Cam Newton’s drive to compete

Newton’s aversion to losing – and the brooding after a loss – is not new to his parents

jperson@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 29, 2012 

PANTHERS_GIANTS_49

Carolina Panthers (1) quarterback Cam Newton rolls out of the pocket and scrambles from the New York Giants defense during fourth quarter action on Thursday, September 20, 2012 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

— Cecil Newton has seen it for 15 years.

After backyard basketball battles, high school football games – even after a coed church softball game.

The head down, forlorn face, sagging shoulders look – everything except maybe the white Gatorade towel that has become as much a part of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s NFL persona as his head-turning touchdown runs and his signature Superman celebration.

The rest of the world might be weighing in on it now, but Newton’s family has seen the sulking since the first time the grade-schooler strapped on his shoulder pads for the North Clayton Eagles in suburban Atlanta.

But Cecil and Jackie Newton view the brooding much like Panthers coach Ron Rivera does – a sign of Newton’s intense competitive drive, and only a conversation topic if the Panthers aren’t winning.

The issue took off last week after receiver Steve Smith “lit into” Newton for sitting on the bench rather than standing with his teammates near the end of a 36-7 loss to the Giants in a Sept. 20 game televised on NFL Network.

“If we weren’t the only game on and we win the game it’s not an issue. Let’s be honest about that first and foremost,” Rivera said. “The young man knows he has to continue to work on himself.”

Newton’s sulking became sports talk show fodder after Smith publicized it (Smith later said he should not have told reporters about his sideline discussion). But the parishioners at Holy Zion Center of Deliverance, where Cecil Newton was the pastor, got a glimpse of it following a pickup softball game when Newton was 12 or 13.

In the last inning, Cecil Newton drilled a fly ball to deep center field over his son’s head. Cam Newton ran back, reached up for the ball ... and watched it go over his glove by a couple of inches.

A member of the other team raced around the bases with the winning run. Cam Newton was devastated.

“He didn’t get (the ball). We won the softball game,” Cecil Newton said Friday over lunch at a seafood restaurant near the Atlanta airport. “He sulked the rest of the weekend over that play.”

That wasn’t the first time Cecil Newton saw his son get down on himself after a game. Newton was 7 when he joined the North Clayton Eagles, a Pop Warner team whose oldest players were 10.

Morgan Burnett, a starting safety for the Green Bay Packers, was the Eagles’ quarterback. Newton played tight end and linebacker.

When the Eagles were close to invoking the mercy rule on opponents, their coach would put Newton at running back.

“He would live for getting in the game with the slaughter rule,” Cecil Newton said. “Two touches and he was in the end zone.”

But Newton would tear up after games in which he didn’t get the ball – not uncommon for boys at that age. In the team picture from that first Pop Warner team, Newton is barely visible in the back row, hidden from view from the older kids up front.

There was never any questioning his athletic ability or drive to be great, according to his father.

In his first game with the Eagles, the coach put Newton on the kickoff team.

“Just turned 7 against 9- and 10-year-olds, he busts it down the field and makes the first tackle – solo,” Cecil Newton said. “When I saw that, I said, ‘He’s going to be special.’ ”

Newton came by his athleticism – and competitiveness – naturally. Cecil Newton was a Division III All-American safety at Savannah State and went to the Dallas Cowboys’ camp as a priority free agent in 1983, when the Cowboys were in the midst of a streak of 20 consecutive winning seasons under legendary coach Tom Landry.

“I was just so infatuated with being a part of America’s Team at the time, going to practice, going to Cowboys Stadium, playing for Tom Landry,” Cecil Newton said. “I didn’t know whether to ask for autographs or go to practice.”

Newton was beaten out for a roster spot by safety Bill Bates, a rookie from Tennessee who went on to play 15 years for the Cowboys. Newton says he was blindsided when he was called into Landry’s office and told he’d been cut.

“I didn’t see it coming,” he said.

Cecil Newton still has the check stub from his $2,500 signing bonus framed and stored in the family’s sun room, which also serves as the trophy room.

After he was released by Dallas, Newton returned to Savannah State to finish his electrical engineering degree and continue dating Jackie, a Savannah native whose father was a Pentecostal minister. The two married in 1985; the following year Jackie gave birth to Cecil Jr., the first of the couple’s three boys.

Cam came along in 1986 – a 10-pound, 9-ounce baby who was the biggest in the nursery at Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta. Growing up, Cam hung out mostly with Cecil Jr. and his friends, who pushed him to keep up athletically.

The brothers were teammates for one season, when Cecil Jr. was the senior center and Cam the freshman quarterback for Westlake High in south Fulton County. During a game against rival Douglass High, the brothers botched an exchange near the goal line.

Douglass recovered and went on to win by a touchdown.

The boys retreated to the TV room of the family’s home, where they rehashed the game, and that play, with their dad well past midnight.

“We sat up all night, ‘How could that have happened?’ ” Cecil Newton said.

‘Who likes to lose?’

Cam Newton always seems perplexed about the topic of why he takes losses so hard.

“Who likes to lose?” Newton said last week. “It’s a tide that’s turning in this city and it’s big expectations. And when I say expectations I don’t mean saying (that) to be pressured. But if everybody’s not mad about losing, it’s accepted. And I’m not, nor is anyone on this team, going to accept losing.”

Newton, 23, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011, has said no one’s expectations for the Panthers or their quarterback are higher than his own.

At an early age, it was evident how important football was to Newton.

During the week, Newton’s parents had to rouse him from sleep. Not on Saturday mornings, at least not in the fall.

While the rest of the family slept in, Cecil Newton would hear Cam knocking around downstairs in the family’s well-kept, two-story brick home, dressed in his full uniform at 7:30 for a noon game.

“That’s the only morning Cam would get up without having to be harassed,” he said.

When Newton was 12, he began joining his dad for runs along a 4 1/2-mile loop through their neighborhood. Cecil Newton now run-walks a similar route with his youngest son, Caylin, who is in eighth grade.

“Any time I challenged (Cam) to a workout, he would never begrudge a workout,” Cecil Newton said.

Even on vacation.

During a July 4 vacation near Panama Beach, Fla. this past summer, Cecil Newton said Cam worked out twice a day. On a beach dotted with umbrellas and boogie boards, Newton did agility drills in the soft, white sand.

Newton’s leadership skills might still be developing, but no one in the Panthers’ locker room doubts his work ethic.

He has been spotted leaving Bank of America Stadium alone after an offseason workout, after his teammates have gone home.

A mother’s role

Family members say Cam most closely resembles his mother, a woman with a kind face who retired after 23 years from AT&T.

Jackie Newton and her husband run Newton’s charitable foundation, which last summer paid for three high school teams to attend a 7-on-7 tournament at IMG Academy in Florida.

While Cecil Newton talked at length Friday in between bites of shrimp and crab legs, Jackie quietly ate a cup of chowder and salmon.

When the two were asked where Cam’s competitiveness came from, Jackie smiled and pointed her thumb at her husband.

Jackie Newton did not attend her first football game until she went to watch Cecil at Savannah State. She decided to learn the rules and strategy when her boys began playing. (Cecil Jr. was a center at Tennessee State who has had stints with several NFL teams.)

But mostly, Jackie let Cecil handle the workouts and football advice. She provided the nurturing.

“I just want to be mom,” Jackie said. “I want to be a place where (Cam) knows we have his back. Football isn’t the No. 1 thing for me. It’s about nourishment and family and that feel-good moment home brings to an individual.”

Newton will be home Sunday when the Panthers face the Falcons in Atlanta. About 30 friends and family members are getting together for a pre-game tailgate at Newton’s cousin’s home; a smaller group will be at the Georgia Dome to watch Newton try to bounce back from his three-interception performance against the Giants.

Win or lose, Jackie Newton will be there to hug her son after the game – and to tell him to keep his head up.

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