Sports is so often thought of as a world that exists within hash marks and periods of regulated time, in statistics and patterns and parallels and solid white lines on a green field.
It’s so easy to boil things down into “good” and “bad”, “my team” versus “their team,” that a final box score hardly shares the gray area that had just occurred before it.
So it’s a simple and understandable habit to fall into, to try to classify Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton as just one thing or the other.
I get voicemails from my phone at the Observer forwarded to my email inbox and about once or twice a week, there is always one from an anonymous caller with a deep, raspy drawl. It’s always the same person, always about Newton, and it’s always angry. Polarizing, in fact. This man does not like Newton, and he remains unchanging in his tone or attitude. And I see the tweets and the comments people share and honestly, since arriving in Charlotte a little over two months ago, I have been surprised at the divide between those who like Newton, and those who do not.
While listening to Newton talk about meeting a child about to head into heart surgery on Wednesday afternoon, it struck me that what is missing from a lot of these comments is the acceptance of everything in between who Newton is one day, and who he is not the next. The nuance.
It struck me that what is missing from a lot of these comments is the acceptance of everything in between who Newton is one day, and who he is not the next. The nuance.
You can, for example, postulate with a heavy sigh and a swirl of Scotch that Newton throws off his back foot too much one moment (like in a plodding loss to Atlanta on Christmas Eve), and then still gasp with joy and emotion while watching him hug 10-year-old Taylor Austin Deckard in the hospital two days after Christmas.
You can shake your head in disappointment at Newton’s career-low-trending statistics at the tail end of a lost season, understand that Carolina’s offense needs to “evolve” (in the words of head coach Ron Rivera), and still grip the podium with sincerity along with him as he agrees with Rivera’s decision to sit a healthy Luke Kuechly with the hopes of staving off for just a few more precious years the long-term effects of the concussion Kuechly suffered in November.
It’s possible, folks, and stay with me here, to accept all of these things at once.
Try to imagine Newton’s perspective of it all. He exists in a world of nuances and shifts – he always says he’s human, after all – and it’s been clear time and again.
I think personality is important. ... I mean, this is a game. We should have fun when we play.
“You have to really look back and always have a reset button for you to just realize why you do what you do,” he said on Wednesday afternoon. “Yeah, it’s kind of like a disappointment for the on-field product. But off the field I think that people kind of look at me and they see a unique person.”
Even the last day or so has been rocked with change – feeling empowered and inspired by the love and courage showed by Deckard’s family, and then just hours later being devastated by the news of beloved special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven’s death after a long fight with cancer is no small emotional experience, as Newton expressed.
“I don’t think it has resonated yet,” he said. “I often say that, ‘I’m human.’ And for a person to go through certain things, and witness certain things and meet certain people, it’s tough.”
And that is Newton’s world.
It’s a world where one day he’s in flamboyant hats with feathers, and another day he’s in a beanie and sweats and slides with sock-clad toes hanging over the edges. Where he is passionate and eloquent and sincere and at his best when speaking about concussions and their long-term effects, or about giving back to communities (particularly to children), or about being a father, but then the next day is the eye-rolling, sighing, succinct young man - the same one who flooded headlines after the Super Bowl loss.
Trying to box Newton into one thing or the other is pointless. Because he’s never just going to be just one thing, or the other.
So what? That is what we have. It’s possible to have all at once; to form separate opinions about all at once
“I don’t try to do it for no publicity stunts,” he said. “I don’t wear hats, I don’t type the way I type, I don’t post the way certain things post. ... I do it just to impact a person and say, ‘Well, if Cam is unique and tries to do certain things like that, then I want to be a part of that. I want to be a part of something different. I don’t want to conform to a crowd. I want to go against the grain.
“A lot of people obviously look at (me) and critique, maybe in a positive way or in a negative way. And that’s what you have to take, the good with the bad,” he said.
Naturally, Buccaneers defensive tackle and Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy (who has been playing against Newton twice a year since 2011 and has studied film of the quarterback as far back as junior college) has one too.
I don’t try to do it for no publicity stunts. ... I do it just to impact a person and say, ‘Well, if Cam is unique and tries to do certain things like that, then I want to be a part of that. ... I don’t want to conform to a crowd.’
“Cam Newton is Cam Newton,” he said on a conference call Wednesday morning. “He just has that big ol’ smile while he’s playing. And a lot of people, sometimes, they take what he does for being angry, or being a bad sport, and it’s passion.
“He brings a type of passion and energy and fun to this league that we play in that I think is very necessary. ... Cam has been Cam since he got in the league. ... He’s not gonna change who he is and the NFL needs to accept it. He is very necessary in this league, in my opinion. The type of person that he is, I don’t wanna call it ‘flamboyant,’ but he’s outgoing. You know, the dancing, he’s very generous at handing out the footballs. ... He likes to have a good time, man, and he’s gonna be who he is.”
Trying to box Newton into one thing or the other is pointless. Because he’s never just going to be just one thing, or the other. He is always going to be a constantly-shifting personality, a lot of everything at once, that some days will make you want to kick a door and other days make you swell with emotion and empathy.
“This game is full of personalities. For so long it’s been stoic, it’s been the same,” said Rivera. “I think it’s important that the personalities show, within good taste. But I think personality is important. ... I mean, this is a game. We should have fun when we play.”
And for better or worse – whichever version of Newton we get, from day to day – I think just accepting them all is a hell of a lot more fun.