When Urban Meyer was the head coach at Florida, he created a one-day recruiting event called "Friday Night Lights," where the nation's best and brightest were invited to Gainesville for a festive few hours of drills and skill sessions. Sort of a mini-NFL scouting combine.
One year, a rising junior out of Atlanta showed up. "He was not a highly-recruited guy at the time," Meyer recalled, but clearly an elite athlete. His name was Cam Newton. He proceeded to impress, not simply with his ability to win this shuttle run or that passing competition.
But what floored the Gators coach was when things weren't going smoothly and Newton's reaction to it.
"His competitive nature superseded anyone who was at that camp," Meyer said. "He would not lose an event. Any mistake he made, it ate him up. You could see, clearly, that he wanted to win and he didn't handle losing well. At all. He just wanted back out there so he could win.
"I loved it, of course."
Not everyone shares that sentiment of Cam Newton's competitive nature. Not everyone sees it as a positive. Not everyone is even willing to concede that he cares.
Four games into Cam Newton's second NFL season, including Sunday's 30-28 loss at Atlanta and it seems like no one is quite sure what to make of him. Not fans. Not his teammates. Maybe not even Newton at this point.
Is he a me-first quarterback who once boasted about wanting to be an "icon and entertainer" and did his Superman pose during a blowout loss to the New York Giants in Week 3, seemingly unconcerned about wins and losses?
Is he a brooder who sulks on the bench, rather than watching the action and potentially picking up some insight during that loss to the Giants?
Is he an overdramatic presence who, after he fumbled late Sunday to give Atlanta its chance for a final game-winning drive, stood with a towel around his neck and later reportedly spent 15 minutes in the locker room with another towel draped over his head, seemingly too concerned about wins and losses?
Is he a phony that was only acting like he cared because a cartoon in the Charlotte Observer last week, showing Newton wearing not a Superman emblem under his uniform but a Hello Kitty shirt, turned his desire into a national talking point?
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He's, well, he's Cam Newton, touchstone quarterback and pretty much whatever you want him to be. He's really always been that way.
Here's what Newton most certainly is: young and inexperienced, certainly when it comes to losing.
"Who likes to lose?," Newton asked reporters last week in dealing with how he handled the Giants defeat.
Newton doesn't but he's still learning how to handle it. Or maybe the Panthers are learning how to handle the way he handles it. Who can say at this point that he's wrong and his detractors are right?
Eventually something has to give, but whatever Newton's failures in body language or locker room leadership, wouldn't you rather have a young quarterback who detests defeat rather than one who deals with it easily?
Carolina nearly knocked off the now 4-0 Falcons in the Georgia Dome in large part because Cam Newton threw for 215 yard and two touchdowns while rushing for 86 yards and another score. This would've been a great victory. But when he fumbled en route to the game-clinching first down, everything changed. Carolina recovered short of the first-down marker and was forced to punt, pinning the Falcons at their own 1-yard line with no time outs and less than a minute remaining.
Carolina lost anyway, and how Newton dealt with it was an immediate focus, again.
"I dropped the ball out there," Newton said. "I want to apologize to my teammates and to the fans that were watching out there."
Some teammates, notably Greg Olsen, reminded reporters that such a big win wouldn't have even been possible without Newton, but the fact is the QB remains a focus. This was a little more than a week after receiver Steve Smith "lit into" Newton for his sideline demeanor.
"I appreciate what Greg said, but I put a lot of pressure on myself to be able to stand up and make plays in that particular situation," Newton said. "If you expect me to point the finger at someone … point the finger at me."
He says the right things. Not everyone thinks he believes them. That's a tough spot for a player to be in. Newton creates opinions quickly. Some love him. Some hate him.
Two years, ago he was the most vilified player in college football, subject of a major recruiting allegation. And he won the Heisman anyway.
Newton didn't get to Carolina with a traditional background, and that's worth remembering. Urban Meyer signed him but never got him much game action before he was dismissed from UF for various troubles. He went and won a national junior college title, then the BCS at Auburn, was drafted first overall by the Panthers and was the immediate starter.
Newton's parents say he was an insufferable loser as a kid and he hasn't had a lot of practice at it since. He hasn't had a lot of practice at anything really.
He went from JUCO reclamation project to today in a whirlwind, almost exclusively on his physical ability and refusal to fail. He's barely had a chance to breathe, let alone figure it all out.
In the NFL you lose. Everybody loses. How you handle it is part of being a great one.
Cam Newton is in the middle of that learning curve; incredibly gifted, uniquely competitive but a work very much in progress. Patience is the call here. Time is the key. Give this exceptional talent a chance to mature and if not conform to how others want him to act, then show them they need to accept his way.
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