Cam Newton learned a lesson in 2006 that he has carried with him through this week of preparation for Super Bowl 50.
The Carolina Panthers starting quarterback and newly minted NFL MVP was a 16-year-old junior at Atlanta’s Westlake High. The Lions went into their Georgia high school championship game with a 32-0 record and left with a 32-1 season.
“I just felt like we’re that good and it’s going to happen and we’re going to win it just because,” Newton told me during a car ride in December. “I didn’t respect basketball enough to care. I was just naturally good at just being bigger than people, out-physicaling guys, and be on a team where guys could shoot.
“We went to the state championship and lost. I didn’t know how to feel. I said if I ever get put in a game that is a championship game, I would never be able to go to sleep easy without me saying I gave every single ounce of effort I have preparing and finishing the game.”
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Newton has returned to the football pinnacle twice since then and won both in dramatic fashion. On Sunday against the Denver Broncos, he hopes to make it three.
In talking with members of Newton’s championship game teams, a theme has emerged. He has always been a supportive and fun teammate, but he has also always had laser focus and the need to have the ball in his hands when it matters most.
“Most certainly, I think it’s his moment,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said this week, “as well as it’s our moment.”
Newton would make his name in high school as a five-star football recruit, but he could play some basketball, too.
Newton started at power forward in his junior year of the 2005-2006 season. A strong rebounder, Newton was able to overpower the weaker competition.
“When I first went to college and he went to Florida, I used to joke a lot with people that it wouldn’t surprised me if (Gators basketball coach) Billy Donovan let him play,” said Patrick Hardy, a guard on the Westlake team who went on to play at Savannah State. “Cam was a very, very good basketball player. He played with a lot of energy. His toughness in rebounding was a huge asset to us. His athleticism used to shine on the basketball court. He could pretty much do any and everything out there.”
Westlake had some players. Along with Hardy to Savannah State, the Lions sent hoopers to Maryland, Georgia Southern, Furman and Winthrop.
The Lions beat teams by an average margin of 18.5 points per game. They beat Dunwoody, the reigning state champions, 64-55 at home in January 2006 and then again a month later 54-50 to win the region.
“Cam was probably one of the better teammates that I’ve ever known. And I’m not just saying that because we’re talking about him,” said Hardy, now an assistant coach at Savannah State. “That year we had, I don’t want to say pressure because it was high school basketball, but he had an innate ability to keep everybody on task with his enjoyment for the game and kind of reminding us that it was a basketball game, it was fun, we were supposed to be enjoying ourselves, that it’s high school.”
The Lions won four playoff games by an average margin of 10 points and faced Dunwoody in the championship for their third tilt of the season. This time, Dunwoody would get its revenge with a 79-72 victory and give Newton’s Westlake Lions their only loss of the season in the title game.
“As young men we went into it with a little bit … we didn’t really have the right perspective looking back at it,” Hardy said. “We were trying to protect our record instead of trying to win a championship.
“In that game, before the game he kept everyone light, kept everyone ready, but also kept everyone in perspective that ‘guys we’re about to go out here and play a game that we love to play.’ That was his leadership value to that team. That was something that we sorely needed.
“After the game, as any high school athlete, he was hurt. He was there for some of the older guys who were graduating. It was hard, but he was a great teammate.”
Confidence at Blinn
When Newton went to Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, he would walk outside of the College Park Apartment complex and wake up to cows in a small pasture in the back.
That was a stark contrast from his time at the University of Florida, where he ultimately left after an incident involving a stolen laptop.
“I don’t know what I wanted to get out of Blinn. I just wanted the opportunity,” Newton said. “I was mentally hurt. I needed some type of confidence, to regain confidence of even playing the quarterback position, let alone football, because I hadn’t played important downs in so long.
“I was on a great team there. We had athletes all over. That gave me the confidence that I needed, that I still carry to this day.”
One of Newton’s roommates was Chad Froechtenicht, a receiver for Blinn. He said there were three things to do in Brenham:
▪ You went to the Walmart if you needed something because there wasn’t a mall.
▪ You played video games – and in Newton’s case this was Madden, a game he lost $20 on in a bet the first day he was on campus.
▪ And you practiced football.
“Every day,” Froechtenicht said, “(Newton) would say, ‘Are you going to get better today or are you going to let this day go past? If you didn’t get better today, someone else is out there getting better.’”
Froechtenicht realized the team could be pretty good when they whipped Prairie View A&M in a summer scrimmage. But before the season they dropped a scrimmage to Mexico’s Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education.
Newton was quick to point out this week that it was only a scrimmage, but he remembered the game. Most notably, he remembered Monterrey having nearly 100 players while Blinn didn’t get to 60.
“I remember after that game, we did lose, and good thing that it didn’t go on our record,” Newton said. “I remember that game being the game where everybody was straightforward with each other. It was a players-only meeting that took place.”
The Blinn Buccaneers went 10-1 on the season with their only loss in a 23-20 game to Navarro College. Froechtenicht said Newton didn’t talk for about three days after that.
Then they faced Fort Scott Community College in the National Junior College Athletic Association championship in December 2009. Fort Scott boasted Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David going against Newton’s Blinn College team.
“They were loaded just as much as we were,” Froechtenicht said. “Cam’s head is, he never wants to lose. We weren’t going to lose, and he didn’t care who was on the other side as long as we went out there and played like a team.”
In the first quarter Newton injured his shoulder diving into the end zone (unnecessarily, Froechtenicht added) but came back later in the game.
Blinn was down two points with less than 30 seconds left in the game when Froechtenicht fielded a Fort Scott punt at the 17. With a decent return, there would be enough time for Newton to work the field and get into field-goal range for a game-winner.
Froechtenicht made sure Newton didn’t have to worry about that. He returned the punt 83 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
“If you watch the video at the end, you’ll see Cam come and jump on all of us in the end zone,” Froechtenicht said. “The biggest smile you’ve ever seen in your life.”
Then-Auburn coach Gene Chizik was not at Blinn’s championship game but saw it on film multiple times before the Tigers secured Newton’s commitment.
“We definitely saw that he really thrives in huge moments,” said Chizik, now the defensive coordinator at North Carolina. “When the games are on the line in tight games he always wants the ball. He wants the ball in his hands to win or lose the game. That’s a very rare trait for people that when the pressure is truly on, a lot of people like to defer that ball to somebody else. He’s never been like that.”
The Tigers were ranked 22nd in the nation in the Associated Press 2010 preseason poll, but they wouldn’t get into the top-3 until some clutch conference victories with the help of Newton.
He led a long, late-game drive against Kentucky to set up a short game-winning field goal as time expired in the sixth game of the year. Then the Tigers beat No. 12 Arkansas by 22 points and No. 6 Louisiana State by a touchdown.
Then came biggest game of the regular season, when Auburn traveled to Alabama. The Tigers were down 24-0 at one point in the first half. Newton talked to the team at halftime and gave a “failure is not an option” speech.
Auburn rallied to win 28-27 and advance to the SEC Championship Game.
“When huge games are at stake and on the line, he’s just going to be at his best,” Chizik said. “He’s got a focus. He’s got a way about him in those big moments where he leads people. The team gravitates and becomes great followers because they want to be led by him. In those moments they know that he’s big. It’s no surprise to me it’s happening at the next level.”
After steamrolling the Gamecocks for the conference title, Newton took Auburn to the national championship against Oregon. He completed 20 of his 34 passes for 265 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Newton also had 22 carries for 64 yards.
Tied at 19 with just more than two minutes left, Newton got the ball with a chance to win the game. He got the team down to the 2-yard line, and Wes Byrum kicked a chip-shot field goal as time expired to win the national title.
“I remember the air of confidence about him,” Chizik said of Newton, who won the Heisman Trophy that 14-0 season. “His presence, I don’t think there was anyone on our sideline or in that huddle that didn’t believe we were going to take the ball down and drive it down there and win it.
“Whether Cam had to throw it, or run it or someone else had to run it. We had the right guy guiding the offense down to the winning drive.”
Newton is back in a championship game, and it gets no bigger than this in football.
Some have pointed to Newton’s experience at Auburn in the national championship as something that will help him Sunday night. He says it only helped him with the media onslaught throughout the week.
“It’s not necessarily the media pressure, it’s just media requirements that is getting up under a lot of people’s skin,” Newton said. “I think I’ve got to meet with you guys another time and nothing’s going to change. I’ll be walking out in this room, walking up those stairs, going to another meeting, going to practice, probably playing a couple of video games, talking to my parents, making sure they make it here on time, waking up, brushing my teeth – obviously – go to another meeting.”
He was joking, but the interviews did become daunting. He usually talks on game weeks on Wednesdays, but he talked Monday through Thursday with some other requests off to the side.
That’s in part why Rivera decided to install the Panthers’ plan for the game in Charlotte last week and refine it this week in California. The Panthers want Newton to be himself as much as possible here.
“I think the biggest thing is just staying consistent and staying the same, which he has done,” quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey said. “That’s more important than anything. It’s being the same guy through ups and downs and highs and lows, just being the same guy. That’s what you’ve got to keep in mind when you’re at a big game or at a Super Bowl or Week 1 of the season.”
Remembering the pain
The lesson for this week’s game wasn’t learned at Auburn, though. And it wasn’t learned at Blinn.
This lesson was learned on March 4, 2006. After that seven-point loss in the high school basketball title game, Newton vowed he would never again take his preparation for a championship game lightly.
If he wins Sunday night in the title game like he has done the past two times, he’ll do it by displaying the same kind of joy that has endeared him to fans for years, and the same joy he has played with since he was a kid.
“I remember one game we were playing,” said Hardy, his high school basketball teammate, “and something happened and he got the ball from the opposite end of the court and weaved through the whole court and then he dunked on two guys.
“Right after the dunk he came out with this humungous smile. It wasn’t a surprise what he did because that’s Cam. That’s why it doesn’t surprise me to see him playing the game with so much enjoyment because he’s always done that since I’ve known him.”