Cecil Newton, his son Cam riding shotgun, had driven deep into the Texas countryside, through the farms and fields, searching for the future.
This was January of 2009 and a long, long way from the family home back in Atlanta, let alone the University of Florida where Cam had planned to become a star. The NFL, where on Feb. 7 Cam will lead the Carolina Panthers into Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos, was a distant concept.
This was Blinn College, this was little Brenham, this was a blip in his son's success story, or at least that's what the father hoped. Those five stars Rivals.com bestowed on Cam didn't mean anything now. Just a month prior, suspicion of academic fraud and an arrest for possession of a stolen laptop ended his time with the national champion Gators.
The easy way was gone, done in by immaturity and stupidity. The only way now was for Cam Newton to grow up and get it together, here in football's badlands, home to desolation and desperation.
Cam freely admits he arrived at Blinn depressed at the prospect.
"My dad said, 'Cam, you can make this situation a dream or you can make this situation a nightmare,'" Cam told Yahoo Sports back in 2011, of the conversation they had as they pulled up to Blinn, the small junior college where he was enrolling.
"That struck a fire under me," Cam Newton said. "That was my drive."
Blinn coach Brad Franchione was waiting on his new quarterback that day. He received a call a couple weeks prior asking if he'd be interested in a troubled transfer from the SEC. He then spent time researching the player, the person, the situation. It included lengthy talks with Cecil and Cam.
Junior colleges are designed to dole out second chances and athletes such as Cam Newton tend to get them quickly. A pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders ended his legal problems and the academic charges were moot once he left Florida, so he was technically in the clear. Still, no one wants to take on undue risks. Was this just one laptop, one mistake or a pattern? Was this a kid looking for a change or just a new address?
There were football questions too. For all of the Newton's physical promise, his two seasons in Gainesville produced nothing more than being Tim Tebow's backup. How could someone with his capabilities fail to get on the field, throwing just 12, mop-up duty passes? Tebow was undeniably a great college player, but as time has proven, Newton possessed vastly superior skills and upside. Why wasn't this guy approaching that potential?
What struck Franchione, the son of former Texas A&M and Alabama head coach Dennis Franchione, was how open the Newtons were. Cecil was a preacher by trade and didn't sugarcoat the sins of his son.
"They were very forthcoming about everything," Franchione said. That included Cecil making a few "demands" of his own, namely for the coach to ride his son as hard as necessary, with a special focus on building leadership qualities, not merely showcasing Cam's considerable on-field abilities.
It was not just a chance to get back, the Newtons said. It was a chance to get forward.
"It was very important to both Cecil and Cam," Franchione said. "They were eager for Cam to become a better leader. I promised to do that. Cam and I had a lot of conversations about what it means to be a leader, how your actions are perceived by your teammates, how you connect with people. Leadership is what wins off the field."
There was no dorm room available for Cam that first night at Blinn, so after Cecil dropped his son off, Franchione took him to his own house that he shared with his wife and children. That first night deep in the Heart of Texas, his father's words hanging in his ears, Cam Newton slept on a couch that could hardly contain his 6-foot-5 frame.
"Talk about a tough transition," Franchione said. "I think I've heard him say, 'I went from the bright lights and big cities to cow pastures.' There are some guys that can't deal with that."
"What I remember," Newton said a few years back, "was just thinking, 'How am I going to get out of here?' "
Blinn has a longstanding tradition of athletic success but it is also a small school with limited facilities. What it has often pales in comparison to some of the state's big, football-obsessed high schools.
Franchione spun this as a positive, believing the lesson was in the limited. He argued the path up and out isn't in the frills provided on the outside, but the will generated from within.
"I hate to be a cliché, but we were pretty blue-collar," Franchione said. "We didn't have a million dollar weight room. We used the pastures that we had. We used the fields."
Conditioning work was often heading out into some open space near campus and engaging in exercises that were part America Ninja Warrior, part Hunger Games. Races, tug of wars, various skirmishes and challenges. One of Franchione's favorites came after they got a local auto store to donate some old truck tires. Two players would grab a hold of a tire and try to wrestle it from one another by any means necessary.
"It goes as long as it takes," Franchione said. "Our practices could be bloodbaths."
It was basic. It was primal. It was ultra competitive. Franchione loved it until one day the groups were divided into two teams and the tire battle came down to a tiebreaker.
"OK," Franchione said. "Give us your two best."
One side sent forward a 6-7, 300-pound-plus mountain of an offensive lineman who essentially lived in the weight room and was violently unconquerable in the tire wars. The other team saw Cam Newton, despite giving up maybe 70, 80 pounds, look around, step forward and declare, "I've got this."
"I remember standing there thinking, 'Do I really want this kid pulling against that offensive tackle?" Franchione said. "Someone is going to get hurt, I'll be out a quarterback and I'll be very upset with myself."
He decided to let it go. This is leadership, right? This is what they were discussing during daily meetings, just as Cecil asked. This was a QB taking on the toughest task for his guys.
"Cam won the match," Franchione said. "He just drove that kid around. It was one of those times I looked at my other coaches and said, 'Holy mackerel this kid is special.'"
By spring practice Franchione realized he had something even more special than that on his hands. Blinn was good already, 10-2 the season before with a ton of athletes returning. Newton, though, took everything to the next level.
Cam, or Cameron as he was officially known then, was incredibly focused on maximizing his time and getting back to major college ball. There was extra weight lifting, extra conditioning, extra film sessions, extra individual drills, extra schoolwork, even.
Unlike most of the guys on the roster, or even regular students, he didn't hail from Texas and thus had no family to go visit during weekends or breaks. Most students commuted, and when those who stayed inevitably cleared out, he used the quiet of campus to delve extra into football. He was, Franchione said, a model citizen.
The entire mood of the place, the remoteness, the simplicity of the goals, the finite duration, it all created the perfect environment. It turned out the best place for Cam to develop wasn't the comforts of the SEC, but the relative starkness of a junior college. Newton said he learned to even embrace the brutal heat – 100-plus most days of spring practice and fall camp – trying to turn every drop of Texas sweat and sacrifice into fuel.
"It was miserable but I decided to make that a positive," Newton said.
This, he determined, would be his rock bottom.
"We're all there to move on somewhere else, including the coaches," said Franchione, who would later coach five years as an assistant under his father at Texas State. "That's a great motivator to develop a work ethic and it's not something you always find at a four-year school."
Across spring practice the Blinn offense turned brilliant. Franchione was also the team's defensive coordinator, so he and Newton competed against each other daily. There was no limit to the chirping.
"Neither of us were shy about telling the other that we won," Franchione said. "We didn't call it dabbing in 2009 but he would let me know if the offense scored or had a big play. Then I would rally the defensive troops and if we stopped him or got a turnover, we would let him know."
That was the Blinn way, alpha dogs barking all around. Franchione sees that in the NFL version of Cam Newton and brushes off criticism of his former player.
"Some people think he's arrogant, but he's just confident," Franchione said. "That's how he acts. That's how he competes. When Cam was having fun and playing football, there weren't many people who would beat us. He backs up most of what he talks about. And if you stop him, that's part of it too."
The 2009 Blinn Buccaneers went 11-1 and captured the NJCAA national championship. Newton threw for 2,833 yards and 22 touchdowns. He rushed for 655 more yards and 17 more scores. He was dominant.
Major college powers pursued him again. He chose Auburn, back closer to Atlanta, where he says he arrived as a much different person and player than he was at Florida.
"The decisions I made at 17, 18, 19 years old, I don't think I'm the same person," he told Yahoo Sports in 2011.
During his one season at Auburn, 2010, Newton provided an immediate impact as an 8-5 team transformed into a 14-0 national champion. That made it two national titles (NJCAA, BCS) in two years. At Auburn, he excelled despite playing under the significant pressure of an NCAA investigation of whether his father requested $180,000 for Cam to sign at Mississippi State.
Nothing rattled him, though. Nothing could. He just kept smiling and scoring and won the Heisman Trophy.
Less than two years after Cecil dropped him off at junior college as a depressed and uncertain kid, Cam Newton declared for the NFL draft and told everyone he should be the top pick because "everywhere I've been, I've won. I've thrived off the word 'win.' "
He no longer saw his missteps as a negative, but a turning point he was proud to discuss with would-be teams.
"I have no regrets," Cam told Yahoo Sports before the draft. "Yeah, I made mistakes."
He may never have made it, without making them.
"My maturation was a product of going to Brenham, Texas, and Blinn College," Cam said.
The Panthers took him No. 1 overall. Five seasons later, Cam Newton, the NFL's likely MVP, leads them to the Super Bowl and himself even further from that humble ride with his father through those Texas fields, make or break staring him in the face.