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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Cam Newton stood up in the locker room at halftime on Sunday and asked for a show of hands.
"How many have won a championship?" he asked.
He paused for a moment, then asked …
"How many have wanted to do something special?"
He paused again before stating …
"Well, we have 30 minutes to do it."
A short time later, Newton delivered the signature play of his career, a designed run in which he rolled to his right, then slammed the throttle down and vaulted head-over-heels into the end zone.
"When Cam scored that touchdown," tight end Ed Dickson said, "we finished it."
With a 49-15 thrashing of the Arizona Cardinals, Newton has finished a journey very few ever will: from Heisman trophy winner to No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft to the Super Bowl. One major story of the next two weeks leading up to the Panthers' shot at a Lombardi Trophy against the Denver Broncos will be how much people hate him. That's been the case throughout his career, from those who saw him as an inevitable bust to those who resent his "antics" and his celebrations. He mentioned the detractors Sunday night, those who "take subliminal shots at me," he said.
But lost in that discussion will be how many people he has drawn to his side. Those who wish Newton to fail will find like-minded skeptics. Yet this story of his success is how a young, rich and wildly talented superstar has wooed so many followers.
On Sunday he emerged before the game with Future and Jeezy, one giant arm around each celebrity. Michael Jordan showed up in the press box 20 minutes before the game, almost unnoticed as he went to his luxury suite to watch his friend. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was here last week, becoming a mentee to Newton. Braylon Beam has been here every week, the 6-year-old "honorary coach" who is battling cancer.
"[Cam] means the world," his mom, Meredith, told Yahoo Sports, "because he is nice to other people and he rocks bedazzled shoes."
Braylon is in the entourage now, along with Deshaun and MJ and Future, and the little girl who got the football after the touchdown in the first quarter, and Hulk Hogan, who fawned over Newton in a mid-game tweet, and the Panthers' media relations rep who's been with the team through the lean years and got a shout-out in Newton's media session. The outside anger has been thrown into high relief, but here in this town everyone has been welcomed in.
Quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey is in the entourage, too. He was the undefeated passer at Miami who had a spotty NFL career and then found himself coaching a young superstar who was considered to have an attitude. Kind of a daunting task. But here was Dorsey on Sunday evening, age 34, picking up confetti from the field like a little kid, grinning like he did in Coral Gables.
"He makes it so easy," Dorsey said of Newton. "The obvious excitement he shows, watching him come in every day. I never get tired of it."
"Easy" is the word Kelvin Benjamin uses too. It hasn't been an easy year for the young receiver, who lost his season to an ACL injury before it even started. But watching from the sideline, Benjamin said, "It seemed like it was so easy" in Newton's wake.
It is a young team, and that's been lost too. Newton is only 26. Luke Kuechly is 24. Kawann Short is 26. Josh Norman is a greybeard at 28. The ease with which the 17-1 Panthers have steamrolled to the Super Bowl is remarkable, and Newton's way is very much part of that. Even with the veterans, Newton's been a relaxing force for a group that doesn't have a ton of playoff experience. Before the opening snap on Sunday, he told defensive end Charles Johnson, "We've been working for this moment since Day 1."
"He's a big part of what we do around here," Short said, before amending it: "He is what we do around here."
Maybe some other quarterbacks sharpen focus by steely glares and earhole shouts. That isn't Newton, and his manner may drive others crazy, but it works here. His sideline jumping jacks and his high-fives and butt-pats work.
"It's not the uptight focus," said Dickson. "It's the loose focus."
Sure, Newton's race plays into the static. Maybe his Southern background does too. On Sunday he said the road to the championship wouldn't be like "quick grits" but rather "like long-cooked collared greens." Whether that's considered profound or silly, it takes the edge off. Newton is good at that. The Panthers have needed it and so has the entire town, really. Easy has worked.
And it works especially well when Newton is so hard-charging on the field. "He's not just a running quarterback," said wide receiver Corey Brown. "He's a runner." This separates him from other mobile quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck. Newton cherishes the contact; he initiates it. In the third quarter he barreled into defensive tackle Calais Campbell, his left arm extended as if in a Heisman pose. When two downs in a goal-line offense failed, Newton leapt high into the air, where no one could stop him, for the touchdown on third-and-goal. And then there was the designed run, where he accelerated as the inevitable collision drew near.
"He's a beast," Dickson said.
So when he makes one-handed catches like Odell Beckham during warmups, or when he posits that he should be on the hands team in a postgame media session, he's just serious enough that it's clear he wants to contribute in a real smash-mouth football sense. He has some fullback in him, and that keeps defenses honest and gives every receiver a little more room to make a play. Sunday's wide receivers were Ted Ginn Jr., Devin Funchess, Brown and Jerricho Cotchery. It seems preposterous that this group is part of a team that has scored 30 or more points in every game save one since Nov. 15. This offense is a steamroller with those wide receivers, and it's because Newton is in charge. Those receivers are in the entourage too.
Newton met the media on Sunday night in the room where he was introduced as the No. 1 pick for a wretched Panthers team in 2011. He was asked why he chose to wear No. 1, a very rare number for a franchise quarterback in this league. He knows that number is just another target on his back, a talking point among those who feel he's only looking out for No. 1.
"He wants everybody to look at him," Newton said, mimicking the critics.
Around this team and around this town, though, few if any feel outshined. Around here, Newton has made it feel like 1 for all.
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