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Year Of The Rookie: Cam Newton And The Long, Strange Trip Of Football's New Icon

It's been exactly one year since Cam Newton became the most polarizing player in college football, and 12 months later the entire NFL is in love. So as the NFL toasts its new star, let's look back at the past year and what it says about Newton now.

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On November 3rd, 2010, Cam Newton was the first-year starting quarterback leading Heisman voting and leading a relatively unknown Auburn Tigers team to an undefeated season. A year later, he's the most captivating player in the most popular sport on earth.

But it's not just that Cam's been cartoonishly successful. Somewhere along the way he also became a icon for college sports corruption, then an icon for what's wrong with pro athletes (because he dreamed of someday being an icon). So for most of the past year, Cam Newton was a commodity not just for his skills, but specifically because he polarized fans like nobody else in football. He was Tim Tebow wrapped in LeBron James—just mentioning his name would get everyone fired up one way or the other.

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His story before November 2010 has drama all its own, and what happens over the next few chapters should be good, too. But taken all together, all at once, what happened in between—over the last 12 months—is as incredible as anything we ever see in sports.

So with a shoutout to Katie Baker for inspiring the format here, let's take a look back at the past 365 days of Cam Newton's world. A world filled with money, scandal, an almost surreal amount of overnight success, lots and lots of sports shouting, Cammy Cam Juice, and Hootie.


November 5th: With Auburn undefeated and Cam Newton leading Heisman balloting with 29 TDs in his first nine games, ESPN breaks the scandal: "During the height of star quarterback Cam Newton's recruitment out of junior college last year, a man who said he represented Newton allegedly was soliciting a six-figure payment to secure his signature on a national letter of intent, has learned."

November 6th: A sample of the reactions, from Thayer Evans at "For Halloween, Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton wore a white fairy costume. And if you’re a Heisman voter who casts a ballot for him, you’re just buying the fairytale that he and his father, Cecil Newton, a pastor, have been selling the last two years. ... So do what’s right, Heisman voters, and don’t you, too, get juked by the Newtons. Character should be a factor for the Heisman."

November 7th After some debate, Auburn decides they'll keep playing Newton during the investigation, and they destroy Chattanooga, 62-24.  Afterward Newton's asked if he knew the alleged street agent who brokered the deal. "I wish I could talk about it right now, but I can’t," Newton says.

November 9th Thayer Evans checks in once more at with this exclusive: "Newton was arrested for the theft of a laptop from a Florida student’s dorm room in November 2008. He again violated the university’s honor code by putting his name on another student’s paper and turning it in, according to the source. ... Newton subsequently turned in a second paper to the instructor, but it was later found to have been purchased off the Internet, according to the source."

November 11th More allegations, as the alleged street agent speaks out. "Rogers said Thursday on ESPN Radio in Dallas that Cecil Newton Sr., Newton’s father, wanted 'anywhere between $100,000 and $180,000' for his son to sign with Mississippi State, which would be a violation of N.C.A.A. rules. Rogers said he called a Mississippi State booster to attempt to broker the deal." Also, the FBI gets involved

November 12th While controversy swirls around player and program, Auburn remains mum about whether they'll keep playing Newton, beginning with this week's game at home vs. Georgia. 

November 13th Newton plays, and despite falling behind 21-7, he runs and passes for 299 yards and four touchdowns in a comeback win. Afterward, as Ivan Maisel writes at, "Newton climbed into the stands and stood before the Auburn band, dancing and preening as it played a joyous version of the fight song. Then he skipped over to the student section in the south end zone. When the band began to play 'Lean on Me,' Newton threw his head back, with a 1,000-watt smile on his face, and screamed."

November 15th Cam Newton WILL be deemed ineligible, says Clay Travis at AOL Fanhouse: "Let's get this out of the way early: Cam Newton is going to be ruled ineligible to play college football at some point. That ruling will mean that every game he participated would not count as an Auburn victory. This isn't a question of if, it's a question of when."

November 19th With Auburn idle during the bye week and the investigation ongoing, the Newton's lawyer speaks out to say that he's "1 million percent" certain that Cam Newton did not take, ask for, or receive any money. The lawyer doesn't deny allegations surround Newton's father. 

November 23rd As Auburn prepares for a crucial Iron Bowl at Alabama, the NCAA begins investigating the church in Atlanta that's run by Cam's father, Cecil Newton. Meanwhile, the New York Times writes of the Auburn-Alabama game, "...considering all the variables at stake, this is being billed as one of the most potentially axis-altering rivalry games since the teams began playing in 1893."

November 26th The Alabama game began with the PA operators in Tuscaloosa playing Son of a Preacher Man and Take The Money And Run during warmups. Then Alabama jumped out to a 24-0 nothing lead late in the second quarter. But it ended like this: "Auburn had come back, and quarterback Cam Newton had run around Bryant-Denny Stadium with his hand clapped over his mouth, presumably mocking the stunned Alabama fans but also reminding one and all that he hasn't spoken publicly in three weeks." Newton finished with 4 total touchdowns in one of the most legendary comebacks in SEC history.

November 30th The SEC, NCAA, and Auburn secretly declare Newton ineligible for one day.

December 1st The ruling goes public in two parts. First, there's this: "The NCAA concluded on Monday that a violation of amateurism rules occurred, therefore Auburn University declared the student-athlete ineligible yesterday for violations of NCAA amateurism rules." And then this: "Auburn University football student-athlete Cam Newton is immediately eligible to compete, according to a decision today by the NCAA student-athlete reinstatement staff."

December 2nd Shockingly, all the columnists who predicted doom for Newton weren't a big fan of the NCAA's ruling. Here's Clay Travis again: "...all of college sports loses and all the people who the NCAA and the SEC have wanted to keep away from their athletes ... are enabled by this ruling. Grandma better grab the phone, Sonny-boy's about to get her paid. Ain't college sports grand."

December 4th Auburn throttles South Carolina to win the SEC Championship Game and advance to the BCS National Championship Game. Newton throws for a career-high 335 yards, and adds 6 touchdowns, winning game MVP honors. Everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid.

December 6th SB Nation's Spencer Hall writes that Newton is in God Mode now.

Cam Newton was in full God Mode on Saturday, and at this rate only boredom stands any real chance of keeping him from a national title. ... Every game with Newton has been a kind of surprise thanks to his ever-morphing multiplicity. He's been at least three different quarterbacks this season: a pure runner as he was in the LSU game, pounding out the clock for a last minute win on the road; a lethal Vince Young double threat via the pass and the run as he was in the Kentucky and Georgia games; and finally, the pure scrambling downfield threat he was versus South Carolina.

December 6th Meanwhile, as Newton winning Heisman Trophy becomes increasingly inevitable, various columnists begin lashing out with refrains like this one: "The voters have spoken. The Heisman trophy will need a lie-detector device strapped to its stiff arm."

December 11th Cam wins the Heisman. In light of the controversy, though, his father does not attend the ceremony. "I’d be sitting up here lying to you if I didn’t say it hurts," Newton says of his father’s absence. "It hurts me a lot. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal."

December 15th While Auburn practices and the hurricane of controversy slows down, Deadspin finds photos of the computer Cam Newton stole at Florida.

January 6th Asked about all the controversy he's faced on the way to the top, Newton says "I think that whole process has made me stronger, and I opened my eyes to the fact of who is in this process for me, whether it is family members, friends or whatever. I learned about so many people that are very close to me."

January 9th The day before the NCAA title game, the New York Times writes, "...if No. 1 Auburn defeats No. 2 Oregon to give the Southeastern Conference its fifth consecutive Bowl Championship Series title, there will inevitably be an awkward wait to see if Newton’s eligibility—and the national title—holds up. ...  Long after Auburn plays for the B.C.S. title on Monday, Cam Newton’s legacy appears as if it will live on far from the playing field."

January 10th Auburn wins the National Championship.


January 11th The postgame reaction is riddled with backhanded compliments. Like this: "The dirtiest season in memory in college football ended appropriately enough... when the most controversial player in the game led his team on a dramatic final drive to a national title it might someday have to vacate."

January 13th Newton declares for the NFL draft. As Pro Football Talk writes: "He’s a great athlete with a good arm, but he hasn’t played in a pro-style offense, and his considerable skills in the spread attack won’t necessarily translate to the NFL."

January 26th NFL Network's Jason La Canfora explains why NFL scouts worry about Cam Newton's father: "They’re not just evaluating these young men, it’s their families and everyone around them that NFL teams are taking stock of as they decide whether to invest millions." (via)

January 29th Newton schedules a media-only workout, alienating certain NFL scouts. As one told CBS Sports: "The Newtons would be best to realize they aren't in college anymore. We're not recruiting him. They could wind up turning more people against them than for them with this."

February 10th After the workout for the media, ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer raves: "The ceiling is so astronomically high for this player, Cam Newton, that the scouts, the GMs, the coaches are really going to be slobbering about the prospects of having him on their team." Meanwhile, NFL Network's Mike Mayock A) doesn't watch the workout, B.) demurs with the following (via Pro Football Talk):

"I really didn’t need to see the workout, nor do I need to hear about the workout. … I’ve watched five of his game tapes. …I would also (offer) one cautionary note, and that is the best Pro Day for a quarterback I ever attended was JaMarcus Russell. That same day, even though I admitted it was the best Pro Day I ever saw, I also said I wouldn’t take him in the first round."

February 14th Newton signs a massive endorsement deal with Under Armour. As CNBC reports, "Terms were not disclosed, but according to sources this deal will be the largest deal ever given to an incoming NFL rookie."

February 22nd Peter King speaks to Cam Newton and tweets the following:


February 23rd The quote sends shockwaves throughout NFL circles. As one columnist at CBS Sports writes: "In all likelihood, Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton won't be the first player chosen in the April draft. And he just reminded us why."

February 26th Newton clarifies at the Scouting Combine: "First and foremost I understand that my obligation is to be the best possible football player that I can be.  I know and believe that. I was making the point that I want to be the best possible ambassador for them just like I want to be the best possible ambassador for whatever team I am lucky enough to play for."

February 28th Newton's representatives maintained that the "icon" quote from Peter King was taken completely out of context. A week later, in explaining the background to the story, Peter King, uh... Basically confirms it was taken completely out of context:

I asked him about his deal with Under Armour; I don't remember my exact question, but it was something about what he expected the deal to do for him. And he said one of the things he wanted to stress was that he saw himself not only as a football player, but also an entertainer and icon.

When we got off the phone, I began to think about what he'd said. I knew it would be something that would raise eyebrows among NFL teams, who like their prospects to be single-minded, not entering the league thinking about anything except being the best player they can be. .I thought if anyone else in the lineup asked him about the Under Armour deal, he'd probably say the same "entertainer and icon'' thing.

I didn't want to make a news story out of it, but I did want to get it out that he'd told me this, so I sent it out to my 510,000 followers on Twitter.

March 11th With opinions split on Newton's pro potential, some of the NFL's leading pundits are skeptical. Mel Kiper Jr. says, "If you hit on him, you could have a sensational quarterback for ten years. If you miss, it sets you back three, four, five years. He was a one-year wonder. Akili Smith was a one-year wonder." Meanwhile, Mike Mayock ranks Newton the 21st-best prospect in the NFL Draft, explaining, "He's a developmental prospect."

March 28th The loudest criticism of all comes from Pro Football Weekly:

"Very disingenuous -- has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law -- does not command respect from teammates and will always struggle to win a locker room . . . Lacks accountability, focus and trustworthiness -- is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example. Immature and has had issues with authority. Not dependable."

March 30th Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon speaks out to defend Newton. "I don't see other quarterbacks in the draft being criticized by the media or fans about their smile or called a phony. He's being held to different standards from white quarterbacks. I thought we were past all this stuff about African-American quarterbacks, but I guess we're not."

March 31st The scout from Pro Football Weekly defends himself, saying, "I’ve had a lot of calls and messages from people I deal with on a regular basis in the NFL offering encouragement and support, letting me know what I wrote and the final result on that evaluation, that they believe in it. That I hit it on the head."

April 1st Gus Malzahn, Auburn's star offensive coordinator, responds by saying that Newton "was a joy to coach" and with his teammates, he was the "best I’ve ever seen in the locker room."

April 5th While rumors continue to point toward the Panthers taking Newton, CBS Sports reports, "Owner Jerry Richardson still isn't completely sold on Newton ... The lockout is damaging the entire league but when it comes to rookies it's Newton who could be hurt more than others."

April 18th Newton appears on SportsCenter for a film study segment with Jon Gruden, that leaves Pro Football Talk concluding, "Gruden proved in roughly one minute of interrogation that Newton comes to the NFL with zero knowledge or experience regarding the way that offensive plays are constructed and called."

April 25th With the draft approaching, the spotlight on Newton intensifies, and one of his loudest critics doubles down. One more time, here's NFL Network's Mike Mayock: "It’s just this gut feeling I have: I don’t know how great he wants to be. He’s got all the tools. Something tells me that he’ll be content to be a multimillionaire who’s pretty good. And he doesn’t get it done for me. I think the kid is smart enough. I just don’t know if he cares enough."

April 29th Cam Newton goes first overall in the NFL Draft. 

April 30th On draft night, analysts caution that the transition to NFL offenses could be particularly difficult for Newton. Likewise, the impending NFL lockout would deprive him of crucial practice time, they said. And when polled by ESPN, 77 percent of fans predicted Newton would be the biggest bust in the Draft.


May 21st After Panthers incumbent starter Jimmy Clausen told reporters he wouldn't give up his jersey number for the Panthers' new rookie, Newton says, "Gossip sells, and I understand that with people hearing I wore No. 2 in college, and Jimmy has it right now, (but) it’s not a big deal to me. I just want to get that out of the way and throw it out there. It’s not the number. It’s the person wearing it."

June 17th As rumors swirl that Steve Smith and the Panthers would stay this offseason, it's Cam Newton who lobbies for Smith to stay. Together with Smith at a football camp, he tells reporters he wanted to play in Carolina because "I wanted to have someone great to throw to." When asked if that meant he wants Smith to stay, he says, "Hopefully, he got the message."

July 1st In a feature with GQ, Newton is asked about his race. "Sir," he says with granite certainty, "it all comes down to whether a person wins or loses. I don't bring race into the game, 'cause then you're talking about excuses. I. Hate. Excuses. Excuses are a disease."

July 9th While the NFL lockout drags on, Newton spends his summer preparing for the season at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida. "You're down here and it's like 485 acres of just straight work, basically," Newton tells the Charlotte Observer. "You've got every opportunity to be successful."

July 10th On starting as a rookie: "If the opportunity presents itself ... I'm willing to take it. Simple and plain. And the last thing that I want or need is if that opportunity presents itself and I'm not ready and I'm not prepared for the opportunity. Because you only get one chance at greatness."

July 29th As the lockout comes to a merciful conclusion, Newton signs a $22 million contract.

July 31st Months after the "icon" controversy, Peter King pays the price.


August 2nd From the Charlotte Observer: "Ron Rivera had a one-word response when asked for his early impressions of Cam Newton. 'Wow,' Rivera said."

August 13th Newton shows flashes of brilliance in his first preseason game, but finishes with relatively mediocre states, going 8-19 for 134 yards and no touchdowns.

August 21st Panthers owner Jerry Richardson tells PBS' Charlie Rose that he has asked Cam Newton not to get any tattoos or piercings.

"I said, ‘Do you have any tattoos?’" Richardson recalled of his first meeting with the Auburn product. "He said, ‘No, sir. I don’t have any.’ I said, ‘Do you have any piercings?’ He said, ‘No, sir. I don’t have any.’ I said, ‘We want to keep it that way.’

Strangely, he had no such concerns about Jeremy Shockey.

August 24th With the NCAA investigation still ongoing at Auburn, a USA Today columnist named Danny Sheridan claims to have evidence that Cam and Cecil Newton accepted cash to play football at Auburn. NCAA investigators make plans to interview him.

August 25th After completing 40 percent of his passes in Carolina's third and most important preseason game, Newton says, "It's unacceptable on my part. That's an embarrassing stat. I just have to make the proper reads. ... A check down is not a bad thing. I saw today with checking the ball down to DeAngelo (Williams) we can get positive things rolling and that everything doesn't have to be to a receiver."

August 26th Of Sheridan, the would-be whistleblower at Auburn, the NCAA explains: "As a matter of due diligence, the NCAA spoke with Sheridan this week ... Sheridan, however, did not provide any information to the enforcement staff and certainly did not provide a name. Instead, he unsuccessfully attempted to gather information for his own use."

September 2nd Carolina names Cam Newton the Panthers' starting QB. "It doesn't stop here," Newton says. "I can't just sit back and say, 'I've arrived,' because we've got a long way to go."

September 11th Newton shatters the record for most passing yards by a rookie quarterback with a 422-yard, three touchdown performance in the Panthers' Week 1 road loss against the Cardinals. Steve Smith, the receiver he fought to keep in Carolina, finishes with 178 receiving yards and two touchdowns. "It wasn't a debut, but a revelation," writes one columnist.

September 12th Afterward, having missed on a final drive that would've tied it, Cam is despondent. As he tells reporters: "Like Coach says, when you're just good enough, you're just good enough to get beat. We've just got to go back and get better."

September 18th After Newton passes for another 432 yards against the defending Super Bowl Champions, a Packers defender says, "If I told you I knew he'd be this good this early, I'd be lying to you. He doesn't get frustrated. We threw a lot of stuff at him today and he was able to sit back there and make some of the plays they needed." 

September 20th Peter King at Sports Illustrated: "We've never seen a rookie quarterback being as good as Newton is as soon as this." Meanwhile, regarding Newton and the NFL's offensive explosion, in general, ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook adds the following asterisk:

Perhaps this means Newton should ascend directly to Asgard, to dwell with the football gods. Perhaps Newton is a celestial being walking amongst mortals. Perhaps he is the latest reincarnation of Balrama, the Hindu god of strength, duty and upright behavior.


Tuesday Morning Quarterback isn't ready to buy into this. ...  TMQ thinks the culprit in all these passing yards is blown coverages.


Why? The missing offseason. The missing offseason is a more likely explanation for defensive mistakes than the latest set of rules tweaks.

For those keeping track at home, yes, September 20th is the day the rookie who would surely struggle after the NFL lockout became the rookie who's only succeeding because of the NFL lockout.

September 25th Playing much of the game in a monsoon, Newton's numbers fall off, but he leads the Panthers to a comeback at home against the Jaguars, the first win of his NFL career.

September 29th Newton is named the NFL's offensive rookie of the month.

October 9th He follows an impressive September with another 600 yards of passing and 6 touchdowns in close losses against two 2010 playoff teams, the Saints and Bears.

October 12th From the NCAA:

After conducting more than 80 interviews, the NCAA has concluded its investigation into Auburn University. The NCAA enforcement staff is committed to a fair and thorough investigative process. As such, any allegations of major rules violations must meet a burden of proof, which is a higher standard than rampant public speculation online and in the media.

All that talk about a "legacy of scrutiny" and a "Heisman Trophy with a lie-detector test" and Auburn vacating all their wins and Danny Sheridan and Kenny Rogers and... and... All of that's over.

October 16th Newton returns to his hometown to play the Falcons and, in front of Deion Sanders in the stadium where Prime Time invented it, does the Deion Sanders dance. Sure, he also threw three interceptions in a two-touchdown loss. But still.

October 21st Darius Rucker, aka Hootie from Hootie and the Blowfish, says "I was a hater. ... I told a buddy that Cam is going to get blown up. I would like to apologize to Cam Newton. I was dead wrong. He's a helluva player. His football IQ is off the charts. I love his body language. I love the way he walks down the field. You know he's a leader. Every day I'm becoming more and more of a Cam Newton fan. If you'd told me last year I'd be saying that, I'd have said you're crazy." NOTE: This is the best story of the whole goddamn year.

October 23rd The Panthers get win no. 2, and Newton accounts for 315 total yards and two touchdowns in an easy win over the Washington Redskins.

October 26th John Clayton, speaking on SportsCenter: "Let's put it this way, each critic that's now facing him on a week-by-week basis is now shaking their head. Because he is THAT good. He is maturing as each week goes on. He's getting better with longer drives, he's already phenomenal in the red zone. He's got so much poise, and you can see with the talent both running and throwing the football. ... I mean this guy looks like a bonafide star."

October 30th Newton plays arguably his best game as a pro—22 of 35 for 290 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions—and leads a comeback drive the length of the field and inside the five yardline, only to have a holding penalty bring it back and force a 31-yard field goal. Carolina's kicker Olindo Mare misses the kick, and the Panthers lose. Again.

October 30th Afterward, Newton takes responsibility for the loss. "Olindo, it's not his fault. Yeah, he missed the field goal, but go back in the third quarter and look at the drives. We had our opportunities. I'll be damned if someone sits up there and puts the pressure on one particular person when it was a collective loss – offensively, defensively and special teams."

November 2nd Now he's heading into a Week 9 as the NFL's unanimous rookie of the year, Sports Illustrated ranks him as the NFL's fifth best quarterback so far this season, and a new feature in Charlotte Magazine asks: "Already the most influential sports figure in town, what’s to stop Cam Newton from evolving into Charlotte’s first sports icon?"


For now—and it won't last much longer—in a sport driven by 24-hour news cycles and talk show debate, Cam Newton is one of the few things that just about everyone can agree on. While everyone argues about Tim Tebow's intangibles, Newton's talent is just about the least controversial topic we have right now. And if there's any theme to the past 12 months, it's this: Facing levels of scrutiny typically reserved for Tiger Woods and LeBron James, he kept getting better.

"There's just something about him," a Panthers teammate said after one game this year. "Some guys have that, and some guys don't." We praise "intangibles" in less talented players, because that's all there is to praise. But it's the intangibles in an athlete like Cam that give the sports world something really special. Like, say, an "entertainer and an icon"? Check back next year.