Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera talked all week about seeing how his players perform on the big stage of New York, or at least north Jersey, in a nationally televised game.
For Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, it will mean sharing the stage Sunday with a former college teammate and equally big deal.
Newton backed up New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow for two seasons at Florida before transferring to Blinn Junior College in Texas. Both won multiple national championships Tebow was part of two BCS title teams with the Gators, while Newton also won titles at Blinn and Auburn and each has a Heisman in his trophy collection.
Newton and Tebow represent the future of the NFL and have broad marketing appeal, with good looks and a number of major corporate sponsorships.
But they are in vastly different situations from a football standpoint. Newton, last years Rookie of the Year, is the franchise quarterback the Panthers are building around.
Tebow, despite leading the Denver Broncos to a playoff victory last year, was shipped out of Denver to make room for Peyton Manning. The left-hander has become a cultural phenomenon, in large part because of his outspoken Christian beliefs.
But he begins this season as he did last year in Denver as a backup quarterback whose poor throwing form is offset by his history of winning.
When Newton and Tebow intersect in Sundays exhibition at MetLife Stadium, they will be on divergent paths. Tebow likely will be coming into the game to replace Mark Sanchez in the third quarter when Newton and the other starters are exiting.
And though Newton and Tebow are not close, Newton said he respects his former teammate.
Im a big fan of Tebow. We havent been keeping in contact, but Im just a fan of sports, Newton said. I understand what he has going on, and the quarterback controversy with him and Mark Sanchez.
Newton went on to mention 10 other quarterbacks he admires, a list that included everyone from Manning whose rookie passing record Newton broke to rookies Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill.
But none of those players ever sat in the same meeting room with Newton, as Tebow did during the 2007 and 08 seasons in Gainesville.
Theres a lot Ive learned from Tim, his professionalism and how his approach is to this game, Newton said. Thats one thing everybody has to respect about (him), and I do.
Life in Gainesville
Florida was coming off its first national title under Urban Meyer when Newton arrived on campus. His role was similar to the one Tebow held while backing up Charlotte native Chris Leak to provide a spark off the bench when the Gators went to the Wildcat formation.
Newton rushed 16 times for 103 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman. But he was injured in the season opener against Hawaii in 2008 and later suspended for stealing a laptop.
He transferred to Blinn in the spring of 2009.
Panthers receiver Louis Murphy, who played with Tebow and Newton at Florida, said both are amazing athletes with a drive to succeed.
They brought a lot to the table. Cam used to come in and run some Wildcat for us. He got a lot of touchdowns doing it, Murphy said. Both were hard workers. Both love football. They both were competitors. They both competed every day against each other.
Murphy laughed when asked which was the better passer and declined to comment. He didnt need to: Tebow is widely regarded as a player who wins in spite of his often ugly throws.
After former Panthers coach John Fox reluctantly replaced Kyle Orton with Tebow last season, Tebow led the Broncos to the playoffs with a six-game winning streak that included a series of late-game comebacks. Tebow kept the magic going in a Wild Card victory against Pittsburgh, passing for 316 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning, 80-yarder to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime.
The Broncos fell to New England the following week, but not before Tebow had made Tebowing his end zone genuflecting part of the pop culture lexicon and picked up a seemingly equal number of supporters and detractors.
His introductory press conference in New York was carried live by ESPN, which also broadcast daily from the Jets training camp this summer. Before Tebow took a snap for the Jets, his image on a Jockey electronic billboard greeted commuters entering the Holland Tunnel.
Panthers veteran offensive Jordan Gross doesnt understand Tebow-mania.
I really dont get it that much, to be honest with you, Gross said. He led his team to the playoffs last year, which is good. But theres a lot of people that are good players. He gets a lot of attention. Its always surprising to me why.
Tebow draws a lot of attention with his religious convictions. The 24-year-old has said he would remain a virgin until hes married, and hes been to known to offer blessings to media members, including his detractors.
Its interesting, Gross added. Theres a lot of guys that are strong Christians and have been in the NFL. Hes just a fan favorite, I guess. Hes a lighting rod. Some people like him and some people dont.
Not fighting fire with fire
Former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason caused a stir this month by suggesting on his radio show that the Jets cut Tebow.
Ive heard nothing but great things about Mr. Esiason, he said. I wish him nothing but the best in his announcing. God bless him.
Tebow also was asked about Esiasons comment that hed rather have Tebow as a son-in-law than a quarterback.
I would rather be known as someone with good character than a good football player, Tebow said. But I do want to be known as a good football player, as well.
Panthers defensive end Eric Norwood, who faced Tebow every year when Norwood played at South Carolina, said Tebows aw-shucks personality extends to the field, as well. Norwood smiled when recalling Tebows version of trash-talking.
Hed say stuff like, Youre not going to hit me this time, Eric. Most guys talk a little bit more reckless, Norwood said. Just a real cool guy, man. But this weekend hes competition. Were coming after him.
Tebow and Newton are among the new breed of NFL quarterbacks. Both are big, strong and not afraid to leave the pocket to pick up yards with their legs.
Newton ran for 706 yards as a rookie and his 14 rushing touchdowns were the most in league history. Meanwhile, only Michael Vick has more rushing yards among quarterbacks than Tebows 887 since Tebow entered the league in 2010.
For all their similarities and differences, Rivera said the biggest trait Tebow and Newton share is a track record of success.
Hes a winner like our guy, Rivera said of Tebow. Guys like that are hard to find and theyre special. You think about one time those guys were connected and now theyve gone their own directions doing their own thing.