For a draft prospect as polarizing as Cam Newton there are going to be questions about his full resume, especially when there’s a history of some missteps off the field. As much as some have criticized the Heisman trophy winner, what is often missed in all of the controversy that surrounded him this past season and in the pre-draft process is how he succeeded in spite of the wide-ranging and seemingly omnipresent distractions.
In the middle of the 2010 season with an NCAA investigation concerning his father and allegations of a so called pay-for-play recruitment with Mississippi State, Newton’s play on the field was unaffected. One could argue that his play may have even improved from the time the news first broke.
College teammate Nick Fairley remembers how Newton handled it with his teammates.
“When the situation came out Cam came into the locker room the next day and said, ‘I’ve got this situation going on and you guys are my brothers. So basically what we need to do is put this on the back burner and go out here and try to win a national championship,’” recalled Fairley. “And that’s what we did. If he was willing to put the situation behind him and move forward, so were we.”
For a first-year starter at a major BCS program who’s the focus of a headline grabbing controversy to effectively diffuse a situation so it would not affect his team is impressive. Newton then took it a step further after initially addressing his team.
“That same day that he told us he came back in the locker room after practice and he had a joke set up for us,” said Fairley. “So it broke the tension. It was not distracting at all.”
In fact, Auburn offensive tackle Lee Ziemba, when asked if Newton’s address was a turning point for their season had a one-word answer.
“Definitely,” he said.
No matter the obstacle Newton, much like he does on the field, moves past it, around it, over it or through it. He did it his one year in junior college after transferring from Florida, winning a National Junior College championship at Blinn College, and followed that up at Auburn a year later with another national title. But those that are doing their homework on Newton have dug much deeper into his past only to find much of the same.
“A team drafting in the top five sent two private investigators to Auburn and they spent a week there,” Newton’s pre-draft quarterback coach George Whitfield said in an interview with the National Football Post. “They found out he never cut class. They found out he conducted himself very respectfully. They weren't scouts, they were investigators. They know how to ask questions. They found nothing derogatory. He comes from a God-fearing family. He's a good kid."
“Going all the way back to junior high you can’t argue with the guy having success wherever he was,” said Bills GM Buddy Nix.
The question now of course is will it translate to the NFL?
And those questions are rooted in the desire of NFL clubs to know just what makes Newton tick. Is he truly passionate about football? Does he have a zest to learn more about the game and successfully transition from his spread offense at Auburn to become truly great at the pro level?
“I hear stuff about our offense being spread,” Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said in an interview with ESPN Radio. “A lot of our concepts are the same concepts that he’s going to run at the next level. He can make every throw. He’s a great decision maker. He sees the field very well.”
"In terms of his football acumen, the thing I'm most impressed about by spending time with him is how hungry he is to talk football and visualize and strategize about the game,” Whitfield told the National Football Post. “When he first came to (work with me) we talked about the National Championship game and he broke down the Oregon defense and what he visualized on a napkin. He was indicating signs of coverages and he filled up five napkins. I knew right then we were going to be in a downhill sprint. This is someone who's excited to share his insights about the game.”
Bills head coach Chan Gailey, who met one-on-one with Newton during his pre-draft visit to One Bills Drive on March 29th echoed those sentiments.
“He’s a very impressive young man,” Gailey said. “It was really a joy to be able to visit with him all morning about the game of football and how he relates to the game. It was a very good visit.”
And though Gailey also confirmed that he was impressed with how Newton handled himself as a person, what he came back to was what may prove to be the quarterback’s greatest selling point to NFL teams. His perseverance.
“There are some things I like about him,” said Gailey. “The way he brought his team back. I think they were behind last year, I don’t know how many times, but he brought his team back and they won the ball game. And he did it a lot of different ways. Sometimes it was throwing it, sometimes it was running it. Sometimes it was just managing the offense. That makes you like a guy right there before you even meet him.”
"He went through so much scrutiny this year with the sheer pressure of dealing with that NCAA investigation and came out and physically and mentally performed in all those situations and southern road game environments,” Whitfield said. “He never broke down or made excuses. He has that ability to compartmentalize and separate everything to what he's going through and he’ll beat it.”
With just days before the NFL draft, the league’s 32 clubs likely have their final reports in on Newton. There are sure to be some different opinions, but if you ask those that know him best he’s not only a winner, but the right kind of winner.
“He was a joy to coach,” Malzahn told ESPN Radio. “You know what he did on the field, but off the field he’s an even better person. He’s a great leader. He’s the best I’ve ever seen in the locker room.”
"As a person, he’s the kind of guy you want in any situation,” Whitfield said to NFP. “I know he’s gone through some real growth from the time he was a freshman in college. He couldn’t be more genuine. I think he's going to be very successful. He's a winner. He's got toughness, physical and mental toughness. He's got a lot of pride. This guy would play for free.”
Throughout the month of April, we are running 2011 NFL Draft prospect stories each week. In addition, Bills fans can vote in the Bills and M&T Bank Draft Day Challenge who they think will be the Bills first pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, and have the chance to win a Bills Game Day Experience to remember. Five grand prize winners will get sideline passes, M&T Bank Club tickets that include food and beverage, a Bills Alumni meet and greet and a Bills helmet. Click here to vote.