Dan GrazianoESPN Staff WriterClose
- Joined ESPN in 2011
- New Jersey native and author of two published novels
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The new face of the NFL can’t stop smiling.
“I’ve thought of this moment way before this moment,” Cam Newton said late Sunday night. “You play it out so many times in your head. It may be a surprise to some people, but it’s the way I envisioned it in the dream.”
Newton’s are the biggest of dreams, and they’re coming true before our disbelieving eyes. The league’s presumptive MVP didn’t just run and throw himself and his Carolina Panthers into Super Bowl 50 – he danced, skipped, hugged, laughed and smiled his way there. Carolina’s 49-15 victory over Arizona on Sunday was a three-hour party with 74,294 close friends, and no one was having a better time than the guy wearing No. 1 at the center of it all.
“He’s having an amazing time, man,” Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “You see it on the field, off the field … he’s just loose. He’s himself. That’s why we love that guy. That’s why we respect that guy, and we’re glad he’s on our team.”
The Newton phenomenon is a roman candle. His first four years were the hissing, wobbly, silhouetted ascent, and 2015 was the brilliant explosion. Carolina is 17-1, the highest-scoring team in the league and the favorites to beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the Super Bowl. It’s a torrent of dreams all coming true at once, and at peak volume.
“Cam just wanted it,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “And when you want it as much as he does, it’s hard to turn him away.”
Newton’s always brought out the worst in establishment-driven NFL narrative. He was initially deemed too inaccurate a passer to succeed long-term, but that was only the start. The famous pre-draft “icon and entertainer” interview rubbed just about everyone wrong. Remember when the big debate was about him being too surly in press conferences? Now it’s about whether he’s having too much fun.
But the more you watch Newton, his breezy success and the way he’s sharing it all with his teammates and fans, the more you think maybe the point was being missed all along. What if Newton’s animating attribute isn’t arrogance or defiance or the brash over-exuberance of youth? What if that animating attribute is joy?
Joy seemed to propel Newton into the end zone behind Ted Ginn Jr. on Sunday at the tail end of Ginn’s 22-yard supercharged-jigsaw touchdown run. Joy sent him skipping – literally skipping – up the field after Greg Olsen’s 54-yard third-down catch in the fourth quarter. It poured out of him as he bear-hugged teammates on the sideline after the touchdown that made it 42-15 and as he posed for his weekly team picture on the sideline in the waning seconds of the rout.
“To be around here day in and day out, it doesn’t feel like work,” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “It feels like going to the playground, coming here every day.”
The quarterback is setting that tone, and his teammates say he’s done it since the first day of offseason workouts – keeping them loose by being loose himself, and expecting them to follow as opposed to demanding it.
“What he’s got,” Short said, “it’s contagious.”
It’s infected this whole place. Newton danced for and with the fans all day. The loudspeakers at Bank of America Stadium blasted every celebratory anthem from Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” on up to DJ Khaled’s “All I Do is Win.” In the postgame trophy presentation, when presented with the microphone, the first thing Newton did was roar. The place, obviously, went wild.
Sports are supposed to be fun, and the Panthers are having a ton of it. Their only loss came after the week that wasn’t fun – after Josh Norman and the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. had their game-long melee and people were accusing them of threatening opponents with a baseball bat. That knocked the Panthers out of their rhythm for a week, but they’ve clearly found it again, with Newton giddily manning the wheel of a party bus bound for San Francisco.
“I’m excited,” Newton said. “This has been a process. It wasn’t going to be instant grits. It was going to be like long, slow-cooked collard greens. I think those collard greens are brewing right now. You can smell them from 100 miles away.”
The new face of the NFL smiled again as he savored his delectable metaphor. His audience laughed with him, caught up in the young superstar’s latest huge moment. This is clearly, all of a sudden, Cam Newton’s time. And no one’s enjoying it more than he is.
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