SAN FRANCISCO — The text messages arrived without explanation: praying for Cam … hoping he’s OK … prayers to your family. Cecil Newton Sr. didn’t know what to make of the messages that flooded his phone on Dec. 9, 2014. He only knew that the Cam in question was his son, and it didn’t matter that he had won a national championship at Auburn, or that as the Panthers’ quarterback he was one of the NFL’s biggest stars.
The details trickled in. They started with his son’s trip to the Panthers’ practice facility, where he wanted to watch extra film. Then … the Buick that pulled in front of Cam at 12:28 p.m. that Tuesday … the collision on South Church Street … the Dodge truck that rolled until it landed on its side … the pictures … the car, all smashed up … the tow truck … the ambulance … the stretcher.
“My heart just stopped,” Cecil told SI.com on Monday.
Cecil was home in Atlanta. He and his wife, Jackie, drove to Charlotte immediately, receiving updates every few minutes. They heard Cam had never lost consciousness. That he had the full use of his extremities. That he didn’t want to go to the hospital but had to anyway, staying overnight. That he suffered two fractures in his lower back. And still, when they arrived, they found Cam sore and smiling. He reminisced about his aunt’s pound cake and a trip years earlier to the zoo.
He was, in other words, Cam Newton. He always is Cam Newton. He’s not the type to change, or adapt, because of a letter to the editor, or the vitriol lobbed his way on Twitter, or because, you know, he rolled his car on the way to an extra film session and broke his back.
“Everyone wants to talk about his celebrations,” Cecil said. “How long they are. How involved. If that’s all Cam has to concern himself with, fine. Cam could have been paralyzed. He could have been dead.”
Cecil told that story as he detailed this magical 2015 season, the campaign in which Newton became the likely MVP of the NFL and led the Panthers to a date with the Broncos in Super Bowl 50. All that happened after the accident, of course. And now Cecil will fly here Wednesday, with Jackie, who he said is “sleeping by the door with her bags packed.” (That would be three full suitcases and counting.)
In this unlikely and dominant season, the fact that Newton emerged from his car accident without any permanent damage was the most improbable event of all. And the first improbable thing that happened. But not the only thing.
Newton lost his top target in receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a torn left ACL in August before the season started. Cam’s father called him that week. He was concerned. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “Pop,” Cam told him, “the answer is in this locker room.”
Cam had made that so. He had called offensive tackle Michael Oher to sell him on Carolina and sealed Oher’s commitment with a text message that said, “I don’t want you. I need you.” Cam had also advocated for management to bring back speedy wideout Ted Ginn Jr., who had disappointed with the Cardinals in 2014.
He needed both of them this season. He needed both of them against the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 6. Cecil watched that game in his den in Atlanta. He screamed so loud that he said “I’m sure that Cam could hear me in his helmet.” The Seahawks had lost three games already at that point, but they remained a team as feared as any in the NFC—the same team that knocked the Panthers out of last season’s playoffs.
Newton led the Panthers down the field in the fourth quarter. He found tight end Greg Olsen open against busted coverage for a 26-yard touchdown that sealed a 27–23 win. That throw marked another turning point—the moment, Cecil said, that the Panthers “sent shockwaves around the league that said this team was legit.”
“Nobody believed they could go into Seattle and win,” Cecil said. “Cam took it upon himself. That throw was 20 years in the making. Everything went into that.”
The season progressed from there. Cam smiled. Cam danced. Cam dabbed. Cam posed for selfies with his teammates. Cam feigned jump shots in celebration of touchdowns. A vocal minority lit into his style. They said he was everything wrong with modern sports. But that was Cam. That has always been Cam.
Cecil has a favorite Cam-being-Cam story. It happened in sixth grade. Cam’s teacher called Cecil and complained that Cam was acting out. As punishment, Cecil told his son he had to wear slacks and a tie and a dress shirt every Friday. Only Cam didn’t see it as a punishment. Cam embraced the Friday uniform, and other kids started to dress up, and Cecil often found his son on Friday mornings up early, ironing his white dress shirts.
“He always had a strong will to self-identify who he is and appreciate his person,” Cecil said. “He never cared whether people enjoyed or appreciated that or not. He was who he was. He is who he is. That always propelled him forward.”
To that end, Cam showed up at the Super Bowl on Sunday in some Versace leopard-print pants—pants so gaudy, so out there, that it’s basically impossible to fully describe them. “That’s Cam, sir,” Cecil said, laughing. “That’s all I can say. You could not pay me to put on an outfit of that sort, to go into public with some thermal-underwear leopard-skin drawers.”
His son can be easily misunderstood, Cecil said, and for far more than his pants choices. But Carolina conducted a thorough review before drafting him first overall in 2011. Coach Ron Rivera called Cam’s coach at Auburn, Gus Malzahn, who dismissed anonymous concerns that Cam had not gotten along with teammates. Cecil met with Jerry Richardson, the Panthers’ owner, for over two hours. “We needed to break the ice,” Cecil said.
Since then, Cam and Rivera have transformed Carolina into an NFL power. And this season, as the Panthers finished 15–1, then wrecked both the Seahawks and the Cardinals in the playoffs, the supposed critics surfaced less and less. The mother in Tennessee who wrote a letter to the local newspaper earlier this season that was critical of Cam and his celebrations this season, Rosemary Plorin, declined to expand on her criticism in an email exchange last week. Don Shula, the father of Panthers’ offensive coordinator Mike Shula, a famous coach who once advocated against excessive celebrations in the NFL, said to SI.com of Cam, “I love the way he plays, the energy, the passion. It’s contagious.” Even Don Shula is a convert.
Cam himself said last week that “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.” Football-wise, he’s right. Cam’s skill set—bigger than other quarterbacks; stronger, too; faster; smart—is unprecedented. “And it’s like, here I am,” he said. “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. Nobody changed me, nobody made me act this certain type of way, and I’m true to my roots.”
His father knows that better than anyone. “People have their own ideology of what they think a quarterback should be,” Cecil said. “People in the stands are dancing. Cheerleaders are dancing. The folks in the sports bars are dancing. And it’s the players who shouldn’t dance? Come on! We need to revisit this whole situation and see if it’s really worth it.”
What we should do, Malzahn told SI.com on Monday, is appreciate Newton for what he is—different, rare, special, and in his prime. “He’s doing to NFL defenses what he did to the SEC in 2010,” Malzahn said. “It’s the exact same Cam.”
But isn’t the NFL supposed to be harder? “It’s supposed to be,” Malzahn said.
Cecil plans this week to take stock of the last 13 months—of the critics and the car accident and Cam’s first child, Chosen, who was born on Christmas Eve.
“I’m deeply grateful to the Carolina Panthers for believing he could become what he is becoming,” Cecil said. “I’m the guy who built the float. I’m like the cook who gets rave reviews for the dish he served to everybody. The cook already knows the taste!”
The float, Cecil said, is full now, and that’s his off-season project. “To figure out who’s on the float and how they got there,” he said. “To make sure my son is going to be all right.”
His son has the chance to become the second player to win the Heisman Trophy, a college national championship, an NFL MVP and the Super Bowl. And he’s only 13 months removed from the car accident. “We’re truly blessed,” Cecil said.