Carolina Panthers

‘Doesn’t have to make sense to anybody but you’: How Cam Newton operates as a mentor

The tall, veteran quarterback peered down at the reporters awaiting his thoughts on his team’s recently drafted player at his position.

The politically correct move would be for him to take on a mentorship role with the just-drafted, young quarterback. So when asked about his role in developing the rookie, he responded candidly.

“I’m not worried about developing guys or any of that,” Denver Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I don’t look at that as my job. My job is to go win football games for this football team.”

Like the Broncos with Flacco and second-round pick Drew Lock, the Carolina Panthers face similar questions about Cam Newton and third-round pick Will Grier.

Newton saw his team draft a quarterback for the first time since it took him first overall in 2011 and almost immediately speculation swirled whether he was interested in or even capable of mentoring Grier, who grew up in the Charlotte area.

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So, what type of mentor is Newton to current backups Grier, Kyle Allen or Taylor Heinicke — or any young quarterback the Panthers add?

“The truth of the matter is Cam’s never really had to be in a mentor position until last year, anyway, so they really wouldn’t know what he’s capable of,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera told the Observer. “For the most part, he’s had (backup Derek Anderson) around, who’s really helped him a lot.”

Anderson’s presence in the quarterback room during Newton’s first seven seasons allowed him to lead more by example than anything else. During the 2018 season, his first without the now-retired Anderson, Newton took a more proactive role with Heinicke and Allen.

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Cam Newton, left, was engaged in developing Taylor Heinicke, 6, and Kyle Allen last season. David T. Foster III

When Heinicke and Allen started their first games in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively, Newton became even more engaged in their developmental process.

“I think it doesn’t just go into those last two weeks, I think it was throughout the whole season,” Allen said. “He’s not a selfish guy in that room, he’s not just sitting there and worrying about himself and not worrying about everyone else on the team, or even in our room. The whole year, when I had questions, he was willing to answer them 100 percent.

“Those weeks when Taylor was starting and when I was starting, he was in there getting us ready, giving us looks ... It just shows his character, it shows what kind of guy he is.”

A servant, role model and icon

Even before he needed to do so with his own teammates, Newton embraced his role as a mentor for a younger generation of players. Newton, who recently turned 30, has been in the league long enough to be joined by players who grew up watching him — especially those who didn’t have many examples to look up to.

He is firmly entrenched at the head of the current fraternity of black quarterbacks, mentoring players like the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields.

Newton continued to embrace that role last season when he reached out to Baltimore Ravens rookie Lamar Jackson — who inevitably took Flacco’s starting job — telling The Undefeated he wanted to be a “vessel or outlet” for the former Heisman Trophy winner. Newton hasn’t yet reached out to 2019 NFL Draft picks Dwayne Haskins of Washington and Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals, although he hopes to before long.

And he isn’t just extending his hand to black quarterbacks.

“From Haskins to Murray, to pretty much anybody that’s coming out — it doesn’t have to be an African-American quarterback for me to give my expertise,” Newton said. “I plan on doing the same thing with Will Grier … I’m a servant first, and I’m going to do my job and do my due diligence.”

It’s impossible to ignore Newton’s visibility as a successful black quarterback in a league that has historically only provided an anointed few. When fellow black quarterbacks like Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick cycled out during Newton’s first few seasons, he and Russell Wilson took their places as the faces of an underrepresented demographic.

“He set the bar. Some people are receptive to what the veterans have to say, but some people want to break the mold and ride solo and do it their own way,” Newton’s father, Cecil, said. “I’m not against a person looking at life through that lens, but a fraternity of people who have that on-field and in-community experience could give you a lot of tidbits of what to do and what not to do, and how to pick a team that will support you in your endeavors.”

Cecil’s lesson is one Cam strives to teach young players before they even get to the NFL — or college, for that matter.

Newton’s 7-on-7 football teams offer high schoolers an unfiltered look at the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner. It’s how he met Cowboys receiver Michael Gallup, it’s how he met Watson and Panthers rookies Terry Godwin and Elijah Holyfield.

It’s also where he first met Grier, who played at Davidson Day.

“You would think I’d feel intimidated, but that’s not the case,” Newton recently told Fox 46. “I reached out to Will and actually have seen Will play in high school with him being in Charlotte. I know he possesses a rare talent and I’m excited. For me, it’s my job to put myself and this team in the best situation and to get everybody ready ... I want to make sure I’m my best teammate and best self for everyone.”

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The time he spends with these up-and-coming teenagers is when Newton feels he makes his largest impact.

“I’m at practice, they get to talk to me then, we go on college tours, they get to talk to me and be around me then,” Newton said. “It gets to a point where they don’t see Cam Newton as the NFL star, they just see me as their joking coach or big brother or person that’s just around trying to help them get to the next level.”

These kids are sometimes approached by adults who may claim to have a map to that “next level” but have never experienced the life they’re selling.

Newton wants to give prospective athletes an alternative role model — one who’s “been there.”

It’s a self-mandated responsibility that his father agrees with.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton breaks a huddle with one of his 7-on-7 All-Star teams. Newton said he believes he makes his “biggest impact” working with and mentoring the high school players on his all-star teams, which helps them reach the collegiate level both on and off the field. Courtesy Cory Fravel 247 Sports

“When it comes to Cam actually talking to them and telling them what that first game is going to be like, what the community is going to be like, how they’ll want to become entrenched in your community — somebody needs to help navigate them,” Cecil Newton said. “That person who helps navigate you should already have gainful experience, not just somebody who’s just out here talking, who’s got a college degree in public relations and social media.

“Kids are not prejudiced. Kids don’t have a hidden agenda, they’re gonna love you because you’re a role model and icon to them.”

‘An unfair assessment’

After the Panthers selected Grier with the No. 100 overall selection in last month’s draft, speculation arose among NFL pundits and fans about whether the West Virginia product was drafted to succeed Newton, whose contract ends after the 2020 season and is recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder in January.

It’s a hasty, albeit reasonable perspective.

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The idea that Newton cannot or will not mentor Grier is easier to brush off.

“People aren’t here to see who he really is, so I’m really not concerned with that stuff,” coach Rivera said. “But as far as him as a mentor, when you watch Cam while he works with the other guys, he fits right in.

“I think (doubting Newton’s leadership is) just an unfair assessment of Cam’s ability to put his arm around a young player and help him out. I think Cam, really knowing what we do and how we do it and how he sees things, can really help as he explains things to those guys.”

Cam Newton’s younger brother Caylin, middle, and father Cecil, right, are both witnesses to Cam’s behind-the-scenes mentorship. Observer file photo

One of the earliest recipients of Cam’s guidance, his younger brother and Howard quarterback, Caylin, called his sibling a “personal leader” whose help may come in a variety of ways, “that could be tough love, that could be a pat on the back or that could be cursing you out.”

And while much of what Caylin learned from Cam was through observation, there is one piece of advice from his older brother that stuck with him as he enters his third collegiate season.

“He said something that, every time I work out, I always think about,” Caylin told the Observer. “He says, ‘It doesn’t have to make sense to anybody else but you.’ That’s for anything — that’s school, football, relationships. It doesn’t have to make sense to anybody else but you.”

Considering the extenuating circumstances surrounding Newton’s health and the Panthers’ decision to draft their first quarterback in eight years, some skeptics believed he wouldn’t be interested in bringing the rookie along.

But given Newton’s history as a mentor to those who need guidance, that belief might not hold much merit.

“Imagining what Twitter would look like if Cam Newton said it wasn’t his job to mentor Will Grier,” Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier tweeted after Flacco’s comments.

Based on what Newton has said since the draft, that version of Twitter may only exist in Tanier’s imagination.

Marcel Louis-Jacques covers the Carolina Panthers for the Charlotte Observer, keeping you on top of Panthers news both on the field and behind the scenes. He is a 2014 graduate of Arizona State University and grew up in Sacramento, California.