At a Florida church in 2007, Louis Murphy and Cam Newton found they had even more in common than they thought.
Coaches at the University of Florida, where both were on the football team, paired Murphy and Newton in the team’s mentor program. They shared interests – football and video games – and each was the son of a preacher.
“We hung out all the time, talked all the time,” Murphy said. “We were close friends. And for whatever reason we hit it off immediately.”
When a kid at the church told Newton he looked too big to be 17 years old, Murphy found something else they shared.
“The kid was like, ‘When’s your birthday?’ And Cam said, ‘My birthday’s May 11,’ ” Murphy recalled. “I’m like, ‘Man you got to be lying. That’s my birthday, too.’
“He looked at me and said, ‘We’re in church, why would I lie?’ ”
Distance and time couldn’t break the bond.
Since that day at the Florida church, Newton attended two other colleges, won the Heisman Trophy and was drafted No. 1 by the Panthers. Oakland drafted Murphy in the fourth round of the 2009 draft, and he started for the Raiders for three seasons.
“He always reached out to me just to check on me and see how I was doing, and when I was at Auburn nothing changed,” Newton said. “We would always try to see each other in the offseason and work out when we had time.
“He’s been a very, very influential person in my life as far as knowing what to expect coming into this league, how to have a great work ethic and just taking care of your body because this is a long season.”
Sunday, the Raiders will visit Carolina in a game Murphy has had circled on his calendar. A trade a week before training camp brought him to the Panthers, but it didn’t leave him time to say goodbye to former teammates.
When he got to Spartanburg, he found a familiar face: Newton’s. This is the first year they’ve shared a locker room since Newton left Florida during Murphy’s senior season.
“Who would ever think that two friends that played in college together, split for a while and would be back together at the peaks of our careers?” Murphy said.
The two worked together in August, with Murphy digesting the Panthers’ playbook and staying after practice with Newton to establish their rhythm.
“I know that Louis was a mentor-type guy to Cam in college, so they have a close relationship. I know they lean on each other in that way,” offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. “It’s been good for Cam, Louis being here and being in that role again.”
The work has paid off for both players. Murphy has caught 21 of Newton’s passes for 274 yards and a touchdown.
Murphy is “going to stay afterward,” said Billy Gonzales, a former Florida wide receivers coach who now is the Illinois offensive coordinator. “We preached that, to get better when you’re tired. Anybody can come out there at the beginning of practice and go through their fundamentals and be strong. It’s practicing your fundamentals and catching the ball afterward that (makes you) better.
“That was him in college, so that doesn’t surprise me one bit.”
Murphy and Newton were working together consistently for the first time since 2008. Newton was charged with an alleged laptop theft, and that, combined with playing time concerns, sent him to Blinn (Texas) College midway through his sophomore year.
Still, the two stayed in constant contact. That made the transition back to teammates easier.
Their lockers are three stalls apart, and Newton chose Murphy to appear in a cameo for a Windows phone commercial airing this season. Murphy has even tweeted out a picture of Newton’s latest Under Armour shoes and urged his followers to get a pair for Christmas.
And, like a big brother, Murphy has helped Newton deal with criticism of his early-season struggles and sideline demeanor, both the subject of much debate.
Now Newton is in the midst of the best five-game stretch of his career, accounting for 13 touchdowns (10 passing) and no turnovers.
Beside him through it all was his big brother.
“I think he just weeded out the negative energy and used it as positive energy to make him work harder and get better,” Murphy said. “That’s what I kept telling him is keep working and don’t worry about it or anything. He tells me the same thing, ‘Murph, just keep working man, we’re going to get through it.’
“He always says there’s always going to be brighter days. It’s positive reinforcement saying it to each other, staying on the up and up and just keeping faith in God.”
Jones: 704-358-5223; Twitter: @jjones9