Junior college championship…check. SEC championship…check. No. 1 overall draft pick…check. The only thing left for the Heisman trophy winner and current NFL MVP Cam Newton to do is win the biggest game of his career this Sunday—Super Bowl 50.
A victory in Santa Clara, Calif., could be the end of one legacy in Denver Broncos quarterback, Peyton Manning and the beginning of another for the 26-year old Newton. He is the most captivating quarterback in the NFL today. People either love him and want him to succeed or hate him and want him to fail. There is no in between.
Think about it: The world is fascinated with Newton whether they want to admit it or not. Fans of the Panthers are very adamant in their support of the vibrant, demonstrative quarterback and that region feeds off his phenomenon. But if you ask someone within NFL circles, NFL players, or the average football fan, you are likely to hear ample criticism of the Panthers superstar for what they deem to be an arrogant persona. The belief that Newton is too cocky and showboats or that he is "classless" as many like to say is the sentiment of a growing segment of sports fans and casual observers in this country. And while this may be a rather narrow-minded point of view, it is nevertheless representative of a very vocal group of people with very real emotions.
There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance and Newton walks it like a tightrope, borderline teetering from Sunday to Sunday. It always amazes me how individuals are quick to express their feelings about how someone should act or behave because they have a certain platform, despite never having been in that person's shoes. When Newton was celebrating and not winning, the complaint was that he needed to win first. Now he's winning and the complaint is he's celebrating too much for too long and needs to be more unpretentious in his revelry.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
The Carolina Panthers have enjoyed tremendous success this season, in large part because Newton has been the catalyst of the team. The narrative surrounding them is that Newton’s celebrations have ruffled more than their fair share of feathers, due to a growing perception that he’s adding insult to injury. In order to support said narrative, people love to bring up the "excessive" dancing and dabbing he engages in or how they feel he lacks humility in the process of winning.
Detractors of Newton allude to his bravado on the field. They view it as incessant taunting as opposed to criticizing the actual physical or mental flaws of his game (not that there are many nowadays). People who have a problem with him aren’t concerned with the fact that he sometimes throws off his back foot or that he embraces contact as opposed to avoiding it or even that his mechanics are somewhat unorthodox. Perhaps, they do have a problem with those things, but whenever a conversation about Newton comes up those critiques seem to take a backseat to the emotional issues he elicits in many football fans.
After the Panthers defeated the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs, Newton was seen on video taking a twelfth man flag (the flag synonymous with Seahawks fans) and throwing it to the ground. This "heinous" act prompted one Seahawks fan to start a petition to have Newton banned from CenturyLink field, the Seattle Seahawks home stadium. Now, this isn't the first time we've had a petition to ban an NFL player and I'm sure it won't be the last, but usually such requests accompany a player who violated a major NFL rule or committed an egregious crime like sexual assault, animal cruelty, or vehicular homicide. Newton isn't guilty of anything of that nature. In fact, if he is guilty of anything, it’s doing his job too well, winning football games, carrying his team on his broad shoulders, rejuvenating a fan base and adding to the rich legacy of African Americans who have played in the quarterback position.
Manning's future, racial debates and celebrations aside, when the Carolina Panthers line up to face the Denver Broncos on Super Bowl Sunday, the game will ultimately boil down to the X's and O's. Newton will be just the sixth Black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl and the fourth consecutive in the last four years. A victory for Newton will put him in rarified air as the third Black quarterback in the history of the NFL to win a Super Bowl (after Doug Williams and Russell Wilson). On a much broader scale, this could also be a victory for the NFL because it debunks the stereotype that you have to look, behave and play a certain way in order to enjoy prosperity at the quarterback position.
Newton has matured before our eyes as a player and as a person. Years removed from the gray cloud that once hovered over his career which included the stolen laptop incident, the controversy surrounding his father and whether or not he took money in exchange for Newton's services, and the accident that almost claimed his life. Newton is now leading his team back from deficits, playing at an MVP level, and handing footballs to kids after scoring; this is the Cam Newton we've been waiting for all this time.
Marcus Lamar is a New York-based sports journalist. You can check out his podcast "Marc My Words" on Soundcloud, YouTube and coming to iTunes soon. Follow him on Twitter @iam_marcuslamar.