Talk first about Cam Newton using Chris Clemons as a cushion for a soft landing after making a first down. You know, like a gentleman would.
Let's talk about that first, because it's still in my head and won't quite leave until I talk to someone about it, and make sure it was real. In the third quarter of an NFC Championship already well out of hand, at 27-7, Cam Newton took a snap on third-and-10 at the Arizona 23-yard line.
The call was a QB run up the middle, a call you can only really make with any confidence against an NFL defense if you have a) an expensive quarterback you wish to injure, and then cut immediately, or b) Cam Newton. The Panthers have Cam Newton, which was a good thing on this play in particular because the Cardinals defense had the QB run picked up mere nanoseconds into the play. With the middle clogged, Cam bounced right towards the sideline.
I don't know everything about Chris Clemons. He is a veteran strong safety who plays in the NFL. He was very good at Clemson, and plays the position at the level of a professional football player. He's real, real good at this, and is paid money to do football things. He met Cam Newton on a less-than-ideal angle, and then, as an NFL strong safety, went for a ride to the ground like a child on the wrong end of a runaway golf cart.
Cam Newton is that dominant, the kind of dominant a player is not supposed to be after high school. Go to any high school game, particularly in the Southern United States, and there is that guy, the guy, the one badass your brother or cousin or friend once boasted about touching on a play. Note: I did not say he tackled him. He got close, and that's what counts in hand grenades, horseshoes or getting trampled by a raging future first-round NFL draft pick.
Cam Newton was like that in high school, then in junior college and then at Auburn, and now at Carolina. There is no closing of that window for the immediate future. If football is an airport, he is Air Force One, and can land whenever he likes. Traffic will clear, paths will be made. Cam Newton is from Georgia, dabs like Migos and went to Auburn.
He is Southern as hell, by a given definition of Southern.
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Not that this is a very simple or easy word to define, if we're throwing it around here. I'd like to say that this will be the most Southern Super Bowl ever by quarterback alone. Cam is on one side. On the other is Peyton Manning, whose resume for another certain degree of Southern is impeccable. Peyton was born in New Orleans and is the son of a local hero, another quarterback from the SEC. He attended Isidore Newman, the kind of cloistered, well-heeled private school the children of Southern privilege attend, the kind of school that cranks out Harry Connick, Jr., Walter Isaacson and Michael Lewis. (And Odell Beckham, Jr., FWIW)
Manning then went to the University of Tennessee, spent an extra year there when he really didn't have to before entering the NFL, and then redefined the concept of football automaton by becoming Peyton Manning. Manning is also of a specific type: the white private school kid exactly as talented as he's supposed to be and then some, maybe a little addled by relative wealth in only the most cosmetic or harmless ways (he can't order his own Chinese food!), but otherwise a mainline child of first or second generation wealth who does their aw-shucks damnedest to live up to it. Maybe the kind of guy who gets his house in New Orleans profiled in a magazine like Southern Living, with him in a sweater and khakis smiling with his wife on the veranda. Maybe a guy whose kids have names like Chip, Skip and Trip.
That's one kind of Southern, i.e. the very white and monied version. Take Peyton Manning, downgrade the bank account of origin and class without changing the race and you get Brett Favre. Take Favre, double the hellraising and you get Kenny Stabler. (Who, in a lot of senses, is a tactically if not physically comparable early model for Cam: a guy who could run, pass and occasionally pull greatness directly from the hindquarters of disaster.)
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You can play this game of Redneck Genius QB all day long, so long as you don't change one thing: race. This is not just the usual code-switching struggle every NFL scout still loses annually when trying to compare quarterbacks of one race to another. (Surprise! Even an immobile black quarterback prospect will inevitably be compared to a fast, scrambling black quarterback.)
This is another layer, inextricable from race but also its own little circle in a Venn Diagram. It's a matter of what gets labeled Southern, or at least gets labeled Southern when you're dealing with someone like Cam Newton. Newton, for his part, clearly embraces it. He compared the Panthers to a pot of collard greens in a postgame press conference. He borrowed this year's signature touchdown dance move from Atlanta rappers Migos. For me, the most Southern thing Cam does is wear loafers without socks to press conferences. I can't exactly explain why this is country, but trust me: it just is.
Cam is also black, and enjoys having fun playing football. Doing both of these things at once is a major crime, according to a certain court of sport etiquette, one whose roots extend back to a theatrical, shammy code of honor believed to be especially "noble," i.e. "English." The phrase "Southern Gentleman" might come to mind here, a concept born out of a mutated concept of English nobility the thin slice of white aristocracy that ruled the antebellum South embraced. Nevermind that actual sporting Englishmen outside of the polo grounds bet on things like eating each other's cats or bear-baiting. It's the idea of an inherent aristocracy of manners that matters here, and that violations of this code were punished with duels and the threat of real violence.
That's what I hear when I hear anyone complain about the lack of decorum in a Southern accent. You might have positive connotations with the term "Southern Gentleman." But you might also hear that and see Charles Durning as the Governor of Mississippi in O Brother Where Art Thou, or a Huey Long, or any other well-tailored swamp real estate con artist handing out "M'ladys," and not-so-secretly working their way to wealth through bribery, check-kiting and political backstabbery. Bill Clinton, bless his grinning, cheating-ass soul, has had the phrase thrown more than once in his direction.
We're not talking about "the way to play the game" without talking about the sickly, cancerous overtures toward being a gentleman, the kind of gentleman who built Jim Crow, or sold Augusta National to a crew of New York and Atlanta bankers infatuated with the notion of playing golf on their own simulacrum of a plantation. You might say it and think it's entirely unattached, sure. For me, it's not and never will be, and comes with its own custom dog whistle that blows its loudest when a black athlete is involved. It's the appeal to a dead culture, a grandeur that was built on violence and subjection and unwritten codes. It is the propping up of a corpse at the dinner table and insisting it be served first and best.
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Which is why the idea of Cam Newton and Peyton Manning playing in this, the Most Southern of Super Bowls, is more thrilling than the game itself for me. It's an aspirational I can get on board with, without getting too stuck on the thorny term "Southern."
Its definition here would be more than a cornpone version of SEC football and sweet tea and sundresses and The Masters. Peyton is, despite his aristocratic background, a temperamental geek. He's noted as much for blowing up at his own teammates as he is for being the most self-deprecating millionaire spokesperson and legendary forehead in the game. He isn't just touchy: he's tetchy, a tendency only magnified by being 39 and largely held together with athletic tape and cussedness. Unlike his father, there's next to nothing Senatorial about Peyton Manning in presence. He's a singleminded mutant, who in the twilight of his career, resembles nothing so much as a frazzled air traffic controller one year away from pension eligibility.
If you have a grumpy aristocratic engineer on one side, you also have a preternaturally talented, exuberant and young man of the people on the other side, who bookends the other class spectrum of both white and black southerners. Cam is charitable and active in his community. He's marketable as hell, drops twangy slang effortlessly in postgame interviews and has already had a pivotal event in the life of any Southern football player: a recruiting scandal. For the moment, he appears to have the grinning indestructibility of Buford Pusser or prime-era Steve Austin.
To wit: in Dec. 2014, Newton flipped his lift kit-equipped truck in Charlotte and wasn't even on a race track. First: Cam Newton, who has all the money he could possibly want right now, was pretty recently seen driving a 1998 Dodge pickup truck. Second: It had a lift kit. Third: since that truck accident, Cam Newton has lost one game, and is now in the Super Bowl. Fourth: he celebrated getting there by partying with Juvenile, something which is only related to the having a rollover accident in your giant donked-up truck by virtue of being super, super Southern.
Newton even appeared in Garden and Gun as one of their Southern Hot List, meaning he's basically on par with a Billy Reid shirt or Alabama Shakes album in terms of being considered as a "Southern" brand. He's quoted as saying this about his home:
"I feel blessed to call the South home," he says. "There is a sense of community, refined values and a ‘gentleman-like’ culture that I value."
That "gentleman-like" culture is the same one so aggravated at him, at least in theory. There are two possibilities here. One: that Cam is doing some sweet, sweet bullshitting, which is definitely a very Southern thing to do, traditionally speaking. (Even Jimmy Carter was once described as "your typical smiling, brilliant, backstabbing, bullshitting southern nut-cutter.")
The second possibility -- and one that doesn't rule out the first -- is that Cam's just claiming the term as his own. He's welcome to it, since any definition of Southern that includes Cam Newton and Peyton Manning under the same banner is automatically better than one without them. It is, for the South, one marginal redefinition of an "us" that so frequently has not included all of "us."
It fixes very little about what's broken here, true, but there's at least some commonality in that -- that the word could hopefully include everyone here, including the two very different yet very similar quarterbacks playing in this year's NFL championship game. They're going to duel for a championship, and then shake hands with each other afterwards. You know, like gentlemen would.
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SB Nation presents: How to get a Cam Newton touchdown ball