While attending elementary school in the Atlanta suburb of College Park, near an airport that transported folks to the places he wanted to be in life, young Cameron Newton would voice the same answer on career day: “I want to be a football player.”
“But,” the teacher would say each time, “you can’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
In tears, he’d respond, “No, I really want to be a football player. I’m going to be a football player.”
So when Newton made an important clarification Tuesday in San Jose — he doesn’t want to turn Super Bowl 50 into a forum on race relations and, thus, will not perpetuate his self-description last week as “an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to” — he also did himself an essential service as an emerging cultural and entertainment force in this country.
Now, he was coming off as thoughtful and personable, not brash and controversial for controversy’s sake. It’s almost as if his friend and partner in Carolina royalty, Stephen Curry, was either in his ear or rubbing off on him in what will be a vital exercise if Newton wants to conquer the NFL the way Curry has conquered the NBA: Make it about helping people, not about feeding your ego.
“It’s bigger than race,” Newton said. “It’s more [about] opening up the door for guys that don’t want to be labeled, that have bigger views than say, ‘Well, I’m in this situation. I’m limited in this environment right now, but I also want to be an artist, I want to be a poet, but I don’t have the means to necessarily do the right things at that particular point.’ So, for me, I’m living the dream that I’ve always envisioned living when I was eight, nine, 10 years old. And this is for the people that dream and believe that no matter what another person may say, they know what they want to be and can achieve it. As for me, I just want to give all of those people hope.”
This was his segue into shutting down the media swarms ready to attack him on race, or force him into a slip of the tongue, anything for a headline that might heat up Twitter or titillate Radio Row. A reporter was trying to goad him with hot-button questions — such as the stereotype about black QBs performing better as escape artists than pocket passers.
“I think we shattered that a long time ago,” Newton shot back.
The antagonist persisted.
“It’s not an issue. It’s an issue for you,” said Newton, staying cool, eschewing those Versace zebra-striped jeans for a simpler white T-shirt and sweats at the Panthers’ hotel.
Not to equate a sensitive social matter to a football game, but if we are looking for signs midweek about the equilibrium of the Super Bowl’s most-discussed player, Newton just may have quieted doubts about his maturity level. “I’ve said numerous times that I play to have a stage that people will listen to, and I pray to God that I do right by my influence,” he said. “So when you ask me a question about African-American or being black and mobile, it’s bigger than that, because when I go places and I talk to kids and I talk to parents and I talk to athletes all over, and they look at my story and see a person, African-American or not, they see something that they can relate to.
“I don’t even want to touch on the topic of ‘black quarterback’ because I think this game is bigger than black, white or even green. I think we limit ourselves by just labeling ourselves ‘black,’ this, that and a third. I want to bring awareness because of that. But yeah, I don’t think I should be labeled as just ‘black quarterback’ because it’s bigger things in this sport that need to be accomplished.”
All of which is an outdated topic anwyay, right? Didn’t Doug Williams become the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl — as a pocket passer, no less — almost three decades ago? Haven’t we seen Russell Wilson win the Big Game, and Colin Kaepernick, Donovan McNabb and Steve McNair come close? One of sport’s enduring powers is its ability to promote healthy discourse about social issues — but not when it seems forced, as it did last week with Newton’s flammable comment and the predictable media reaction.
The focus at this Super Bowl should be on his ascent as the latest form of football evolution, 250 pounds of sculpted muscle mass on a 6-foot-5 frame, with power and speed out of a propulsion lab. It wasn’t long ago when Newton had the same rap as the current Kaepernick — all legs, no savvy. Now, he has honed the skills of both running and passing and taken them to near-unprecedented levels, accounting for 45 touchdowns in the regular season (35 passing, 10 rushing) and four more in the rout of Arizona in the NFC Championship Game. Few quarterbacks ever have assumed such intimidating dual-threat dominance. His venerable counterpart, Peyton Manning, speaks of Newton with awe. “Hands-down, the MVP of the league,” he said.
But unlike the past, when Newton may not have bothered to return the compliment, he quickly turned the conversation to Manning, calling him “The Sheriff.” Said Newton: “There’s never been one before him, probably will never be another one after him. He brought the best out of so many people, coaches down to players. A lot of things that Peyton has done, and is doing, I wish I could mimic. But I can’t do it like Peyton can, because only he can do it.”
And the more he trades kudos, the more likeable he becomes. He has been criticized by media and ex-players, such as Brian Urlacher, for dabbing and celebrating too much after touchdowns. In the team’s home base of Charlotte, squarely in the Bible Belt, he hears derision for having a son, named Chosen, with a girlfriend outside of marriage. He has heard it all — disingenuous, fake smile, me-me — and some of it was inside his own locker room before this season. The hope is that Newton has changed before our eyes in the lead-up to Sunday, a game that could lead to years in the global spotlight.
“I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings,” Newton said. “I’m not doing anything to break their bones. I’m just doing something that makes me happy.
“I guess you’re going to have to get used to it, because I don’t plan on changing. If you do too much of anything, people get tired of it. I’m just happy I have things to celebrate. I’ve had reasons to smile.”
No one should have to apologize for exuding joy. In the span of a few minutes, Newton mentioned that he loves movies, loves handing footballs to kids after every touchdown and loves to cook, sort of. “I make things from scratch, right out of the box … Lucky Charms,” he said with a laugh. “Really.” Oh, and he challenged a reporter to an impromptu rap contest, which brought back memories of Eminem under pressure in his Detroit rap-battle days. Only this was no contest.
“OK you’re talkin’ about my dab, you’re talkin’ about my flow, but it’s one thing that you need to know.
“Even though you a good fellow, I don’t think you got swag cause your shirt is yellow.”
Clearly, Curry didn’t teach him to do that. “Steph Curry is special, man,” Newton said. “He does things that you only see on video games. He’s transcending the game upwardly, giving opportunity to not only guys who can really shoot, but undersized guys.”
Nor does Curry have a history of stealing a laptop computer in college, to which Newton copped in a sensitive moment, having been booted from the University to Florida to a junior college before winning the national championship and Heisman Trophy at Auburn. “When I talk to people, I try to make it personable, because if I can make it anybody can,” he said. “You’re talking about a person six or seven years removed from a stolen laptop — things that people don’t really want to talk about. It’s athletes all in junior college right now asking, ‘Am I going to make it? Am I going to get a scholarship?’ But I did all of that, and look at who I am today.
“I’m not saying that to brag or boast. Somebody is listening to this right now and they’re in that situation where they may have had a mistake, but that doesn’t necessarily describe who they are as a person. We all make mistakes. It’s all about how you rebound from that mistake instead of just giving up.”
Only one time has Newton bragged or boasted this week. Asked if he’s the LeBron James of the NFL, he said: “Why can’t LeBron be the Cam Newton of power forwards?”
As a hot take, it might not be as erudite as the black quarterback issue, but it sure is more fun. And current.
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.