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Scott Fowler: Cam Newton's legacy with Panthers and the Carolinas comes down to one 3-letter word

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 3/24/2020 By Scott Fowler, The Charlotte Observer
Cam Newton smiling for the camera: Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton plays with the crowd during late fourth quarter action against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La. The Panthers defeated the Saints 33-14. © Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton plays with the crowd during late fourth quarter action against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La. The Panthers defeated the Saints 33-14.

What I will miss most about Cam Newton carrying the Carolina Panthers through so many dozens of games boils down to one word:

Joy.

Newton did a lot of things differently. But his joy for the game and for life blanketed all of it through his nine years as a Panther, a tenure that officially ended Tuesday when the team thanked him for his service — and released him.

The quarterback would smile in the middle of a huddle, or while playing hide-and-seek between the tackling dummies at practice, or just before he was about to juke a safety.

In 2017, Newton made time at the line of scrimmage to tease Green Bay’s Clay Matthews, as Matthews yelled out to his teammates what he believed to be the Panthers’ next play.

Said Newton to Matthews in an exchange picked up by a microphone: “You’ve been watching film, huh? That’s cool. Watch this!”

Newton dropped back and fired a touchdown pass on the play to Christian McCaffrey. It was “Watch this” material, for sure, just as so many hundreds of moments were for Newton.

McCaffrey’s business-like approach to football meant that in his rookie year, you could sometimes watch him for an entire game and never see him smile. But Newton eventually lightened him up, reminding McCaffrey that they were lucky to play a kid’s game for money.

Wrote McCaffrey on Instagram on Tuesday, referring to Newton by uniform number: “Thank you 1! You changed the way I approached the game and put the fun back in it for me. I’ll always owe you for that.”

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Newton is now unemployed, a fate he shares with thousands of other Americans. Since I have written about the certainty of this split between the Panthers and Newton for months, some readers may think I take joy in the Panthers officially firing him Tuesday after they were unable to find a trade partner.

I don’t.

Our relationship was complicated — Newton kept the local media at more of a distance than any pro athlete Charlotte has ever seen, even eclipsing the prickly Alonzo Mourning in his early years as a Hornet.

Newton turned down dozens of one-on-one interview requests from me and the other reporters who covered him countless times. In nine years, I had one true sit-down interview with him.

Yet despite those frustrations, Newton was tremendous to cover. He was the ideal sort of athlete in many ways, including this one strictly from a journalistic perspective: No one was neutral about him.

People took one side or the other, and that meant they read about whatever his latest exploits were, too.

It was impossible not to “watch this” with Newton on the field, or on the sideline, or during the Wednesday afternoon group interview or postgame Sunday interview he did in front of the press corps for those nine years. He was charismatic and funny, and when he felt like it he would give little peeks into his world — about his own children, or the wreck he recovered from in Charlotte, or why he bestowed any of the dozens of nicknames he did on various teammates.

Most importantly, he could play. Newton said from the beginning in 2011 he wanted to be great and, for many years, he was.

“He willed this team to victory on many occasions and will always be considered one of the greatest players in the history of the franchise,” said general manager Marty Hurney, who drafted Newton No. 1 overall in 2011 and released him in 2020.

When we look at Newton’s career with the Panthers, we must do so in totality, without recency bias. Yes, he missed 16 of his final 18 possible games with the Panthers due to various injuries, and Carolina has replaced him with Teddy Bridgewater. Yes, he lost the one Super Bowl he made.

But Newton also was the NFL’s 2015 Most Valuable Player — the only time in 25 years any Panther has ever even come close to winning that honor. He set all sorts of Panther records, including for QB wins (68), passing TDs (182) and rushing TDs (58, which is also an NFL record).

In many games, he truly was Superman.

Newton changed the position with the way he could run, so much so that a quarterback who can move is now the NFL standard and those stiff dropback quarterbacks of yesteryear are going the way of those Blockbuster Video stores we all once loved. Newton was once the NFL’s future. Now he’s part of the present, just one of so many quarterbacks looking to find and hold onto one of the 32 starting jobs in the NFL.

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That one sitdown interview with Newton I mentioned? It remains one of my favorite memories of him.

This was in 2013, as Newton led the Panthers toward what would be his first playoff appearance. By then, his Sunday giveaways of “touchdown footballs” was in full swing. With the help of several colleagues at the Observer, I tracked down 15 of the kids who had gotten one of those footballs and arranged for them to come to Bank of America Stadium for a group photo and interview.

We didn’t tell the kids that Newton was coming, because we weren’t sure he was. He had been knocked around all over the place the day before in a 17-13 win over New Orleans.

But then, right on time, there Newton was — and his parents came, too. I had only asked him to stay for five minutes; he stayed for 30.

The kids were surprised and thrilled, of course. And Newton, as he always is, was great around the kids.

They told him stories about sleeping with their football. One girl had written him a letter, which read in part: “You gave me a football and I wanted to say thank you. I have hearing aids and ADHD, and when I see the Panthers get a touchdown, it makes me think that I can do that, too.”

Kids always understood Newton, probably better than adults did. They tuned in on the fun more easily and didn’t care whether anybody else considered it showboating. He concentrated his charitable efforts on those kids, and they wore his No. 1 jersey.

Newton said many times he was just a big kid at heart, but he’s underselling himself there. He grew into an adult as a Panther. He stopped pouting so much after losses. He became a team captain. And then, eventually he got hurt too much and football ran its course; he got replaced by somebody younger and healthier. No shame in that — in the NFL, it happens to everyone.

But through it all, Newton never changed one thing. He kept his joy.

That joy will travel with him when he finds another team, but he has left pieces of it in plain sight all over the Carolinas. Joy will be his legacy, and we all are lucky for that.

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©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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