Months before he became the No. 1 pick of the Carolina Panthers in the 2011 NFL Draft, Cam Newton talked about a bold plan for what he wanted to become.
“I see myself not only as a football player,” Newton said, “but an entertainer and icon.”
There was a collective eye roll and groan around the NFL. Who does this 21-year-old kid who has never played a down of pro football think he is?
Now, five years later, Newton might not yet be an icon, but he’s certainly an entertainer and a football player good enough to lead the Carolina Panthers into the playoffs Sunday against Seattle as the soon-to-be-named NFL MVP.
Newton has transcended this top-25 market to become the first national superstar in the history of Charlotte team sports. He’s regularly featured on national television advertisements, has his own clothing line and his touchdown celebrations are copied by players and fans alike.
“He was a very talented and young person who knew what he wanted and didn’t really care if it wasn’t accepted by the mainstream,” said Mike Boykin, CEO of Charlotte-based sports marketing group Bespoke Sports and Entertainment. “Was he brash? Yeah. Did it hit some nerves? Yeah. But I don’t think he’s done anything significant that repelled anybody other than the teams that he beat.”
Through it all, he’s taking Charlotte along for the ride. He has been the catalyst for the 15-1 season that has the Panthers in position to play the two-time defending NFC champion Seahawks in one of the biggest home games in Charlotte’s history.
You can’t escape Newton’s likeness throughout Charlotte. He’s advertising cologne in the fragrance section. He’s selling you headphones and sports energy drinks on TV.
People everywhere are dabbing in part because of Newton. One member of the Atlanta rap trio Migos, which released the song everyone’s dabbing to, called Newton the “dab daddy.”
Before and after games, he shows up in a perfectly tailored suit and sequined or spiked loafers. He even has added a foxtail to his wardrobe.
“If you got the personality for it and the ability to do it, it can be done,” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “He’s one of the few people who can do it.”
Uniting the city
When Newton first came to Charlotte, he noticed something he wanted to change.
He was struck by how many car flags or magnets supported other NFL teams. He’d see a Washington team magnet or a Steelers flag and wondered why he didn’t see more Panthers black and blue.
He wanted to help unify Charlotte. Now, Newton and his teammates are making that happen.
“When I’m rolling home,” Newton said last week, “and I see cars lined up for the team store, that’s how it’s supposed to be. And hopefully it’s going to be like that for a long time here.”
He played a role in shifting perceptions before. When he arrived at Auburn University in 2010, the Tigers were 22-16 in the previous three seasons.
Then, Newton became a campus celebrity, leading Auburn to a 14-0 national championship and winning the Heisman Trophy. The university erected a 10-foot bronze statue of Newton, and during the coming summers when he returned to take classes, his appearance became an event.
“The whole campus shut down when they found out he was there,” said Panthers rookie running back Cameron Artis-Payne, who played at Auburn in 2014. “People followed him around. That’s how it was every time he came around.
“Even to this day, a lot of kids that commit there look back to that time he was at Auburn as a reason they want to be an Auburn Tiger.”
Something to prove
When Newton started with the Panthers in 2011, his individual success was far greater than the team’s. He went to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season while Carolina lost 10 of 16 games.
At times, he moped around on the sidelines with a towel on his head. Some teammates considered Newton standoffish when he worked out by himself.
He matured, though. The Panthers cut Steve Smith in 2014 to help allow Newton room to assume a stronger leadership role, and he did. Newton engaged more with teammates, took receiver Kelvin Benjamin under his wing and funded summer workout trips for his receivers.
Safety Roman Harper said he had a poor impression of Newton the person when he played against him while a member of the New Orleans Saints. That changed once he joined the Panthers in 2014.
“Perception is not always reality. All you do is hear stuff and you see who he is on TV or what the media wants to make of him,” Harper said. “Before I got here, he was the enemy and I didn’t think great things of him. … You build a picture of somebody, and he’s a great example. He’s a great guy, funny, charismatic.”
Newton has entrenched himself in the Charlotte community through his foundation. A new father with a son named Chosen, Newton works closely with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Carolinas HealthCare System. Last month he surprised special needs children with desserts, middle-schoolers with a shopping spree and Harding football players with $7,500 for a new weight room.
And Newton has become a winner. He began his NFL career with a 13-19 record. Now he’s 32-13-1 in his past three seasons. He’s the only NFL quarterback with at least 100 passing touchdowns and 25 rushing touchdowns during his first five seasons, and he has accounted for more offensive yards during that time than any other quarterback.
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said Newton deserves to win the MVP. Two-time NFL MVP Steve Young said Newton is occupying “rare air.”
The fans have noticed, too. Newton has the sixth-best selling NFL jersey since 2013, according to data from Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Boykin, the Charlotte sports marketing executive who has more than 30 years in the business, said this season is uncharted territory for Newton and the Panthers.
“The Panthers are the biggest deal in sports, in the most popular league in this country, and they happen to be in Charlotte,” Boykin said. “The amount of coverage and publicity of the stories, they’re everywhere. You can’t buy that.”
Spreading the spotlight
During the offseason, the Panthers locked Newton in as their quarterback with a five-year, $103.8 million contract commitment. He received a multimillion dollar extension with Under Armour.
There are others sharing in the spotlight. Most noticeably, Newton has pulled together teammates for sideline photos that spread quickly across social media.
Also, second-year right guard Trai Turner showed up on the cover of Sports Illustrated blocking for Newton. “Lights, Cam, Action” read the headline with Newton winding up for a throw with Turner blocking in front of him. He knows that, if not for Newton’s caliber of play, he’d have no shot.
“As a player, you go out there and it’s do-or-die for him,” Turner said.
In 2014 Newton was recovering from offseason ankle surgery and had a commitment to shoot a commercial with Gatorade. The premise was to show how hard Newton trains and how essential the sports-energy drink is to his routine.
The director and Panthers officials wanted to make sure a recovering Newton didn’t overextend himself in the filming. So the team dispatched Jason Benguche, assistant strength and conditioning coach, to the shoot to monitor Newton.
But while he was inside Newton’s trailer between shoots, Benguche was told to change into a black Panthers T-shirt and put a whistle around his neck. Later, the director said, “Coach, you’re up,” and Benguche appears in the 30-second ad for about two seconds.
“I think that’s what it’s all about,” Benguche said. “When you do it the right way, you include part of the squad, part of the team. It’s not all about one guy. That’s the message that coach preaches and things we preach daily.”
One Newton trend that hasn’t been picked up is the foxtail as a fashion accessory. According to TMZ, he has spent upwards of $12,000 on 60 foxtails.
Newton once got a hat made of fox fur, but during the warmer months it became impractical to wear. He said he read that Native Americans once wore headdresses of animals – like mountain lions or wolves – with the belief that they would absorb the powers and qualities of those animals. By wearing a foxtail, Newton said he hoped to absorb the ability to escape from difficult situations.
A $200 foxtail hasn’t caught on. But a dance did.
Newton had been dabbing well before the Tennessee Titans and a Tennessee mother expressed distaste for his dance move. But it was after Newton danced in the end zone during Carolina’s win against the Titans that the dab went nationwide.
Soon, Newton was dabbing at Hornets games, college football players were dabbing in the end zones, grandmas were dabbing. Just this past week, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton dabbed on the Ellen show.
The dab, a simple dance where you tuck your head into your arm and extend the other one to the side, was created by the Atlanta rap trio Migos. Newton also is from Atlanta and had met Migos about 2014 when their song “Versace” made its way to the Billboard 100.
In July they released their single “Pipe It Up,” and in August released the music video that showed them dabbing. Newton was one of the most visible, earliest users of the dance move.
“When we found out Cam was dabbin’, it broke the Internet,” said Takeoff, a member of Migos. “It hit the TV and it went worldwide.”
Takeoff said the attention on the rap group has been “nonstop” since Newton dabbed in Tennessee.
“They want the Migos,” Takeoff said. “Everywhere we go they want to try to dab. It’s getting too out of hand. You see people dabbin’ in church.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera and owner Jerry Richardson have dabbed after victories. At Hornets games fans dab when shown on the videoboard. A 95-year-old grandmother is dabbing. Quavo, another member of the group, called Newton the “dab daddy.”
“Cam’s dab… he dabs perfect,” Takeoff said. “He dabs them folks to sleep. He puts them under the cover. He makes it look so easy.”
In the moment
Newton doesn’t care if you don’t like what he does. He’s going to play the game the way he wants.
When he hears criticism, he wants to ask fans: “If you were in my position, what would you do?”
“Have you ever played football?” Newton asked. “Have you ever scored a touchdown? Do you know the joy that you get? Have you ever had 70,000 people looking at you in the end zone? And it feels like you have 100 kids screaming your name trying to get what you have in your hands. That would make people go nuts and they would live in that moment.”
Newton’s play, and how he plays, has elevated him to a spot among the top stars in sports. If he can engineer a Super Bowl run, there will be an even larger breakout. Boykin, the marketing executive, said he thinks Newton can reach the star status of a Peyton Manning or a LeBron James.
“I think there’s a whole other stratosphere for Cam Newton,” Boykin said. “If he wins a ring, the first in the Carolinas, I just think he’s right on the cusp of even more. Look at (Stephen) Curry. Once he won MVP and the Warriors had their success, Curry’s on everything.”
First, though, Newton has to get past Seattle. That means an MVP-like performance Sunday that surely will include Superman poses, first-down signals and dabs.
If Newton and the Panthers prevail, it would be both an entertaining and iconic victory.