The Maturation of Cam
Training camp tours are full of surprises, and there was a big one in Carolina. Plus, Joe Philbin's knuckles are getting a workout, Devin Hester starts anew in Atlanta and a new NFL practice trend has loudly announced its presence
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — “Can I see you for a couple of minutes before you leave today?”
I looked up, and it was Cam Newton speaking. From my seat in the lobby of the Wofford College student union, just outside the cafeteria that the Carolina Panthers use at training camp here, I was a bit taken aback. It was the first time Newton had spoken to me since Feb. 22, 2011, when he told me in a telephone interview, “I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon,” and I reported it. Newton thought it was a cheap shot for me to report it—more about that in a minute—and so we’d gone into radio silence whenever I was around him since, which wasn’t that often.
This item is about the maturation of a person and a player, and about something I don’t recall ever experiencing covering the league.
After detailing the Newton story, I’ll report on other camp stuff from the week that was, and other current events around the NFL and the Hall of Fame ceremonies, as The MMQB’s camp odyssey continues (Skyline Chili today in Cincinnati!) in the midwest. What’s in the column today:
• In Miami, Joe Philbin’s doing bed check. The players actually like it.
• In Atlanta, it’s really strange seeing Devin Hester in number 17, and not in Bear blue.
• I have an item Rolling Stone will dig. (Does that mean I’m Almost Famous?)
• Also: A “Hard Knocks” preview, with stirring words from mentor-y Steven Jackson.
• And the Pro Football Hall of Fame is changing some eligibility rules. I like the change.
• Last note: When I got to 9,200 words Sunday night, I decided to hold off on including my Tennessee, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville items, all of which I like. But I rarely write 9,000 words during the season, never mind in early August. So you’ll have to read my Tuesday column to learn the name of the second-best player I’ve seen on my camp tour. On with today’s show.
Newton finished a press conference with the local media 15 or 20 minutes after he approached me initially, and when he finished, I was waiting outside the room. Steven Drummond of the Carolina PR staff found us a room, an auditorium the team uses for meetings at Wofford. He closed the door, and Newton and I stood there together. I wasn’t taking notes in our 20 minutes together, but I remember a lot of what he said.
He got right to the point. He said most of the people close to him wanted him to never speak to me again. Ignore me. I was one of the haters, so don’t deal with me; just deal with the media who were either fair—in their minds—or consistently supportive. “But I am my own person,” he said. “I think for myself. I make my own decisions. I decided I wanted to talk to you to see if we could work this out. I don’t want to walk the other way every time I see you. That’s not what a man does.”
And I said I wanted to explain to him exactly what happened that day three-and-a-half years ago, when I quoted him accurately after our telephone interview; that way, he could decide for himself if he wanted to ever speak to me again. This was the situation: At the time, two months before the draft, Newton wasn’t doing much press, and I was called by one of his PR people and told that he was going to spend an hour on the phone with selected reporters—four reporters, 15 minutes each. Did I want to be in? Of course, I said. I was the first of the four to talk with him that day, and during the interview, he said the icon and entertainer thing.
I figured there were certain messages about work ethic and image he wanted to get across in the interview, which he did. And I figured I wouldn’t be the only one he said that line to. I just figured if I didn’t use it, and fast, one of the next three interviewers would hear it and use it, somewhere. And so I threw it on Twitter, and said NFL people wouldn’t like to hear it. And it became a cause célèbre when he went to the NFL Scouting Combine a few days later. One quarterback-needy coach high in the draft said the comment totally soured him on Newton, and he caught some crap for it, and I caught some crap for it too, for what some thought was taking a quote out of context.
“I’ve thought about what I’d have done differently,” I told Newton, standing there in the auditorium. But I said we weren’t face-to-face, and maybe if we were I’d have cautioned him about it; I wasn’t sure. But I just figured he’d say it to someone else at some point, and so I used it.
Newton looked me straight in the eye and spoke earnestly, with passion. He told me he had some in his support group wanting him to—and this is my word, not his, because I can’t quote exactly what he said—be a brand, a great quarterback with a great image off the field as a multifaceted person. I understood totally. What marketing person or PR person working for a first-round quarterback doesn’t use Peyton Manning as a model? On one hand, Newton said what he said, and I reported it. But in the end, I feel bad that he was branded with those comments because his three years as a player has proven him to be, after some missteps at post-game podiums following losses, a good person and leader.
Then we talked for a few minutes about the perception of African-American quarterbacks. He said he wanted to prove to inner-city kids they can be NFL quarterbacks. Many are very talented at the youth level as quarterbacks, but what hurts are underfunded city football programs and underfunded high school programs with mediocre and undermanned coaching staffs. Equal prospects at a very young age who get great coaching with richer resources end up getting more chances. He said he wanted to be part of changing that.
Spur of the moment thought just then. I said: “Russell Wilson wrote something for The MMQB this summer about the history of race in the NFL, and he wrote a lot about the rise of African-American quarterbacks. I’ll send you the link. If you ever want to do something about what you’re talking about with the young African-American quarterbacks, I would love to see you do it.”
We talked a while longer. We were about to walk out, and he looked at me. “Let’s let bygones be bygones,” Newton said, and he stuck out his right hand. We shook.