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Cam Newton’s Second Act

The former NFL MVP has proved he can bounce back time and again in his career. Can he do so with the Patriots?  

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Cam Newton has been one of the defining sports figures of the past decade. He won the 2010 Heisman Trophy while leading Auburn to the national title. He won the 2015 NFL MVP award while leading the Carolina Panthers to a Super Bowl berth. He’s been honored, criticized, questioned, and released. In June, he signed with the New England Patriots.

Over the last year, The Ringer’s Tyler R. Tynes has spoken to coaches, teammates, friends, family members, reporters, and even Newton himself on the QB’s life and career. The Cam Chronicles, a narrative podcast series, premieres on July 13.

“I try to teach kids this: You know, football is like life, and you get knocked down. You’ve got to get up no matter how many times you get knocked down. You’re going to have to get up.”

I met with Dallas Allen, Cam Newton’s high school coach, in downtown Atlanta in January. For nearly an hour, Allen walked through his memories of the skinny kid at Westlake High School who grew into an NFL superstar. So many of the people I’ve spoken to who knew Cam have suggested, in one way or another, that he was destined for the level of prestige he’s acquired in the last decade in professional football.

Cam’s charm, and a propensity for mischief, were on display as a student at Westlake, when he bounced in the hallways between classes, sometimes skipping periods for Waffle House trips, and jumped on tables during lunch periods to regale an entire room of high schoolers. His talent was evident on the Westlake practice field, when he pulled gravity-defying stunts or unleashed his cannon arm that made coaches gawk from the sidelines. But it’s the mistakes Cam has made in his life that Allen and I are discussing on this cold night, and the lessons he’s learned from being a teenager to now, as a 31-year-old father.

When Cam played for Westlake, Allen told him what he told all his players when they felt they couldn’t go anymore, when they were ready to give up: After the fall is the toughest. “You can’t think about why you got knocked down,” he said. “You can only think about what you got to do to be better.” Cam has risen and fallen throughout his career. He exemplifies Allen’s parable. Cam “done had a lot of bumps and bruises,” Allen said.

“But hey, he’s still gonna be Cam Newton.”

That same week, I attended a church service in Newnan, Georgia, a small town almost 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. Allen’s gospel about Cam lives on in this church. Cam’s father, and the church’s pastor, Cecil Newton, told me that his son isn’t an “ordinary guy.” Cam took some of his first steps in the church, under the watchful eye of his charismatic and colorful father. Hints of Cam’s personality become clear when you speak with the head of the Newton household. I had spent the past few days with the Newtons, watching Cam coach a 7-on-7 football clinic at Lakewood Stadium in Atlanta. I later attended a fiery Sunday service at Cecil’s church and had brunch with the congregation curated by Cecil’s personal chef. Cecil told me that this was Cam’s real life away from football, away from the cameras. This was the Cam Newton people don’t see.

“He’s a private person,” Cecil told me. “He is not so hypersensitive about whether you like him or not. He’s comfortable in his own skin. I’m glad he’s like that, because if he wasn’t, you know, he probably would have faded long before now.”

Part of the intrigue of a figure like Cam is his refusal to bend, his resistance to conform to a widely accepted ideal of who he is supposed to be. As he’s gotten older, he’s spoken less frequently with the press—his public statements often come in the form of fractured phrases or quotes, in passages and metaphors delivered on social media. He’s not easily understood. When I briefly spoke with him in Atlanta, he didn’t want to get into the controversies, misunderstandings, and transgressions in his career.

“I’m in a position now, man, where I’m comfortable in my skin,” he told me. “I don’t try to be nothing that I’m not. And I’m fine with that. And a lot of times it kind of rubs people the wrong way.” He said he wanted to embrace the things that have made him a firebrand in professional football. “I always try to push the pendulum no matter what it may be. And the fact that, you know, I’m in this place off of influence. I want to make sure that, you know, I project being unique, being yourself and being, you know, true to who you are and where you came from as well.”

He stressed that his reflections on his life and career are part of his growth as a father.

“I make mistakes. I have made mistakes. I’m going to continue to make mistakes. But at the same time, I don’t want those mistakes to be something that’s been constant. You know, I want to live and I’ve got children. I want to be able to teach them right from wrong and know what to expect. And, you know, I don’t proclaim to be something that I’m not. And I know who I am and I know what I’m trying to be.”

I asked him whether he has any regrets.

“For what?” Cam asked. He looked at his son, Chosen, who was playing with a rainbow-colored football in the distance. This is the axis of Cam’s life: as a father, a part-time pastor in his father’s church, a humanitarian, and a quarterback preparing for what could be his last act in football. He looked up at me with a wry smile.

“I’m true to who I am, man,” Cam said before walking away. “And I don’t bite my tongue for nobody. Everybody know how I rock and roll. And I’m just more comfortable that way.”

The poet Claudia Rankine wrote in 2018 that Cam Newton was “vexing to America” because he occupied a space that “white Americans see as a white man’s job.” She described him as “a young man growing up in the American public while being extraordinary and ordinary and disappointing and magnificent and resilient all at once.” She concluded that “Cam Newton is basically just like us, America.”

The entirety of Cam’s football career has centered around the kinds of contradictions Rankine described. The mere idea of Cam Newton inflames certain conservative segments of football’s fan base, which have been prevalent in the sport throughout its history. He isn’t a shrinking violet, but rather a brash, Black quarterback who thrives when he revels in his difference. His stature as an icon is both unrivaled and confounding in the same breath. He is the vanguard to the current young class of Black quarterbacks, even though he’s been regarded as an irritant for much of his career.

For much of the last decade, Cam has been the Black quarterback of the moment. He danced as we did, laughed like we did, partook in every avenue of a Black culture so frequently denied in mainstream American culture unless it is pimped and parodied for someone else’s liking. We’ve gotten a lot of things wrong about Cam in his career, but one thing stands out to me: He’s a self-proclaimed “Superman,” but his superpower was never his muscles, his stature, his skill, or his speed. The beauty of Cam was his dissidence as a generational quarterbacking talent. His status in the NFL and his defiance of the norms associated with his position made him a walking protest every time he stepped on the field. That’s more of a superpower than anything else he’d ever wield. Looking back, it seems wildly unfair that he had to fight against that idea. If you need Cam to fit a certain profile, that doesn’t have to do with Cam, that has to do with us. Our sensibilities. Our bias. The very notion of being a Black quarterback is still provocative to white audiences and fan bases, something Cam has acknowledged in the past.

I don’t know how much credit Cam deserves for the style of offense that has become so prevalent in the NFL, but he is the vanguard to the current young class of Black quarterbacks. Would we still have seen Lamar Jackson’s rise, or Pat Mahomes’s ability, or Deshaun Watson’s tactician mind without the barbed wire Newton waded through from the moment he stepped into the NFL?

It’s unclear what we can expect from Cam as he approaches the second act of his career, which, interestingly, will take place with the New England Patriots. Injuries have taken their toll. There were times this offseason when I wondered whether he would be on an NFL roster this season. Cam’s been clear about his priorities at this stage in his life and career: He wants to play football, be a good father and son, and remain a devout servant to his faith. He wants to be a cultural trendsetter in a profession and at a position that has rarely called for it.

One of Cam’s former coaches told me that “Cam is like one of those bouncy balls you get from a quarter machine outside of a grocery store.” When he falls, he bounces back higher than the drop would suggest. All of that can be seen in what Cam’s given us his entire career. He turns the mundane into motivation: the gospel hymns he blares in his basement from Hezekiah Walker; his hellish workouts he streams on the internet; his blazing attitude, flair, and fashion that serves as a high-definition finger wag to anyone daring to challenge how he goes about his business. In so many ways, it serves as an endless delight. Football is better with Cam Newton in it.

“I’ve had so many people who didn’t know that I knew Cam. They was like, ‘Oh, he’s so fake. The smile is fake.’ They think he’s so cocky. He’s doing this and doing that,” Shaun Rutherford, a teammate of Cam’s at Blinn Junior College, told me. “Just from knowing him, dude busts his ass for everything he’s had.”

While at the church service in Newnan, Cecil called Cam to the altar to speak to the congregation. Cam ambled up to the altar wearing a tweed overcoat and matching vest as his children and his mother, Jackie, watched from the front row.

“This whole year has been on my heart,” Cam told the congregation. “I want God to use me. That was my prayer for myself,” he explained. He seemed at peace and, in that moment, he came across clearer than I think I’ve ever seen him. He ended his sermon with a proverb, a note for his life, and a message to those in front of him. It explained his dedication to his craft, his refusal to be humble, and his relentless addiction to betting on himself.

“Faith,” Cam says, “without work, is dead.”