Cam Newton is not for everyone.
If you like your quarterbacks to restrain their emotions and not anger defenses with touchdown celebrations that once were exclusive to wide receivers and running backs, then he’s not your type.
If you prefer a guy who speaks in clichés and would rather not draw attention to himself, then Newton’s wear-it-on-his-sleeve personality will rub you the wrong way.
And if you’d rather not hear the game’s best young quarterback talk about race and how it affects the perception of how others see him, well then, just move along, because there’s nothing to see here.
The 6-6, 245-pound Newton is one of the most electrifying players the NFL has ever seen, and the Carolina star has gotten his team to within one win of its first Super Bowl championship. He got my vote for league MVP. But it’s the combination of his athletic flair and unapologetic personality that makes him one of the most engaging athletes of our time, and also one of the most polarizing.
Race is part of the equation.
He laid bare his feelings Wednesday about one of the reasons he may make people uncomfortable, and there can be no ignoring that part of the conversation if he ascends to the top of his profession by winning the Super Bowl and, as many expect, being selected the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
“I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to,” Newton said at his weekly news conference as he prepared for Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7 against the Broncos.
Newton is wildly popular in Carolina as the Panthers’ unquestioned leader, a man whose steady improvement over five seasons led to this moment. But he pushes the envelope in how he comports himself on the field. Unlike almost every other quarterback before him, he has no hesitation about celebrating a touchdown with an end-zone dance featuring his trademark move, the “dab,” in which he sticks out his forearm and pretends to kiss it.
The histrionics often rub opponents and their fans the wrong way. His end-zone gyrations in a win at Tennessee angered Titans players and fans, and many Seahawks fans signed a petition to ban Newton from CenturyLink Field when the Panthers visit Seattle next season. After a 31-24 playoff win in Carolina, Newton grabbed a “12” flag (signifying the “12th man” for Seahawks fans’ rabid support) from a Seattle fan and threw it to the ground. He gives the ball to a young fan after a touchdown and often poses for pictures before a game is over.
When was the last time you saw a quarterback act like this? The answer is never.
Even the most charismatic passers, from Joe Namath to Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers, never performed such unfiltered celebrations. But even though his actions could incite defenders to get back at him, Newton is blissfully untroubled by the potential repercussions of the gigantic personality that accompanies his 1,000-watt smile.
In a country in which racial tensions remain despite the tangible gains made in recent decades, Newton believes the fact that he is African-American can make some white fans uncomfortable. Or, in some cases, downright angry.
But Newton does not apologize for how he comes across. Nor should he. He is one of the most refreshingly demonstrative athletes we’ve seen, and his joy for the game is boundless.
If this were a put-on or a cheap way to get endorsement deals, calling him out for being a phony would be justified. But this is who the guy is and who he has always been: an athlete who adores his sport and revels in the happiness he creates for those around him. The fact that he won’t conform to others’ expectations makes him even more authentic. And likable.
“Here I am, I’m doing exactly what I want to do, how I want to do it, and when I look in the mirror, it’s me,” Newton said. “Nobody changed me, nobody made me act a certain type of way, and I’m true to my roots.”
He understands he’s not for everyone, and he accepts it. He simply refuses to adjust his personality to fit what others might want.
“People are going to say whatever they want to say,” he said. “And if I’m in this world living for that person, or this person is going to say this, this person is going to say that, then I can’t look at myself and say I’m Cam Newton to most people.”
Cam Newton’s fine just the way he is.