Cecil, himself an ex-football player, now a minister, with hawkish eyes and the same severe cheekbones that, in his son, soften into something approaching prettiness. "Not just how far you can throw the football, how athletic you are, but 'Who are you when the lights in the stadium are off? When the band is no longer playing? Who are you, Cam?' "
"He was like my superhero," Newton says. "If something was broke, he could fix it. If I was lost somewhere, he would find me. If I was crying, he could cure it. I knew that if I had my father with me, everything was going to be all right."
For all that, it's easy to understand a young man's exhilaration at being on his own for the first time. "Elated isn't even the right word," Newton says. "It was the first time I could say, 'This is mine.' I'm out here by myself. I've got money from the scholarship. There are females everywhere...." And it's easy, too, to understand the shock a freakishly talented kid might feel upon -finding himself, for the first time, not the best player on the field. The Gators, it happened, already had a quarterback—by the name of Tim Tebow. It was a unique opportunity that, by his own admission, Newton failed to understand.
"If I had said to Tim, 'Man, can we spend some extra time to study the playbook?' he would have done it. I didn't take advantage of what was right in front of me. If I had, maybe his mentality would have hit me sooner," he says. Instead, he whined to friends and coaches. He thought constantly of leaving. "Basically, I was immature and unfocused. I would never, ever make that mistake again."
When he finally left Florida, he and Cecil endured the long drive to tiny Brenham, Texas, home to the two-year Blinn College. It was the farthest Newton had ever been from home, as humiliated as he'd ever been. "I sometimes cried myself to sleep at night. But I was thinking, 'I've got to grow up. Either I'm doing it right now or I'm going home a screw-up.' I was force-fed it, and I ate it. It was like divine intervention. It was like a whole new core of Cam, of myself, being created," he says.
The Blinn Buccaneers went 11-1 that year. More important, Newton was forged into the kind of man his father had hoped—even if, as is the fate of all fathers, it came at the expense of his own autocratic power.
"It's funny how, when you're growing up, they're the ones helping you to live. And now that I've gone through the things I have, like, I'm taking care of them,"Newton says. He had reason to experience this soon after returning triumphant to Division I football, when suddenly it was Cecil in the harsh spotlight. The elder Newton was accused of demanding from Mississippi State a $180,000 donation to his church in exchange for his son's services. An NCAA investigation couldn't conclude whether Auburn had been asked to pay such a fee, but it also found that Cam had had no knowledge of what his father was doing.
Both father and son say that, rather than estrange them, the crisis brought them closer together. Did Cam ever sit down and ask his father what happened?
"No. I was more concerned with how he was feeling.When my father was going through all that stuff, I was like, 'I'm here for you, bro.' And it wasn't 'Pops' anymore. It was 'bro.' "
At the Cam Newton Skills Challenge, Rick Ross blares from a loudspeaker while hundreds of young men, some of the nation's best high school players, mill nervously about a perfectly manicured field.
Newton is much revivified, busting the chops of the cockier kids, egging on the shyer ones. They cluster around him like iron shavings to a magnet as he bops up and down the sideline.
"I was once in those guys' shoes, you know," Newton says. "It was fun, man. It was raw. Just like playing football in the backyard."
Those days are forever over. There are now quite a few more people than just Cecil waiting for Newton's transformation to manhood to take its next step. For all his heroics, the Panthers went a disastrous 6-10 last season. An abysmal defense was mostly to blame, but Newton's proclivity for throwing interceptions didn't help, nor did his tendency to sulk after losses. If running for yet another touchdown was one indelible image of his season, hiding petulantly under a Gatorade towel was another—not exactly the association the company is paying for.
Taking a microphone, Cam delivers a passionate kickoff pep talk. He talks about having no fear, about wanting it with every bone of your body, about how anything you want—cars, girls, a house for your mom—can be yours if you commit totally. The son of a preacher is in full effect; he's all but falling to one knee, dabbing at his face with a handkerchief. The kids are transfixed. On the sideline, Cam's 13-year-old brother, Caylin, a gangly kid with braces and a wingspan that speaks of future glory, is less so. "If we're ever getting out of here, he better put that mike down," he mutters.
Sibling eye-rolling notwithstanding, this is a level of pure charm that, as they say, you can only hope to contain. Back before the draft, it seemed that Newton's biggest crime—worse than the Florida stuff, worse than the recruiting stuff—was declaring to Sports Illustrated that he wanted to be more than just a quarterback, that he wanted to be an "entertainer and icon."
"If I come out and say, 'I will be the greatest to ever play this game,' that's a no-no. If I come out and say, 'I will not be stopped this year,' that's a no-no. People want to see humble," Newton says. Never mind that icons and entertainers are precisely what the entire sports-industrial complex runs on. Or that IMG's own "proprietary methodology" for its clients is called Icon Engineering.
But Newton has already been around enough to understand the game and its rules.
"The only thing that's going to get you away from all the talk is winning," he says. "Winning excuses everything."