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The Total Package

Cam Newton, a man who has run for more touchdowns than any other quarterback in NFL history, is hoping to fill Tom Brady’s big shoes in New England
| By David Savona | From Cam Newton, July/August 2021
The Total Package

Cam Newton, 32, tends to be all smiles, even when he’s playing in a big game, but there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make him scowl—watching people waste a good cigar. He has one ironclad directive when it comes to smoking. “The rule is, if your thumb is not burning by the time you finish your cigar, that cigar is not done,” he says.

He takes a puff of his Plasencia Alma Fuerte, a strong smoke from Nicaragua. It was six inches long when he lit up and now about half of it is left. He holds it up, looking down through his gold-framed glasses at the smoke. “A lot of people stop smoking cigars at this length. And I’m like, ‘No, you gotta smoke it to right there.’ ” He points to near the head—this is a man who wants five inches of ash from a six-inch smoke. “The inside of your thumb has to be burning, feeling the heat. And that’s your cigar saying ‘no mas.’ ”

Newton smiles, warm, charming and inviting, tangles of hair spilling down from beneath the ultrawide brim of his gray hat. He’s in Atlanta, near where he was born, on an off day from OTAs, the predecessor to training camp. “It’s like the spring version of football,” he says. That big, warm smile is one familiar to football fans—Newton tends to beam after a big play, flashing his pearly whites after a touchdown or while cheering along with the crowd. “The most encouraging thing that I can get from a person is for them to say you bring fun to football. And fun comes after you’ve put in the work, you’ve prepared your tail off, you turn over every leaf, every stone.”

He’s what they call a dual-threat quarterback, a man who runs and throws. He’s rushed for 70 touchdowns so far in his career, more than any other quarterback in NFL history. (Former 49er Steve Young ranks a distant second, with 43.) Newton also has the single season rushing touchdown record (14) and ranks first in rushing attempts at his position (1,071). And these numbers continue to go up—last year, he ran into the end zone a dozen times. 

NFL quarterbacks tend to look skinny next to other pro football players, but Newton has a build that could work in a comic book, earning him the nickname Superman. He’s six-foot-five and about 250 pounds, with a ridiculous combination of speed and power. During a 69-yard run on a Monday night game during the 2017 season, he was clocked going just over 20 miles per hour. The Internet abounds with footage of him darting away from a collapsing pocket, evading defenders with moves worthy of a running back, as well as clips of him pounding through defenders with his shoulder, and flipping head over heels into the end zone. 

“What Cam did his rookie season, that to me defines the mobile quarterback in its entirety,” says Michael Vick, an analyst with Fox Sports who played 13 seasons in the NFL, and the only quarterback to rush more than Newton (although Newton is only 711 yards behind him, numbers he can put up in one good season). Vick marvels at Newton’s size. “He can go right into the teeth of the defense,” he says. “He makes it look easy.” 

But football is a business of scrutiny, and no player gets more criticism than a starting quarterback, especially in New England, modern-day title town. Newton has stepped into the golden cleats once worn by Tom Brady, he of the seven Super Bowl rings. Brady helped lead the once-hapless Patriots to six titles, a run of dominance better than just about any other football team in history. Many doubt that Newton has what it takes to lead New England, and some think Newton’s best days are behind him now that he’s past the age of 30. “He’s been hit a lot in his career, it’s taken its toll . . . He ain’t running over people anymore,” said ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith in December. “Cam Newton is not that dude anymore, and I don’t see times getting better as more dust is collected on his birth certificate.” Vick thinks otherwise. “He’s young enough to resurrect everything he had—and do it times 10,” he says. 

Newton was signed to a one-year deal in 2020 with a base salary of just over $1 million, the league minimum for his level of experience, which incensed veteran defender Richard Sherman. “How many former league MVPs have had to sign for the min?” Sherman wrote on Twitter. “Just ridiculous.” He called Newton “a transcendent talent.”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick seems to believe in Newton. “Nobody works harder than Cam does. He’s here early. He stays late and he works very hard,” he said on a Sirius podcast. “He’s got a great personality. He gets along with everybody. He’s very social and has a great presence, whether it is in a small room of a couple people or in a bigger group. And he’s highly competitive. He’s very, very competitive on the field. He always wants to do his best and do better than the guy he’s competing against.” 

Belichick and the Patriots had enough faith in Newton to re-sign him this spring for a one-year deal that could be worth nearly $14 million, and he’s expected to be the starter for game one on September 12, even though the Pats took quarterback Mac Jones from Alabama with the 15th draft pick. Belichick, who isn’t a fan of the press, gave one of his customarily curt answers when asked about Newton’s prospects in New England after the draft. “Cam’s our quarterback,” he said simply.

Newton is eager for season two in Foxboro. “Having another year to really master the system is something I appreciate the organization giving me the opportunity doing, so I’m just going to make the most of it,” he says.

Newton has been a standout athlete from an early age, and football runs in his family: Cam’s father, Cecil Newton Sr., was a football player in college, and Cam’s older brother Cecil made it to the NFL, playing center for Jacksonville (2009–2010). Younger brother Caylin played college ball.

Young Cam played baseball and basketball as a youngster in College Park, Georgia, just south of Atlanta, but when the football bug bit him it bit him hard. He begged his mother Jackie to get him to practice early, so he could toss the ball around with his teammates. “At eight years old I was so stressed—‘mom just get me to practice early so I can kick it with the guys.’ She would get off work at 4:30, and our practice was at 5:30. She would have to catch the train to her car. . . . But man, I was so selfish to think my mom’s always late. Now looking back as an adult, she was the real MVP.” 

Newton’s father spoke about raising Cam on a recent interview with ABC in Boston. “I think Cam’s whole career has been about perseverance,” he said. “He’s never been given a whole lot. And I don’t coddle him. I’m not going to coddle him, because life’s not going to coddle you.” 

Father Newton was tough. “Military like,” says Cam. When the younger Newton heard his father’s stories, about playing football, Cam soaked them up. “When I found out he was a football player I was like man, I want to be like my dad. That’s every kid’s dream. My dad’s my hero.” 

The dream turned into a quest when Newton was a teenager. He was a standout football player by then. He loved the game, and he excelled on the field. “Growing up, in middle school and high school, the game of football came so easy to me.” But it was a visit to Auburn University as a sophomore that forever changed his view of sports. The teenager walked into the packed stadium at Auburn and looked up at 87,000 screaming fans, and he knew what he wanted to do with his life.

“I could not believe how many people there were in that stadium, and it almost felt like the movie Gladiator,” he says. “I had never seen that many people in my life. I had never seen such a sea of people.” He went home, bursting with enthusiasm, and excitedly told his parents about the look, the feel and most of all the sounds of the stadium. “I was literally sitting next to my friend and he could not hear me. It was like ‘CAN YOU HEAR ME?’ ” he shouts, smiling at the memory. “At that point, it was no longer fun and games for me. This is my way out. We play high school games where there may be 800, 1,200 people. You see 87,000 and it’s like oh my God, these are gladiators, these are
warriors out here that have so much control. That’s what I want.

“I never looked back after that.”

He became a quarterback in high school, was recruited, and eventually ended up at Auburn, where he won the 2010 Heisman Trophy. A month later, he led his team to victory in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game and decided to skip his senior year and put himself into the NFL draft. 

The Carolina Panthers took Newton with the first pick in the 2011 NFL draft, signing him to a four-year contract worth more than $22 million. He wanted to keep his college jersey number, which was 2, but it was being worn by starting quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who didn’t want to give it up. Instead, Newton went for the jersey the Panthers had made for him to symbolize his spot in the draft, and he became No. 1. He’s been wearing it ever since. 

The impact of Newton on the NFL was apparent from his first game. He chucked the ball for 422 yards, breaking Peyton Manning’s record for most passing yards by a rookie in his first NFL game. He had two passing touchdowns (with one interception) and ran for one touchdown as well. His rookie season was huge, with 14 rushing touchdowns (a record for a quarterback that has yet to be broken) and he was named offensive rookie of the year.

Newton and the Panthers were a great match, and they finished first in the division three years in a row, beginning in 2013. In 2015, they went 15-1 during Newton’s best year as a pro, when he was named league MVP, offensive player of the year and took the Panthers all the way to the Super Bowl.

Newton’s Super Bowl was an ugly one. While he statistically outplayed Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, neither man threw a touchdown pass and both were sacked and harried throughout the game, a defensive showcase that delivered 15 punts and six turnovers. Denver won 24-10, upsetting the favorite Carolina, and Newton left the post-game press conference early. He would go back to the press the next day, but defended his actions. “I’m a sore loser. Who likes to lose?” he said. “You show me a good loser and I’m going to show you a loser.”

Newton and the Panthers never returned to that Super Bowl level, nor even won the division again. Newton had his share of injuries, especially in 2019. He hurt his foot in preseason, lost the first two games of the year and was placed on injured reserve, shortening his season (his lone season without a touchdown, running or passing). The Panthers tried to trade him, failed, and ended up releasing him from his contract in March 2020. 

“He’s the ultimate competitor and it physically hurts him to lose,” says Panthers general manager Marty Hurney. “He willed this team to victory on many occasions and will always be considered one of the greatest players in the history of this franchise. His contributions to this team, this community and the game of football will leave a lasting impact on our organization.”

Newton was signed by the Patriots on July 8, 2020, about 60 days before the first snap of the NFL season, and faced the unenviable task of stepping into Tom Brady’s cleats in New England. And he did it on short notice. Newton has called it “stepping into a 20-year system in two months.” It didn’t help that he came down with Covid, even though he only realized he was sick after testing positive. “By the grace of God I was asymptomatic,” he says. He lost his sense of smell, but didn’t have aches or pains, and missed one game.

New England fans, treated to six Super Bowl championships in 18 seasons with Brady at the helm, have come to expect much of quarterbacks. So was Newton intimidated? “I wouldn’t say it was intimidating; it was a new challenge and I had to get prepared for it. I have so much respect for Tom and what he’s been able to do,” he says, sounding far more mature than that player who lost the Super Bowl. “I’m trying to become the best player I possibly can be.”

Newton and the Patriots went 7-9 last season, and while the quarterback shouldered part of the blame, the team had quite a different look from that of its championship years, without all the weaponry it once fielded. While Newton rushed for 12 touchdowns, his second-best ever, he threw for only 2,600 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s never put up gaudy numbers passing, but that showing was one of his worst. 

Newton still thinks he has plenty in the tank. And his outlook has changed as he has grown older. “You won’t see me being a battering ram like I once was,” he says. But that doesn’t mean Newton plans on ramping it back entirely. You’ll still see him leaving the pocket, still see him running, looking to get back into the end zone one way or another. “You try to domesticate a lion and it loses its impact,” he says. “It’s meant to roar.”

Newton has learned to handle the criticism that comes from being in that starter’s spot. The No. 1 on his back is a massive target, but he has a Zen-like attitude about his critics. “Why would I look at ESPN after I know I stunk the place up? But it’s all about balance. If you have a five-touchdown game, everyone’s eager to run to the tube. But you have to keep the same perspective and energy for the five-interception game. You feed your focus. Simple. Nothing else.”

Part of his focus now involves cigars, which he began smoking following his incredible run to the Super Bowl. “I’ve been smoking cigars since 2015. And this was coming off a year where I had a lot of success on the field, and I was looking for an outlet,” he says. “I needed something I could debrief with. Cigars became that for me.”

Like many a newbie, the cigars he started with were quite unlike those he smokes today. “I started smoking flavored cigars,” he says. “Then all of a sudden my tastes changed.” He dropped the flavored smokes and went to milder cigars, then graduated to a mix of the easygoing and the heavy, depending on the time of day, his mood and his pairing. 

“In the morning I go with a dark blend to go with coffee, throughout the day I go with a milder blend, to set the essence of the day. And then at night the darker cigars,” he says. He enjoys some serious heaters—Padróns, Plasencias, Davidoffs and La Flor Dominicanas. Just as his tastes have changed in cigars, so have his preferences for other things. He went from G-Shocks to Rolexes,  and today he’s wearing a Richard Mille. 

Newton enjoys coffee with his cigars, and drinks it black. “Cowboy style,” he says. “Coffee with a cigar is ideal. Wine with cigars is ideal. Fresh squeezed orange juice, and me being from the south, lemonade, something sweet.” He calls himself “a big wine guy” who drinks Cabernet and Tuscans. Caymus is a favorite, as is The Prisoner. “If it’s daytime I’ll squeeze in a chardonnay or a sauvignon blanc.” He smokes quite often. “Different days call for different amounts. It can be one, it can be none, it can be four. I have a home humidor that holds upward of 1,000 cigars. It comes with the perks of having your own tobacco license.”

That license comes from his own cigar bar, Fellaship in Atlanta, an upscale cigar lounge and restaurant where patrons can eat, drink and smoke all in the same spot. “This is not for hookah smokers, not for the rowdy crowd,” he says. “I just want to embody a place that like-minded people can go, socialize and network. We have a real kitchen that serves real food, and you can not only enjoy great drinks but a great smoke as well, in the same environment.” The menu has steaks, but they’re not on Newton’s diet anymore. He recently went vegan, a move to help him better recover from the rigors of pro football. 

“Being vegan allows my body to recover faster, lower inflammation in the muscles and in the bones,” he explains. “The body is everything.” He thinks about his future more now that his father is in his 60s, and now that he is a father himself, with several young children. As he was working on his cigar, he was planning a movie night with the kids, something he’s been looking forward to, now that theaters are back open. He marvels at how his children managed the pandemic, substituting Zoom calls for classroom gatherings. “I hated school, but the best part of being in school was the socializing that came with it. Walking down the hall with your buddies. I understand all the restrictions, I respect it all, but yet happiness does come from social gatherings.”

Newton’s preferred social gathering venue is at the cigar bar. He believes puffing on a puro can relax the mind, and he enjoys the civilized banter one hears over a great cigar. “You’ve seen two people arguing who have cigarettes. I’ve seen two people with Black & Milds argue. Marijuana, they argue. But I’ve never seen two people arguing with [fine] cigars. Debating—but not aggressive—it’s just the essence of smoking, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s a calming activity, and it forces you to slow down.”

Slowing down is something Newton has learned to love, taking care of his happiness, whether it’s movie night or just having a great cigar. And he’s grown accustomed to ignoring naysayers who doubt that he can bring back some of that 2015 magic while in New England. He takes another puff. His thumb is still in no danger. It’s going to be some time before he puts out his cigar.

And what of the critics who say a pro athlete shouldn’t smoke cigars? “So?” he says simply, flashing that million-dollar smile. “This is something that makes me happy. If you give all the energy to making other people happy, what energy are you giving to yourself?”

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