Don’t compare Cam Newton to any thing you’ve ever seen. He’s just different. He’s going to change the game. He’s making the very difficult look very easy.
I don’t remember seeing Cam on campus. I think I might’ve, once. There are vague memories of a giant man, much too giant to be riding a scooter (where did he think he was, Gainesville?), puttering out of the parking lot below The Quad, the one next to the new Student Center, and leaving behind a large group of students, myself maybe included. That might’ve happened, and someone might’ve said, in a voice I might’ve thought was much too breathless at the time, “I think that was Cam.” It could’ve even been my voice.
But just because I didn’t see Cam around campus, and it’s not like we should’ve crossed paths in any way — he wasn’t crawling with me toward the finish line of a journalism degree — doesn’t mean he wasn’t around. I’m sure he made appearances. Though, I’m not sure he had a declared major. And I’m not going to pretend like I’m not OK with that. He could’ve rode circles around the bottom of Lowder on his scooter every day for six hours wearing a pinwheel hat and pantaloons as part of the electrical engineering program and I would’ve clapped and told anyone who would listen he should be valedictorian. (Ben Tate spent the majority of his senior year riding a bicycle around Haley Center’s 1st floor, no doubt trying to solicit Facebook fans. Kenny Irons spent his last semester waiting in line for a Playstation 3 and scaring freshmen by suddenly emerging from behind trees and bushes.) I admit to being one of the Auburn Family’s black sheep. “So what do you do?” “Everything. I do everything.”
But no matter. I knew he was there somewhere, being great.
Just what does it mean to be great? Do you think about that? These are the things you have time to think about when you’re not a 6’6” 250 pound star quarterback for the Carolina Panthers and the biggest part of your day involves donning a robe you and your girlfriend stole from the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans and checking to see if Netflix has overnighted you John Woo’s Hard Boiled. If you’re Cam, you don’t have to think about greatness. Greatness is, you are.
So I think about what it means to be great a lot. I read books by and about great men and women. I watch movies, I listen to music, I look at pictures: all to find greatness. But I’m not totally sure greatness can be found or sought or grasped by effort. There’s a baseball quote: “.300 hitters are born, not made.” It’s pithy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. It also doesn’t mean it is true.
Most people I would consider great are more idea than person. Think of Gandhi or MLK or JFK or Jesus: they were people, yes, but the idea of Jesus, his ideology, is more important than the man of Jesus. But do athletes have an ideology? I guess you could say their style of play is in effect an ideological choice. Is hardnosed an ideology? Is finesse or power or speed an ideology?
Existing, that’s the word I think, existing, not being, on campus with Cam was what I imagine being in Paris in the ’20s or California in the ’60s or, heck why not, he is the Blessed Individual, with Jesus in 30 A.D. His presence pervaded everything. The town kind of existed in terms of Cam and Not Cam. The totality of Auburn: the scandal, the cheers of the studying, chatting, and meandering in the Student Center when it was announced, “Cam is in the clear,” the black lettering on barbeque restaurants, the signs and jerseys and leers of middle-aged white women, all the ardor of amateur rappers, the old men in barber shops, the rolling of the then-living trees, the shimmies, the shakes, the S on his chest. It was a moment. A special moment even. If you were there (and if you’re crazy like me), you know.
Existing on campus with Cam for a year reminds me of one of my favorite books, A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley. A Fan’s Notes is about a lot of things, like all good books, but at its heart it’s about being an unwitting outcast in post-World War II America. It’s funny, honest, and sad. I’d recommend a read, if you’ve got the time or urge.
Exley had his own Cam Newton back in the day, except he was named Frank Gifford. Both Exley and Gifford attended USC. Exley and Gifford, like Cam and me, didn’t cross paths but maybe once. Gifford was an All-American, on the tip of every beautiful Californian tongue. He went on to star for the Giants for years. But this is what Exley thinks to himself when he sees him in a diner during their USC years.
I did, however, want to shout, “Listen, you son of bitch, life isn’t all a [blank] football game! You won’t always get the girl! Life is rejection and pain and loss”—all those things I so cherishingly cuddled in my self-pitying bosom. I didn’t, of course, say any such thing; almost immediately he was up and standing right next to me; waiting to pay the cashier.
I don’t begrudge Cam. And I don’t think many, if any, Auburn fans do. (Every other fan in the Southeast, now that’s another matter.) But part of you has to ask, What makes you so great, Cam? Which leads to, Why aren’t I great like you, Cam?
Before Gifford leaves, he smiles at Exley.
With that smile, whatever he meant by it, a smile that he doubtless wouldn’t remember, he impressed upon me, in the rigidity of my embarrassment, that it is unmaly to burden others with one’s grief. Even though it is man’s particularly unhappy aptitude to see to it that his fate is shared.
If I ever saw Cam I’d try to say something like all that. But I’d probably just say something dumb, something like, “War Eagle.”
By my rough estimate there were more Auburn No. 2 jerseys than Carolina No. 1s at the Panthers-Falcons game in Atlanta. A lot more. If pressed, I’d say something like 2-to-1. “Where are all the Panthers fans?” a girl sitting a row behind us asked her male friend. “They’re all disguised as Auburn fans,” he said. “War Eagle, errr, I mean Go Panthers.” And they laughed. They were SEC fans of some sort. LSU maybe. The main focus of their conversation: Cam Newton. “Cam’s a better player, but Tim Tebow is a better leader.” A bunch of crap like that. He was fond of his own voice.
“It’s a scam,” a man in Bama regalia yelled after Cam broke out of the pocket and completed a long third down pass. “A scam!” Another guy, a red-faced Falcon fan wearing a visor topped with gray hair, looked directly at me after Cam threw his second interception and said, “Roll Tide.” I looked around. Who me? He nodded. Yeah, me. Roll Tide. Me? Surely he didn’t mean me. I was wearing a teal shirt, not quite Panther teal but also obviously not implying Falcon sympathies, and hadn’t so much as yelled “War Eagle” or “Go Cam Go” or “Go to hell, Julio.” Granted, I did raise my hands in synchronization with the referee when Cam ran for a touchdown. And I did laugh and smile when he did his Deion Sanders’ inspired dance. And I might’ve even yelled about how he was a “freak.” But I most certainly did not do anything Auburn-y. And yet this seemingly drunk man knew. Yeah, you, his face said. I’m branded for life.
Of course, he was right. I was there to watch Cam.
I’d never been to a pro football game before that Sunday. I don’t have any real interest in professional football. If I’m looking for lack of passion, I just go to work. (You should never hire me.) Maybe my experience would’ve been different if it was a playoff game, or if the Falcons had been playing the Saints, or if the game mattered in any way whatsoever. Of course there were passionate fans. The red-faced Roll Tider for instance. But mostly it was real meh.
But of course I wasn’t there to watch the Panthers and Falcons sleepwalk through three-and-a-half quarters of football. And I suspect a large portion of my fellow SEC fans were there for Cam, too. Maybe you made the trip to Atlanta for similar reasons.
I’ve told several people, complete strangers on buses and random sidewalks, that Cam Newton is the best football player I’ve ever seen play in person. It’s an experience watching Cam play. There’s something ethereal, sublime even, about watching someone do something you care about more than you can explain so well.
I suspect I wouldn’t like Cam all that much if we were to meet. I suspect he’s not the humblest of young men. I suspect we have nothing in common. I suspect you should never meet your heroes, especially if they’re athletes.
That way you can love the idea of Cam. Reality has no place in sport.
There’s a large grassy field in Auburn off Donahue known as The Beach. On clear, pleasant days, students gather in small groups behind trucks with black, yellow, and chocolate labs and Frisbees to be college students. Some seated, some sun-bathing, some drinking cheap beer. It all looks very idyllic and nostalgic, like something you’ll remember later in life when you’re dragging, literally dragging, your third child around the supermarket looking for flour. You’ll suddenly see a guy in his early 20s and, for just a second, you’ll wonder how you got from The Beach to here. And maybe you’ll be sad until Fred Jr. starts screaming about how he wants a Coca-Cola and you’ll remind yourself to think about it later.
Several times, driving along, I imagined what would happen if I took my 11-year-old miniature schnauzer Cooper to The Beach. Cooper and I moved to Auburn in 2006. We only knew each other. Consequently, we’ve had many conversations about the importance of bananas to a well-rounded diet and the state of contemporary American literature.
In my head, it was always something like this*:
Cooper and I will pull up in my Nissan Frontier, made conspicuous by its lack of mud and normal, tiny tires, and I’ll get out and take a deep breath. Smells like success and Skoal. I’ll lower Cooper to the trampled grass and prepare myself to be welcomed by my fellow beachgoers.
But no one will welcome us. Cooper will bark and sniff and bristle at the larger, more laidback labs and golden retrievers as I self-consciously sit on my tailgate feeling like I wore the wrong shirt. A mixed group of guys and girls that is Brett Favre away from being a Wrangler ad will be talking and laughing and laughing at their own talking several car lengths to our left. At some point Cooper will wander over and start posturing with their black lab. (He’s a little alpha male, bless him.)
And one of the guys will say, “Hey dude, control your dog.” I’ll call Cooper, making some joke about how he thinks he’s bigger than he is. But Cooper won’t listen. It will go on like this until I wander over myself. By then, Cooper is in a rage, growling, barking, the hair on his back stiff. One of the girls will insult Cooper’s size, the implication being I’m less of a man because I have a small dog. I’ll say something back, probably something biting and mean, because I have a “smart mouth.” All the guys will puff themselves up, assuming their most manly and intimidating stances. I’ll keep talking, because I never know when to stop in such situations. The words will escalate quickly, and we’ll start shoving.
I’m tall and lanky, built for speed and retreat. They’ll be tall and bulky, built for clubbing and protection. I’ll be shoved to the ground. Cooper will growl. And then, for whatever reason, I’ll say this:
“I love all of you Auburn fans, even those of you I don’t know, probably especially those of you I don’t know,” I’ll say to them as I rise to my feet, wincing a bit for effect. “I love you and I want you to know I don’t want to think Auburn paid Cam Newton for his services. I really don’t. But maybe we (or in such a case does the pronoun become they?) did use money to influence Cam’s collegiate decision. I don’t know. Money moves in mysterious ways. But can we be adults about it, my brothers and my sisters in War Eagle, and say that we don’t care and/or it doesn’t matter if Cam was paid? Because if there’s one individual right we have on this planet, bestowed upon us by The Ten Commandments or The Magna Carta or McDonald’s, it’s that we get to choose what we believe to be real and important and meaningful, even if we’re terrifically, stupendously, radically wrong.
“Did we pay Cam Newton? I don’t care. If we did, I hope we paid him all the money. I hope he has a Swiss bank account stacked with YellaWood cash money. I hope he invested in gold. I hope he has 14 wives and a 54-room mansion in Slovenia. Because you know what? It doesn’t matter. He played for Auburn. I went to Auburn. I’m an Auburn fan. It was fun and good and I’ll always remember that season. And now he plays for the Panthers. And I’m going to cheer for him. And I don’t care how snarky or cynical opposing fans get. I’ll cheer for Cam and all that what he represents, good, bad, or undeterminable. Strike me down if you must.”
They’ll look at me with shock, and one of them, a guy wearing a green T-shirt with one of those front pockets, short khaki shorts, and boat shoes, will say, “Maybe we should call the police.”
That’s when Cooper and I will make like a pair of one-legged Cam Newtons toward the treeline.
*Yeah, that’s a lie. I drank three cups of coffee and it just kind of channeled itself into a Word document. I apologize for lying to you. It’s true in spirit, if that makes you feel any better. If you made it this far, thank you for reading. I know it was long and this is the Internet. I’m sorry it was so long. I’ll try to be more concise next time. All right, goodbye. I love you.
* Fear and Loathing in Tuscaloosa
* Friday Night Life
* Former Auburn cheerleader stars in ‘Best Worst Movie’
* Auburn’s Miss Universe contestant, Audrey Moore
* Auburn amputee has tiger-striped prosthetic legs
* Two campy degrees of separation ‘twixt Auburn and Swamp Thing