January 13, 2011
See a complete list of underclassmen who have declared for the draft.
Cam Newton came, he saw, he conquered. Now, he's going pro. Auburn's 6-foot-6, 250-pound supernova has officially declared for the NFL draft, leaving college football with an all-too-brief but spectacular show that will burn on for decades, in more ways than one.
Every season has its stars, but the list of players in college football history as physically, competitively and charismatically dominant as Cam Newton in 2010 is a short one, and no one else on it – with the possible exception of Herschel Walker – hit that crescendo their first time on the stage. In a season that opened without a true superstar, Newton was the perfect storm.
He had the backstory, as a junior college transfer seeking redemption after blowing his chance as Tim Tebow's heir apparent at Florida. He had the stats, racking up 4,300 total yards and 51 (!) touchdowns to go with one of the highest pass efficiency ratings on record, for the highest-scoring offense in the SEC. He had the flair, not only for jaw-dropping runs that seemed to defy the laws of physics for his size, or on jaw-dropping comebacks, but also in his weekly communion with jubilant fans as the wins mounted toward the inevitable hardware at the end.
He has all of that hardware, from the Heisman Trophy to the O'Brien Award to the SEC Championship to the BCS Championship and everything in between. No player wins a championship singlehandedly, and when it came to the final act, Newton was somewhat overshadowed Monday night, first by fellow All-American Nick Fairley and the maligned Tiger defense, then by a freshman running back on the game-winning, championship-clinching drive. But Auburn won the national championship a season after going 8-5 with a losing record in SEC games, with by far the worst defense ever to take home the crystal ball. The chasm that Newton bridged – from an overtime escape against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl to a national championship – is as wide as any individual athlete has managed before him.
And of course, he had the scandal that led half the country to stamp a giant asterisk next to all of the above in its collective scoresheet. The NCAA's ongoing investigation into Newton's recruitment in 2009-10 may never find any evidence against Newton or Auburn that leads it to overturn its controversial decision to declare Newton eligible despite concluding his father violated NCAA rules by asking for a six-figure payment from Mississippi State in exchange for his son's signature on a letter of intent, but his place in NCAA infamy is secure.
Until that unlikely day of reckoning, though, those black marks are easily washed out by the mega wattage of Newton's phenomenal talent and obvious joy in playing the game. Two years ago, he was on his way to an outpost in Texas, the living picture of wasted potential. In three months, he'll become a multimillionaire in the first round. Auburn, and college football in general, is lucky for a brief glimpse of his star on its way up.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.