Cam Newton: Becoming an Icon

Cam Newton came into the league with aspirations bigger than being just a football player. He wanted to become “an icon and entertainer,” reported Sports Illustrated’s Peter King from the 2011 NFL Combine.  What seemed a minor comment was controversial enough, King later claimed, to totally sour one head coach with a high position that year’s draft and became great fodder for media critics. The “icon and entertainer” description also proved ammunition for those who had already decided Newton would be a one trick running quarterback before he had ever played a snap.

Newton momentarily quelled most critics with a record-setting rookie season, but he struggled at times managing the public relations aspect of the NFL. His toothy-grinned Superman celebrations after touchdown runs were popular with fans and made for a great highlight reels.  Newton, however, seemed somewhat distant at times from his teammates, and the towel over the head gave the curmudgeons enough to not like young star. He had an all eyes on me attitude, they claimed. Further helping their narrative, reports surfaced that Newton wasn’t a good locker-room guy after some defensive players uncharacteristically put him to the turf at the Pro Bowl.

Cam Newton sack

A tough second season for Newton didn’t help either. Coming off a season where Carolina parted ways with general manager and paired with a new offensive coordinator, the sophomore quarterback struggled do deal with losing and himself playing poorly.  “Pouting at times and grasping for answers,” Newton struggled through press conferences, and again with the towel, Newton looked immature. It was more than enough for fickle national supporters to jump ship and the skeptics to grasp ahold of the young quarterback’s image. He was a selfish, immature child to them.

Since 2012, Newton has taken control of his narrative, rather than leaving it to the mercy of media avarice. He’s been crafting fresh and fun public image that matches his personality but also draws on enough traditional social conventions to make it endearing and authentic to a broad base of fans.  Newton’s campaign hasn’t been without folly, but it has been successful.

Carolina went 12-4 in 2013. Newton played well, and the defense played great. As the defense grabbed the limelight, Newton, however, worked on polishing his post-game pressers. It helped. The national media looked for hotter stories, and Newton started to win over Charlotte media.

His image as a locker-room guy also improved as he began deferring to veteran leadership more. Career Panther and in what turned out to be his last NFL season, Jordan Gross shouldered a lot of the publicity burden, letting Newton quietly work on his rapport with the team.

While many remained skeptical, Newton stayed the course and focused his sights on a more powerful group—the fans. 

There’s always been a small contingent of Panther fans who haven’t liked Newton. He wouldn’t ever become a franchise quarterback because wasn’t a traditional pocket-passer, they said.  It’s been an irritating position that draws on much of the sweeping narrative surrounding Newton since he’s arrived in the league.

Although this has been a vocal minority, Newton has developed a certain fealty from some fans that is somewhat unique. Such an intense loyalty didn’t come overnight, nor was it developed unintentionally.  It wasn’t something that Newton could create on his own either. The young phenom began heeding the advice of his mentors beyond the X’s and O’s of the game, but even with his interaction with fans.

Newton first move was to adapt his patented Superman celebration.  At the advice of then quarterback coach Mike Shula, Cam added an element to his touchdown celebration that led to it celebrating something larger than the touchdown, but also the fan experience.

Newton came into the league with the Superman celebration pre-planned. Over the headset in a game midway through his rookie season, however, Shula told Cam, “when you celebrate, it’s not a celebration unless you give back. You do all that riffraff, whatever you do, but at the end you give that football to a little kid. You find a little kid.” Later, Shula downplayed his influence in Newton’s designed outreach. “That’s all Cam,” the coach said about the giveaways. “He has made that tradition his own,” Shula affirmed.

By handing the touchdown football to a young fan, Newton merged his personal celebration with the fan experience. It transcends Newton’s accomplishment, and even the fan involved in the moment.  The celebration becomes about Cam’s relationship with the fans in general.

Newton may do it best with the kids, but he has also nurtured a similar relationship with majority of the fanbase. Unable to participate in the opening drills in of the 2014 training camp, Newton worked the crowd at Fan Fest. Orchestrating cheers and directing the wave, Newton had the crowd eating out of his hands.  As Fan Fest ended, Cam was the last off the field, making work the entire stadium before exiting. He made himself available as much as anyone could expect. He diligently signed autographs at public events, and even in moments when it was clear he was physically and emotionally exhausted, more than anyone.  Wondering if his pained look at times was from his aching body or from the commitment to do more than.

Newton was rehabbing more than an ankle. He was rehabbing an image, but now with an army of devout fans behind him.

image via Twitter

image via Twitter

Oddly, Newton’s media makeover really took off during a losing season. Newton, who hadn’t fully recovered from off-season ankle surgery, suffered broken ribs in the preseason and two fractured bones in his back after being involved in a major car accident. Perhaps just as painful, however, was Carolina’s eight-game losing streak in 2014.  Throughout all the challenges, Newton proved more than physically tough.

Carolina had a tough season following Steve Smith’s departure and in the midst of the Greg Hardy controversy.  Even more problematic, the team wasn’t that good. Cam was playing hurt, there were serious deficiencies in the  offensive line and the defensive secondary, and Carolina struggled to run the ball. At one point in the season, Carolina was down to practice squad running back, Darrin Reaves.

Through the struggles, Newton dealt aptly with the media and took on a clear leadership role both in the aftermath of Steve Smith’s departure and in the wake of the Greg Hardy controversy.  Newton dealt aptly with the media and as Ron Rivera reported, “You see stuff now you didn’t see before.” He, Rivera described, was “maturing, and doing things in other ways to contribute and improve.

Carolina is on a remarkable run. They’re 11-0 in 2015 and have won 15 consecutive regular seasons games. It’s truly a run worth dancing about, and Cam has managed to capture that significance by “Dab’n on them.”

It’s a celebration that in the past would have only strengthened the narrative of Cam as immature, unrefined, and incapable.  That narrative hasn’t been able to reseed itself this season, however. Newton has simply been too instrumental in Carolina’s success for the most entrenched skepticism to seem rational. He’s led the team in rushing when needed, and he’s used that big arm to go downfield. He’s been sensational, willing the team to victory at times.

His dancing hasn’t looked self-centered or egotistical. It’s been authentic. Newton has always played football with a passion.  With the biggest of grins, he’s seemed happiest when playing football. That passion is starting to show in his leadership as well.  

Newton isn’t the same guy he was three years ago.  He’s changed. He’s become a better passer, a better leader, and a better quarterback. His press conferences have improved, and so has his sideline demeanor and attitude.

There’s always been a lot of innuendo in the conversation of Cam’s maturity. Saying, “Cam’s matured,” often means something different when coming from former critics than it does when it comes from Rivera.  Whether it’s racial undertones, football traditionalism, or simply a more civilized way of stating, “I just didn’t like the guy,” saying “he’s matured,” they are implying he’s changed fundamentally. 

Cam Newton may have grown, but he hasn’t changed. Mature Cam is still the fun-loving, exuberant Cam he’s always been. He hasn’t sacrificed his personality in doing to create a sterile persona that hopes to placate any would-be critic. In response to a mother who recently criticized Cam’s celebratory dancing, he defended,  at the end of the day I am who I am. It is what it is.”

Newton has a knack capturing a lot of emotion and feelings in a single celebration.  Similarly, here, Cam has captured the essence of the situation in a single line.  He’s been who he is all along, and it’s this authenticity that is making him into an “icon.”

By Tony Dunn, aka the Professor
Follow him on Twitter @Cat_Chronicles