Scared? The only people who should be scared of Cam Newton are the Denver Broncos, who see the human equivalent of an 18-wheel big rig — 260 pounds of sculpted muscle mass on a 6-foot-5 chassis — and wonder how he can be slowed without an illegal firearm. The rest of us simply should admire him, just as we admire Stephen Curry and Mike Trout and Serena Williams and Jordan Spieth, athletes who qualify as “freaks” in a reverential sense because they’ve evolved into transformative forces.
But Newton isn’t feeling America’s love, instead advancing the narrative that society is scared of him because, in his words, he’s an African-American quarterback. And by saying so Wednesday, only days before he arrives in the Bay Area with the Carolina Panthers, he injects race into a Super Bowl 50 discussion vortex that should be focused on his remarkable abilities, not the color of his skin.
“I’m an African-American quarterback that scares people,” said Newton, “because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.”
We are 16 years into the 21st century, correct? What a pity that we’re still having these conversations almost three decades since Doug Williams became the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, more than 10 years after Donovan McNabb fell just short and two years after Russell Wilson won the big game. Actually, we HAVE seen quarterbacks to whom Newton can be compared — Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III in the current era; Michael Vick and McNabb in recent seasons — but of the bunch, only Wilson has sustained Newton’s plateau of excellence, and not nearly with his feral dominance. Once capable of winning merely with his legs, Newton now beats teams with his robust arm, too, accruing 45 touchdowns in the regular season — 35 passing and 10 rushing — and accounting for four more touchdowns in a rout of the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game.
He is the gold standard of this golden Super Bowl, a Silicon Valley lab creation in a Santa Clara stadium. Yet Newton can’t shake the rap that he’s a perpetual lightning rod, even as his game advances to unprecedented levels. Rather than lure the media swarms to his on-field spectaculars, he’s again taking us down controversy road. We want iconic athletes to speak with honesty and transparency, so no one should blame Newton for openly answering a question. It’s just a shame we have to keep going THERE before a Super Bowl, to the subject of quarterbacks and race, something Kaepernick had to deal with three years ago.
“People should be scared of a quarterback with his skill set more than anything else,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “That’s who he is. He’s a tremendously gifted athlete, a terrific quarterback, a smart football player — the list goes on and on. That’s what they should be concerned about more than anything else. I don’t think he wants to be known as an African-American quarterback. I think he wants to be known as a quarterback, and a great one at that.
“How many 6- quarterbacks do you see like him, 260, running like he does and throwing like he does? He’s different. And I think that’s the only thing people should say, that the skill set is different more so than anything else.”
Newton was asked about perceptions. His answer revealed his complexities. “I think it’s a trick question,” he said. “If I answer it truthfully, it’s going to be ‘Aw, he’s this or that.’ But I will say it anyway: I don’t think people have seen what I am or what I’m trying to do.”
Misunderstood? “I said that prior to me being in this situation,” Newton said. “But when I said it then, it was like, ‘Oh he is immature,’ or, ‘Oh he’s young and this that and the third.’ I felt a certain type of way then and I feel a certain type of way now — nothing has pretty much changed. They talk about maturity. They talk about skill set. … The only thing that has changed [about me] is that we’re winning now.”
And he’s devouring defenses in ways we’ve never seen, which is what he’s trying to say and what Chip Kelly said, by the way, in his first 49ers press conference.
What’s sad is, I’m not sure how many folks actually are “scared” of Newton, beyond the mother of a 9-year-old girl in Tennessee who objected to his “dab” dancing in November, shipped a letter to the Charlotte Observer and launched a national debate about the tone and taste of his touchdown celebrations. Wrote Rosemary Plorin, who attended a Panthers game with her daughter in Nashville and evidently was appalled in directing her letter to Newton: “Because of where we sat, we had a close up view of your conduct in the fourth quarter. The chest puffs. The pelvic thrusts. The arrogant struts and the ‘in your face’ taunting of both the Titans’ players and fans. We saw it all.
“I refuse to believe you don’t realize you are a role model. You are paid millions of dollars every week to play hard and be a leader. In the offseason you’re expected to make appearances, support charities, and inspire young kids to pursue your sport and all sports. With everything the NFL has gone through in recent years, I’m confident they have advised that you are, by virtue of your position and career choice, a role model. … My daughter sensed the change immediately — and started asking questions. Won’t he get in trouble for doing that? Is he trying to make people mad? Do you think he knows he looks like a spoiled brat?”
Gee, isn’t this what they said about Elvis Presley in the ’50s?
In what already is cast as the most antithetical of Super Bowl quarterbacking matchups — a 26-year-old, double-threat, MVP-bound firecracker juxtaposed against a clinical, changeup-throwing, 39-year-old relic named Peyton Manning — now we have an injection of race into the discourse of whether Newton and the Panthers have done too much dabbing and dirty-dancing in their 17-1 romp through the NFL. It isn’t fair to compare dabbin’ to criminal acts, as the mom in Tennessee tried to reference, and in what is annoyingly known as the No Fun League, I see no problem with dabbin’ and “The Carlton” and all those gyrations and sways that have us talking. In the game in which Newton upset the mom, he also rankled Titans fans and one of the team’s linebackers, Avery Williamson, who challenged Cam by barking into his face mask.
“I’m a firm believer that if you don’t like it,” Newton said, “then keep me out.”
Of the end zone, he means. And until someone does, he’s right.
“He’s having an amazing time, man,” Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “You see it on the field, off the field — he’s just loose. He’s himself. That’s why we love that guy. That’s why we respect that guy, and we’re glad he’s on our team. What he’s got, it’s contagious.”
“We don’t care about the outside world and any of the scrutiny or the talking the trash of our dancing or how much fun we’re having,” fullback Mike Tolbert said Wednesday. “If you don’t want us to have fun, stop us.”
Therein lies the major story line, at least on the field, that could turn this matchup into one of the best Super Bowls. Can a Denver defense with its own historical chops — and maniacal edge blitzers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware — figure out Newton and the league’s highest-scoring offense? So far, the Broncos have showered him with nothing but respect, sensing Newton only would be more fired up by verbal challenges. He’s a freight train who shows no evidence of flickering out, here in the emerging apex of a football life once marred by a stolen-laptop case in college and a comment in an NFL pre-draft interview, something about being “an icon and an entertainer.”
Seems he has become both.
“I’ve thought of this moment way before this moment,” Newton said of the Super Bowl. “You play it out so many times in your head. It may be a surprise to some people, but it’s the way I envisioned it in the dream.”
As we’ll soon find out, in media sessions Monday through Thursday, he has a unique way of expressing his joy. “This has been a process,” he said. “It wasn’t going to be instant grits. It was going to be like long, slow-cooked collard greens. I think those collard greens are brewing right now. You can smell them 100 miles away.”
Consider it proof that Cameron Newton can be likeable. Now, if only he’d realize it by next week, that the haters are a much smaller group than he suspects. He knows how to make them go away. “Find any way — any way — to win a football game,” he said. “’Cause when you win, that’s going to give them something else to talk about.”
Football eminence, that is, not pelvic thrusts.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.