IT IS NEAR the end of Super Bowl Week, the annual seven-day massacre of sober reflection and rational thought, and it's clear Cam Newton has catalyzed a debate. The task now is to determine what is being debated. Something, that's for sure, but what, exactly? Dancing? Smiling? Race? The moral sanctity and raised-pinkie etiquette of a game that ritually debilitates its players while bundling itself in God and country? Newton is polarizing, right? We -- even Cam himself -- seem to have reached a national consensus on that one point, at least. But would it be a radical notion to suggest that Cam Newton is polarizing because he has been polarized?
And would that notion itself be polarizing?
Because as Newton stands in the middle of the swirl, answering endless questions about race and respect -- each one as unanswerable as the next -- he appears to be more of a direct object than subject. (He seems to get this, too; asked Tuesday for a third time to discuss the stereotypes of black quarterbacks, Newton said, "It's not an issue. It's an issue for you.") He's in danger of becoming a concept, a binary theory that can be held up to the light to either prove or disprove thoughts on society, race, generational disconnect and -- probably lastly -- sports. In a colloquial sense, he's a collection of hot takes, each one propelling us further from any true understanding of anything at all.
On its face, there is nothing particularly polarizing about dancing in the end zone. People have danced in end zones since the advent of end zones. (You could make the case that fire was man's first end zone.) There is nothing especially polarizing about being young and gifted and knowing it. (See: every successful athlete, ever.) There is nothing inherently polarizing about being a tremendous black quarterback with a briefly squirrelly past. But somehow, through the gifts of cultural chemistry, the confluence of all these elements creates a combustible reaction.
Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent called Newton's celebrations "disrespectful" and said if he was playing Cam, "I would knock your ass out of the game." (Dent was part of the ultra-respectful '85 Bears team that recorded "The Super Bowl Shuffle" three games before the end of the regular season.) Former linebacker Bill Romanowski, whose sensibilities have always leaned toward the sociopathic, said he would hit Cam hard and choke him in the pile. "Hopefully he can't breathe for a long time," is what Romanowski said of another human being, one with the audacity to play football at a high level a generation and a half removed from Romanowski's playing days.
BUT HERE'S WHAT'S strange: The people who know Cam Newton don't recognize the person amid the swirl. They don't see how the plot fits the character. His father didn't recognize the young man many scouts were suggesting had serious personality deficiencies before the 2011 draft. (And you can say what you want about Cecil Newton Sr., but be assured of one thing: None of it will be original.)
In the search for Polarizing Cam -- a concept his Panthers teammates find amusing, incidentally -- I spoke with several people at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, where Cam played after two unsatisfying and admittedly controversial years backing up Tim Tebow at Florida. Blinn was the spot where Cam allegedly went to reflect, to get his life together, to contemplate the big questions and rue the big mistakes. It came after he had been caught with a stolen laptop, which he eventually tossed from a dorm window, at Florida, and after he was dogged by suggestions of academic impropriety. Blinn, in the interest of easy myth, represents the fulcrum of his football career, the dead-or-in-jail, come-to-Jesus moment.
For that reason, we've been hearing a lot this week about Brenham, and Blinn, and how the tiny town with the 2,200-student campus with its since-condemned bleachers and its crappy locker room allowed the soon-to-be NFL MVP to reconnect with the important things in life. If you're mining the legend, it's vitally important -- Cam's Elba, perhaps the only time in recorded history that he was forced to confront humility.
"When I talk to people, I try to make it personable, because if I can make it, anybody can," Newton said during a news conference in November. "You're talking about a person six or seven years removed from a stolen laptop -- things that people don't really want to talk about -- a person that had to go to junior college. It's athletes all in junior college right now asking, 'Am I going to make it? Am I going to get a scholarship?' But I did all of that, and look at who I am today. I'm not saying that to brag or boast. I'm saying that because somebody is listening to this right now and they're in that situation right now where they may have had a mistake that happened, but that doesn't necessarily describe who they are as a person."
The narrative, it seems, is complete. He checks all the boxes: tremendous physical gifts; adversity that threatens the fulfillment of those gifts; redemption through hard work to salvage those gifts.
"WHEN HE FIRST arrived on campus and he didn't have the 'Cam' look on his eyes -- or the smile," says Jeff Tilley, the director of media relations and marketing at Blinn. "His world was rocked and was changing -- you go from the University of Florida to Blinn, that's a big change. At Blinn, you wash your own clothes. But that first day was the very last time I saw that face. From that day forward, he was the Cam Newton you see every day: electric and fun to be around. Has he changed? I don't know. I really don't see it."
Amy Winningham was Newton's teacher in English 1301, a freshman-level composition course Newton took as he worked toward an associate degree that would allow him to move from Blinn back to a Division I school. The class met Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m. Despite the early hour, Newton missed zero classes and was late just once, when a morning football workout ran long. On that day, he showed up with his coach, Brad Franchione, who explained to Winningham why Newton was walking into the room and taking his usual seat in the second row 10 minutes after the class started.
"The coach walked him in, and they both said it wouldn't happen again," Winningham said. "I remember thinking it was a very respectful way of going about it, and it caught me off guard because it had never happened in such a nice manner."
Winningham didn't know Newton was an athlete when the semester started, and she says, "The Cam I knew at Blinn was very low-key, respectful, kind. He always did his work, was funny during class discussions but never stood out. He was a model student, in my opinion. And my opinion on him now is that he's young and having fun. If I was that good at something, I'd be celebrating, too."
(They're loving the attention at Blinn, by the way, as if you couldn't tell. "Nothing this fun has ever happened to a random English professor," Winningham says.)
What if something as superficial as the "polarizing" response to an end zone celebration bundled everything -- the laptop, the year at Blinn, the dog-whistle pre-draft suggestions of laziness and lack of leadership ability -- and shoved it into a prescribed narrative slot? And what if that narrative is wrong? What if there was no epochal transformation, and Newton is -- just like the rest of us -- a slightly more evolved version of the same guy he has always been?
Because no matter how it's spun, this wasn't a story about a dead-end kid who found himself at an outback junior college facing a life on the streets if he couldn't attract the attention of a benevolent scout. For one, he was always the best athlete on whatever field he played, and he arrived at Blinn with both of his parents and a trunk full of clean laundry after an 850-mile drive from his home in Atlanta. It didn't feel desperate, or last-shot-ish -- it felt like a quiet place to go to school and play football, a necessary stop on the way to something else. Junior college football is that unique place between somewhere and nowhere, and Newton was like everyone else, coach and player: a guy auditioning for a better job.
"PART OF COLLEGE is learning from your mistakes," Franchione says. His shrug is almost audible over the phone. "You just hope you don't make a mistake that costs you your future. I think that's what they were both worried about -- Cam and Cecil. Because if you make another mistake at Blinn College, where do you go from there?"
Newton did have problems in Florida, no doubt, but he wasn't really overcoming so much as escaping a situation in which he would have been the backup quarterback for the third straight season behind Tebow. ("Regardless of what information you might find on the Internet, Cam was never kicked out of the University of Florida," Franchione says. "Believe me -- I did my homework.") The decision to head to Blinn wasn't a particularly bold, feckless or desperate move for the Newtons; Cecil researched junior colleges, found one with a history of success and a known coach, and laid out the parameters for coaching his son. (Cecil Newton took charge, which brings up another no-win: parents of black athletes, especially fathers, get criticized for not being involved in their children's lives; Cecil got criticized for being too involved in Cam's.) And in the end, the decision worked; Blinn won a junior college national championship, and Cam ended up at Auburn, where he won a bigger one.
"In speaking with Cecil, there were a lot of business questions and a lot of personal questions," Franchione says. "Cecil did an extensive amount of research on our program and our offense and me. There were things he wanted. He was real thorough. He wanted me to be tough on him, and he wanted me to develop his leadership skills. Cam and I spoke every day about leadership."
Newton was so competitive, he routinely raced Franchione down the hall from the locker room to the bathroom. "Never seen anyone who could find a way to compete on just about anything," Franchione says. During the summer of 2009, Franchione embarked on a mission to save the on-campus stadium at Blinn. During 100-plus degree days, he would have his defensive players spend an hour in the weight room while the offense painted the bleachers. They would then switch, and after two hours, the team would run as a group. "Cam never complained," Franchione says. "I was worried about him thinking he was too good for Blinn, but there was only one moment in the weight room where he didn't really want to do something we were going to do. I remember looking at him and saying, 'This is what we do, bud, and this is what you're going to do.' Maybe he was testing the waters, but after that moment, I never got the vibe he thought he was bigger than the people he was around. He was just part of the team."
SO THAT'S IT: In one year at Blinn, the supposedly troubled youth didn't smile the first day he arrived and questioned the efficacy of a drill on another. But the demand remains: Pick a side, either side. It's very nearly a requirement. By the time Thursday rolled around, Newton was visibly worn from the repetition. Explain why you still wear the hospital bracelet from your car accident. Talk about your relationship with Ron Rivera. Why are you wearing sandals with socks? It's 100 people using their mouths to press play. Nothing illuminating goes in -- not on football or race or personal growth -- and none comes out. Like so many before him, Newton is simply a screen upon which you are free to project your own agenda.
But what about the celebrations? Isn't that what America needs to know? Franchione starts laughing. You think you've seen celebrations? You think the Dab is a celebration worthy of a letter to the editor? You think a guy smiling through his face mask and running to hand the ball to a kid in the stands is a breach of decorum? Clearly, Franchione says, you never saw a Cam-Newton-at-Blinn touchdown celebration.
Just off the top of his head:
The loading-a-make-believe-bazooka celebration.
The 10-human-bowling-pins-being-knocked-down-by-Cam celebration.
The grenades-being-tossed-from-an-imaginary-foxhole celebration.
What if any one of those were to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public during the course of an NFL game? Lord knows, Franchione says, Lord knows.
"We had a number of routines," he says. "It was junior college -- we encouraged them to compete, and have fun."
He's not surprised by the question, but his tone indicates it all seems pretty ridiculous to him.
"I mean, seriously," he says, "what else are you there for?"