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Cam Newton's forgotten year in junior college

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A one-year sojourn could've derailed the future NFL star, but instead it helped lay the groundwork for the player and person he's become since.

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If you've ever driven from Houston to Dallas, you've been through Corsicana. About an hour south of the Metroplex, it looks an awful lot like so many other small Texas cities you've probably long since forgotten. There's a Whataburger, a Schlotzsky's, and even an outlet mall. But unless you venture off I-45 and make your way into town, you're not likely to remember much in the way of discernible features that make it look or feel any different from the next town over the horizon or the one you just passed a half hour earlier.

The city of about 24,000 people is also home to Navarro College, a two-year community college. Navarro's sports teams compete in the National Junior College Athletic Association (or NJCAA) and can claim a Junior College World Series and some notable alumni who made it all the way to the NFL, including Aaron Glenn, DeMarcus Faggins and current Oakland Raider J'Marcus Webb.

Sharing a stadium adjacent to nearby Corsicana High School, Navarro's game-day atmosphere is unlikely to be mistaken for any of the premier four-year colleges in the state. On a cool Halloween afternoon in October of 2009, it didn't need it to be.

No. 1 ranked Blinn College and the most highly recruited junior college quarterback in the country, Cam Newton, made the two-and-a-half-hour journey north for what would be a matchup of the two top-ranked teams in the NJCAA.

Besides national title implications, the game had major conference postseason ones to boot. Both members of the Southwest Junior College Football Conference (SWJCFC), a murderer's row of top JUCO programs in the league that season made conference playoff seeding and home-field advantage all the more critical.

Despite a 23-7 fourth-quarter lead on the would-be best team in the country, the Navarro Bulldogs all but helplessly watched as their advantage dissipated to 23-20 in the final minutes of play. But four straight incompletions on Blinn's last possession during an uncharacteristically inefficient afternoon would seal No. 1's demise. And thus perfection for Blinn and their quarterback would go to die in Corsicana.

"I walked in [the Sunday after the first loss of the season] and I gave [the team] a good butt chewing," Blinn coach Brad Franchione said.

"Then I told them we were going to grab our guns and our helmets and get in the foxhole and fight for each other and we're going to turn this thing in the direction that it needs to be. And [Cam] embraced it. And he was really the guy that stood up and said 'You're right. This is what we need to do.' "

Newton wouldn't lose another football game the next 22 months.

* * *

Cam Newton's path from four-star recruit to member of the once-and-future national champions to junior college quarterback was neither storybook nor unprecedented.

A high-profile arrest over a stolen laptop during a lost medical redshirt sophomore season at the University of Florida ended any potential for Newton to one day succeed 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. Court documents reveal a clumsy attempt to dispose of the computer in question — adorned with "CAM NEWTON" in giant white-painted letters on the lid — by throwing it out the window after investigators left his dorm room. The incident would've lit social media on fire had it happened but a few short years later.

In need of a fresh start to distance himself from a chapter that falls somewhere between youthful indiscretion and thoughtless mistake, Newton rebooted his college recruitment process. He focused on destinations where he'd be able to play immediately with designs on returning to college football's highest level after his legal woes were behind him.

"I got a phone call from a friend saying there was a quarterback that wanted to investigate going the junior college route and told me his name and asked if I'd be interested," Franchione said. "I just happened to be sitting with one of my coaches who recognized the name and said 'Yeah, tell him we're interested.'

"And then about 30 minutes later, I got a phone call from [Cam's father] Cecil [Newton]. And it really kind of turned into a lot of phone calls and a number of questions that we needed answered and that they had in terms of how it was. Cam had been through some tough times at Florida, so they wanted him to be able to focus on playing football and just going to school."

Isolating Cam from the ghosts of recent past wasn't the only checkbox on the Newtons' wishlist. Like any high-profile quarterback recruit, concerns about scheme and his progression as a football player came next after school-life ones.

"There were some questions. Obviously Cam is a physical presence and [his family] wanted to know that we were going to work on his progress as a passer — a pocket passer, a play-action passer — as opposed to just running the option. They didn't want to come to Blinn if we were just going to use him as an option quarterback to try to win games and let him run over everybody."

Both parties had to be sure the fit was the right one. As the Newtons conducted their own investigation, so too did Franchione and his staff.

"It was a long process, but it was a thorough process on the part of the Newton family, and there were some things we had to make sure of with the situation that had come up at Florida to make sure we knew what kind of ramifications it would have for the institution and for our program."

Beyond any character-oriented due diligence, Blinn's coaches needed to make sure what Cam wanted aligned with what they needed from players in his situation.

"There was a lot of investigation on his part and his parents, and there were a lot of things that I had to. I talked to [Cam] about helping him become a better leader and being able to lead a football team and be the quarterback."

With exhaustive homework done on both sides, a nearly three-hour dinner in Houston would lay the groundwork to formalize Newton's time in Blinn.

"We all knew going into it it was a 12-month commitment."

The subsequent turnaround was rapid with Cam flying to Brenham, Texas, and Blinn's campus not long thereafter with almost nothing to his name.

"All he had was a Nike duffel bag," Franchione said of the future No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft when he arrived at the junior college.

Logistical issues even prevented Newton from initially being able to move into the dorms, but he seemed nothing if not unfazed.

"He slept on my couch the first night," Franchione laughed recalling.

* * *

It didn't take particularly long for Blinn College to know what they had.

In spring practices, in an effort to keep the teams' quarterbacks fresh and healthy, it was customary to implement a no-tackling-the-quarterback rule.

Franchione was ultimately the one who made the call on when the quarterback was given up and the play was dead and over.

"[Historically], I always blew the whistle a little early," he recalled. But Newton wasn't having any of that.

"He almost always got upset with me. There were times he'd look at me and say 'Coach, you guys didn't have me,'" Franchione said.

Doubling as the team's defensive coordinator, Franchione would joke to Newton, "You were down. There's no way you're gaining any yards," all but implying he knew when the time came for the games to count, even whistles couldn't save opposing teams.

That manifested itself in the team's fourth game of the regular season.

Facing conference rivals Tyler Junior College, whom Franchione recalled had a particularly good football team that year, Newton and Blinn went on the road into Tyler, Texas, and proceeded to drop 60 points on what would eventually be a playoff team.

Newton would account for 503 of Blinn's 601 total yards and over half of their points by himself.

"You walk off the field going 'Oh my God. This kid is really special.' "

During one particular week of preparation, Blinn knew they'd be facing the kind of opponent that even the best and most disciplined teams might be, consciously or otherwise, inclined to overlook. The coaches were concerned that despite what they felt was a decent opponent, it'd be human nature for the team to perhaps not practice or prepare as hard for the game as customary, and thus open themselves up to a potential trap or letdown game.

To try to help get the team fired up, the players were surprised with black alternate jerseys. And to do his part to keep spirits high, Newton broke out a pregame freestyle rap that's been viewed over a million times on YouTube since:

Blinn would go on to hang 84 points on a completely overwhelmed Cisco College team. Newton would accrue 369 total yards of offense along with a staggering seven touchdowns.

Even when he wasn't in uniform, the then-20-year-old was every bit the tour de force that he was in pads, and hardly a dramatic departure from the player NFL fans are accustomed to seeing and reading about each week now.

"I see why [Cam] hands the football to the kids, because I saw him in 2009 with how he interacted with my kids and how much time he enjoyed with them," Franchione remembered.

A fun-loving oversized kid then and now, Newton one time made his head coach's oldest just about the most popular kid at his elementary school.

"[Cam] was show and tell for my son's kindergarten class. He had the letter 'Q,' so he brought Cam, for quarterback."

Beyond embracing his inner child, Newton was spending as much of his free time as he could soaking up leadership principles and lessons to prepare himself for a possible professional future playing quarterback.

"[Cam just embraced] leadership, and learning how big an impact or influence the quarterback position has on a football team — I think it's even more pronounced at the NFL level."

"At Blinn, our football offices are in one of the classroom buildings and [Cam] had a class in that building every day that got out around 11 o'clock," Franchione said.

"Usually I was in my office at that time and he would stop in every day after that class, and he would hold me accountable for what was the leadership lesson of the day. If I didn't have something prepared for him, he was real quick to let me know, 'Yeah, coach. Today's ... wasn't very good. You're going to have to come back with something better tomorrow.'"

Franchione admitted to losing sleep having to keep four or five leadership books on his nightstand to comb through and pick out concepts each night to meet Newton's thirst for motivational lessons.

The nine-plus months of those lessons were apparent to his teammates, who began to view Cam as a sort of extension of head coach with the offense — and the team in general. With Franchione calling the defense, even practices turned into a match of wits.

"The great relationship Cam and I had on the practice field fed our team. With me being the defensive coordinator and him being the quarterback. When we stopped them, I would always kind of rub it in. And when he scored, he'd almost make sure to rub it in.

"If we weren't playing good on defense, Cam would let me know. Or he'd let his teammates know. And now all the sudden the defensive players are real competitive and they want a stop. And then you flip that script, all the sudden the defense gets a couple of stop or a turnover so now I'm gouging him and he's getting offensive players up. We really fed off each other."

* * *

The road to a possible junior college national championship would again go through Navarro College, just two weeks after Blinn fell at their hands from the ranks of the unbeaten.

The first half played out almost exactly as the first meeting had. A 39-yard run by Navarro's quarterback had the Bulldogs up 28-17. Blinn was staring down the possibility of two losses to the same nemesis, the only blemishes on an otherwise unscathed season.

"It didn't feel like we had a bad plan, we just hadn't executed it well. The other team had made a couple good plays," Franchione said.

"I remember going in at halftime and looking at [Cam] and a couple other [of our leaders] and saying to them, 'Guys, I don't know if I have any adjustment that are going to win this game.' I remember Cam and [the guys] putting their hands up and saying, 'Coach. We've got this. We've got this."

Blinn would go on to outscore Navarro 28-6 in the second half en route to a 45-34 win and a national title game berth. Newton would score what would prove to be the go-ahead touchdown.

"It was a testament to the leadership we had as a football team. The players on our team just refused to lose the game," Franchione said.

The junior college national title game wouldn't come any easier.

With Blinn up 31-26, Fort Scott CC had a shot at a potential game-winning Hail Mary pass in the waning moments of the contest.

Who would run out to play defense to try to do everything in his power to help prevent a completion on the game's final play? Newton, naturally.

"That competitive spirit kind of fueled the team, and I always attributed the national championship with what we were able to accomplish with that group of kids to the competitive spirit that Cam brought. He fed the monster, and the monster just grew."

* * *

The Cam Newton that shined way back in 2009 at Blinn's Cub Stadium is the same one about to play in the biggest game of his life.

"The protection breaks down — and you've seen him do it at Carolina — he just buys a little extra time and then all the sudden he makes a throw to a guy that the play probably wasn't even designed to go to. But he bought just enough time that the guy somehow got open. And he's making a throw in a place that only the receiver can catch and gets you a first down in a situation where you're getting the punt team to go on the field because everybody in the stands thinks, 'it's third-and-11; their chances of converting this are slim,' " Franchione waxed nostalgically.

The foundation he helped lay during a year out of the spotlight still serves him today. Virtually guaranteed to win NFL MVP, Newton continues to do things in stadiums across the country we simply haven't seen before.

"It's that ability that I saw in him. I'm just really proud of him because I've gotten to see him, you know, when he was a 19-, 20-year-old quarterback who had a burning desire to be the best," Franchione said. "And I've seen him improve his throwing mechanics, his leadership, how he responds to things. It's neat to see the success and how it's turned into an opportunity to play in Super Bowl 50."

Newton's taken that opportunity and run with it. From a junior college national championship, to a major college football champion with Auburn. Now, he's 60 minutes of football away from finishing the trilogy.

* * *

Still determined: Newton will make sure a kid gets an NFL ball despite any obstacle