CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Behind Cam Newton's infectious 10,000-megawatt smile, which seemingly hasn't been on display that much since his rookie season, is a raging fire that Brad Franchione knows some athletes yearn for.
Doesn't matter the scenario.
Newton, as Franchione witnessed firsthand four years ago when he helped harness a highly ambitious Newton while serving as coach at Blinn [Texas] Junior College, is a win-centric kind of guy.
"There's a competitive spirit within Cam Newton I have not seen in a lot of players," Franchione, now Texas State University's linebackers coach, told Newsday.
" . . . He'll race you to the bathroom. He might not tell you he's racing, but he's going to win, and that's the kind of guy he is. Everything had a little competitive nature to it, and sometimes you might not even know you were competing against him. But he would remind you and beat you."
In a sense, Newton is one of the elder statesmen of what some believe are the new wave of NFL quarterbacks: athletic and mobile, allowing them to terrorize defenses with their arms and feet.
A speedy threat, aided by large, sculpted legs on a 6-5, 245-pound frame that resembles a linebacker's, he amassed some gaudy stats in his first two seasons as a pro.
Newton is the only player in NFL history to post these numbers through his initial 34 games: 8,000-plus passing yards, 40-plus passing touchdowns, 1,000-plus rushing yards and 20-plus rushing touchdowns.
His NFL-record 22 rushing TDs through his first two-plus seasons easily eclipsed Steve Grogan's mark of 16 for quarterbacks. Still, there's one set of numbers that Newton surely wishes were better: 13-21.
That's Newton's record as the Panthers' quarterback leading into Sunday's matchup with the Giants at Bank of America Stadium. But the top overall pick in 2011 believes he's a better quarterback today than he was at the end of Carolina's disappointing 2012 season.
"I feel like I am, but it just has to transition into wins on the field," Newton said. "But more importantly, I just have to continue to keep coming in every day and motivate others as well as motivate myself to become a better quarterback."
In other words, do his best to stay on the path he previously traveled during his days with Franchione, who's the son of longtime college coach Brad Franchione.
Between his stint at Florida -- where he spent time behind Tim Tebow and eventually left in the wake of confessing to stealing a student's laptop -- and his 2011 BCS national championship season at Auburn, Newton played a season at Blinn.
On the way to engineering Blinn's run to an NJCAA national championship in 2009, including a game in which the team scored 84 points, Newton sought something beyond improving his skills on the football field. Some real-life knowledge that textbooks couldn't provide.
Franchione said Newton had a thirst that he desperately wanted quenched: finding ways to transform himself into a better leader. So every day, roughly around lunchtime, Newton sat in Franchione's office, eagerly awaiting a lesson.
"Every night before I left the office, I had to do some kind of research on leadership and have something prepared, because if I didn't have something prepared, he was disappointed with me," Franchione said.
They defined words. Talked about what it meant to be accountable. Discussed ways to handle certain situations, underscoring the type of impact it could have on his teammates because many looked at him as the leader. "If Cam got quiet and got frustrated, it would permeate through the entire team," Franchione said.
Giants backup guard Brandon Mosley, who was Newton's teammate at Auburn, said he quickly noticed Newton's hunger to be a strong leader when the two started playing together.
"He came in leading right away," Mosley said.
However, there's been a little fluctuation during his first two-plus pro seasons, dotted with incidents involving bad body language and public sulking -- such as when he was benched late in last year's 36-7 loss to the Giants. Wide receiver Steve Smith lit into him for that display.
"I went through a couple of phases, I'm going to be honest with you," Newton said.
But Panthers coach Ron Rivera seems confident that his quarterback is back to being full speed ahead on the leadership train.
"I like what I'm seeing from him right now," Rivera said. "I think he has got to set the tone for us as a football team.''
As for Newton's competitive nature, in practice one day this past week, Panthers quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey had a little challenge for him. Dorsey set up a garbage can on the field and had Newton try to throw a football into it from 45 yards away.
So precisely how many did Newton land in the can?
"Zero," he said.
Knowing he had two more practices remaining at that point before taking the field for Sunday's game against the Giants, Newton added: "But tomorrow, I'm going to try to hit one."
Spoken like that competitor Franchione knows very well.
With Tom Rock