Tom Sorensen

Sorensen Classic: Panthers QB Cam Newton was put on the clock from the start

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been on the clock with team owner Jerry Richardson since before he was drafted.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been on the clock with team owner Jerry Richardson since before he was drafted. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Editor’s note: This column originally published on April 30, 2011.

The most famous piece of furniture in Charlotte, and perhaps the NFL, is a clock at the home of Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.

The clock ticks loudly and - and I rarely ascribe human traits to inanimate objects, but this clock has a personality - indignantly. When a Carolina Panther offends his employer, Richardson invites him to his house, not really asking, and sits him in a chair. Richardson doesn’t talk for a while. The slow and stubborn ticking is all the player hears.

When Cam Newton visited Richardson April 4, he asked only two questions. The first was, “Is that the clock?”

How did Newton know?

“Everybody in the NFL knows about the clock,” Richardson says.

Richardson and I talk Friday afternoon. We sit at a table on his patio. In front of us is a vast lawn as smooth and lush as an Augusta National green.

Richardson did not select Newton on Thursday with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. General manager Marty Hurney did. But Richardson could have vetoed the selection.

So the April 4 meeting was not without import.

Richardson is 74. Newton will turn 22 May 11. The younger repeatedly called the older sir.

“Are you calling me sir because you’re trying to impress me?” Richardson asked.

“I’m calling you sir because that’s the way I was raised,” Newton said.

Richardson said he didn’t want to talk about the past.

Newton thanked him.

If the Panthers draft you, you’ll be part of our family, Richardson said. We’ll move forward.

Richardson wants to move forward. Last season, the Panthers went 2-14. There was infighting within the organization. There was criticism from once-respectful fans.

He also is co-chair of the NFL committee that is negotiating with, and fighting against, the NFL Players Association, trying to reach accord on a collective-bargaining agreement.

Richardson says two prayers every night before bed.

The first is, “Help me not to judge.” The second is, “Help me.”

Not passing judgment is, Richardson admits, a challenge.

He says: “The society we live in, things get said and repeated. Because somebody says it, it becomes fact.”

He told Newton: “Things have been said about me that aren’t true and that I don’t like. I know things have been said about you.”

Back on the patio, Richardson says: “I’m not a choirboy. I’ve never said I was. And I don’t want a roster of 53 choirboys. I told Jeremy Shockey (Carolina’s new non-choirboy tight end), ‘Don’t change your personality. It’ll be good for the team. I could do without the tattoos, though.’”

Richardson asked Newton if he had tattoos or piercings, and Newton said he did not.

Newton was flown to Charlotte on Friday morning and driven to Bank of America Stadium to meet with Panthers coaches and staff, and the media.

When he encountered Richardson, they embraced.

“Just getting a hug from Mr. Richardson makes it more official, “ Newton said about being a Panther.

“Did you get crazy after the draft and go out and get any tattoos or piercings?” Richardson asked. “Do I have to check you for anything?”

“No sir,” said Newton.

During their April 4 meeting, Richardson asked Newton to tell him the best advice he’s received.

Newton, who is 6-foot-5, extended his large hands.

“This is my circle right now,” he said.

The circle was wide.

Newton drew his hands in and made the circle tight.

“Get it down to this,” he said.

“That’s about the best advice you could get,” said Richardson. “If you come here, you’ll have all the support you’ll need.”

Richardson asked Newton what mattered most – being drafted No. 1, or becoming a Panther.

“No, sir, I want to play for the Carolina Panthers,” Newton said.

“You don’t want to play in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, some place like that?” Richardson asked.

“No sir,” said Newton. “I would be very happy to come here and make my career here.”

The first question Newton asked was about the clock. The second was about Jimmy Clausen. Clausen became Carolina’s starting quarterback as a rookie last season.

“How will Jimmy Clausen feel if you draft me?” Newton asked.

“He will handle it like a gentleman and he will compete as hard as he can,” Richardson said.

The door to the patio opens and Richardson is told he has a telephone call. It’s NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He excuses himself.

When Richardson returns, I ask: Do you like Newton?

“A lot,”he says. “A lot.

“What really got me is a few days after we talked I got an envelope from Federal Express. There was a letter in it, three handwritten pages. An agent obviously didn’t write it.”

Richardson said Newton did.

“He referred to things we talked about,” said Richardson. “It was very personal and very thoughtful. No player who has come in for a (predraft) interview has ever written a letter. It showed he listened.

“So when you put all this together, it was not difficult.”

The door to the patio again opens, and Richardson is told his guests have arrived. He asks me to accompany him. Waiting are Rosalind Richardson, Richardson’s wife, and Jackie and Cecil Newton, Cam Newton’s parents.

Everybody shakes hands. Cecil is about to sit. Suddenly, he stops and looks up.

“Uh-oh,” he says. “Is that the clock?”

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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