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Newton: Family is why I'm here

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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COLLEGE PARK, Ga.

On Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons after church, Cecil Newton Sr. used to take his two oldest sons to practice football at Welcome All Park in this southwest Atlanta suburb.

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As airplanes roared overhead from nearby Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Newton would intensely run drills in which his oldest son, Cecil Jr., did bear crawls and his middle son, Cameron, threw the ball on rollouts.

“Their daddy would have both of them out there,” says Lee Blitch, a friend of Cecil Sr., who coached the Newton brothers in youth football. “I didn’t care what kind of weather it was. Cold, hot or whatever. Their daddy would drill them now.”

Back then, life was simpler for the Newtons. Cameron hadn’t yet become embroiled in one of the most controversial issues in NCAA history. The furor that engulfed the family over the revelation that Cecil Sr. tried to peddle his son’s services — without Cameron’s knowledge, according to the NCAA — to Mississippi State for $180,000 was still years away.

As was the Heisman Trophy that Cameron won this season and Monday night’s BCS Championship Game in which he will lead Auburn against Oregon in Glendale, Ariz., in a matchup of undefeated teams.

Before the spotlight, Newton's teachers remember him as a likable, fun-loving student with athletic ability whose parents were dedicated to helping with his academic and behavioral struggles.

Efforts to reach Cecil Newton Sr. and Newton's mother, Jackie, were unsuccessful as of Sunday night.

“There’s so many other people that’s behind the scenes that did so much for me, mentally, physically,” Newton said Friday at the BCS title game media day in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Just to get me over the hump.”

At Seaborn Lee Elementary School, which is less than a mile from his family’s modest white house on a one-acre lot surrounded by trees, Newton was a quiet type whose parents often had to be called about his grades. Faculty members recall his mother as a constant presence who was heavily involved in his academics.

“All we had to do was call her if we had any problems,” says Cynon Smith, who taught at Seaborn Lee when Newton attended the school.

When Newton arrived as a sixth-grader at Camp Creek Middle School, the bookish-looking child with glasses and an afro had become more than a handful for teachers.

“The same energy you see on the football field is the kid he was,” says Marie Caldwell, a teacher at Camp Creek.

That caused problems in the classroom. Caldwell didn’t have Newton as a student but got to know him because he was frequently sent to her classroom by his math teacher for being a distraction.

“He was in timeout a lot,” Caldwell says.

Cam Newton's elementary school is pulling hard this week for the Auburn QB.

Caldwell recalls trying to teach prime factorization, proportions and equations while Newton entertained her students by making faces and cracking jokes.

“He wanted to make everybody laugh and have a good time,” Caldwell says. “He was very social.”

Newton’s spirited demeanor, however, didn’t do him any favors when it came to grades.

“Academically, he struggled,” says sixth-grade teacher Kimira Jimmerson, whose classroom Newton was also sent to.

Although teachers liked the popular Newton, they routinely called his parents. When they did, Newton’s mother immediately came to the school and sometimes was accompanied by her husband when he wasn’t working.

Newton’s mother was at the school so much she actually got to know the teachers who didn’t teach him, Jimmerson says.

“They were up here so much and really involved,” Jimmerson says of Newton’s parents. “We appreciated that.”

Newton was fortunate his mother was involved because she helped him get by academically, Jimmerson says. When teachers called his mother about his missing assignments, she made sure he turned them in.

“Had he not had a really good home base, he probably would have been retained,” Jimmerson says.

Cecil Newton Sr. also played a significant role. When teachers needed Cameron Newton’s behavior to improve right away, they’d threaten to call his father, Jimmerson says.

“Ah, OK, OK,” Jimmerson recalls Newton saying before quickly straightening up.

“That’s when he knew you were serious,” Jimmerson says.

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After his parents were called, Newton always came to school the next day dressed immaculately in a three-piece suit with shined dress shoes, Jimmerson says. But even the natty attire didn’t slow his youthful energy in the school’s hallways.

“I can still see him running with his tie slung over his neck,” Jimmerson says.

While at Camp Creek, Newton told his teachers he would someday be a professional football player. The school didn’t have a team, but Jimmerson remembers his classmates buzzing even back then about his football ability in youth leagues.

“We had Cam,” she recalls students saying. “That’s why we won.”

It wasn’t Newton’s football acumen but his mischievousness that then-football coach Dallas Allen heard about when Newton first showed up at Westlake High School in 2003.

“He was always into something,” Allen says.

Before too long, though, Allen started hearing about Newton’s exploits on the field. His coaches raved about his throwing ability and told Allen that Newton needed to be moved from the freshman team to the varsity.

Allen wasn’t that interested, but the freshman coaches finally persuaded him to attend a Thursday night game, where he was impressed by Newton’s arm and pocket presence.

“He put on a show,” Allen says.

Enough of one for Allen to move up Newton to Westlake’s varsity for the playoffs. He didn’t play then, but he did as a sophomore when the team’s starting quarterback broke his finger early that season.


In his first game, Newton was trying to rally his team from a 14-13 deficit late in the game when he and his center, brother Cecil Jr., fumbled a snap that the other team recovered and then ran out the clock. Despite the loss, Allen wasn’t disheartened.

“We’ve got something,” Allen recalls telling his coaches about Newton.

Newton returned to being a backup later that season when Westlake’s starting quarterback was healthy again. During the summer Newton grew three inches and gained 15 pounds, sprouting to 6-feet-3 and 205 pounds.

“He just exploded,” Allen says.

Just like he did on the field as a junior in his first season as a full-time starter. After throwing for 2,500 yards and 23 touchdowns with 638 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, he had become one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback prospects. College coaches had visited Westlake to recruit Newton’s older brother, Cecil Jr., but each had the same question.

“Where’s his brother going?” Allen recalls being asked.

Most teams that recruited Cameron Newton out of high school wanted him as a tight end. That included Auburn, then coached by Tommy Tuberville, and then-Arkansas assistant Tracy Rocker, now-Auburn’s defensive line coach.

Even Georgia assistant Rodney Garner told Allen, “Coach, we don’t need any quarterbacks.”

 

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But then-Florida coach Urban Meyer wanted Newton as a quarterback and told him and his family he would get an opportunity to play the position, despite the Gators already having quarterback Tim Tebow. Meyer’s pitch convinced Cecil Newton Sr., and Cameron Newton committed to Florida in September of his senior year.

Allen disagreed with the decision because he believed Newton wouldn’t play much and thought he should attend Mississippi State instead. Allen expressed his concerns to Cecil Newton Sr., who assured the coach that Cameron would get a fair chance with the Gators.

By then Newton’s parents’ roles had shifted. Jackie Newton had become reserved and rarely spoke out; Cecil Newton Sr. had become the parent with whom to discuss Cameron, Allen says.

“The dad did most of the talking and made most of the decisions,” Allen says.

Behind the scenes, though, Jackie Newton was still managing Newton’s academic challenges. Allen also was focused on Newton’s classroom performance, and with good reason.

Westlake had a no-pass/no-play policy for its athletes, who were required to submit weekly progress reports every Wednesday during their seasons.

The reports were reviewed Thursday mornings by Westlake’s coaches, and the ones with failing grades were put in a pile. Those players were told they had until noon Friday to improve the grade to passing or they wouldn’t be allowed to play.

Allen says Newton’s report was often in that pile, making for gut-wrenching times leading up to games for the veteran coach. But he says Westlake had liaisons who worked with teachers to give players “that extra push.”

“You know, to get whatever they needed done,” Allen says.

When it came to football, Cecil Newton Sr., who had played defensive back at Savannah State, did whatever necessary to ensure his sons had what they needed to play.

 

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Allen recalls Cecil Newton Sr. once being short on money and asking Allen to pay for shoes for Cameron until he could pay him back.

“I don’t think they had a ton of money,” Allen says. “If they did, I didn’t know it.”

Other times, however, Cecil Newton Sr. provided extra tape and ankle braces for players, Allen says.

“Whatever you need, Coach, let us know and we’ll make sure it’s done,” Allen recalls Newton Sr. telling him.

It even got to the point that Cecil Newton Sr. volunteered to cut the grass at Westlake’s practice field. He was also one of the team’s most vocal fans at games.

“You was gonna hear him and you was gonna see him,” Allen says.

Allen says he tried to keep up with Newton when he left for Florida. During Newton’s two years there, he was arrested for theft of a laptop and faced potential expulsion for academic cheating before he transferred to Blinn College in Texas in early 2009.

 

After Newton won a junior college national championship in his lone year at Blinn, Allen, like many, expected Newton to sign at Mississippi State with coach Dan Mullen, his former offensive coordinator at Florida.

Allen had no clue Newton would choose Auburn.

“My mouth hit the floor like everybody else’s,” he says.

Allen was especially surprised by Newton’s decision because Auburn assistant coaches Tommy Thigpen and Ted Roof had both been in his office just days before to recruit another player and never once mentioned Newton. Allen called them after Newton’s announcement and asked why they hadn’t said they would be getting Newton.

“They said, ‘Coach, we didn’t even know,’ ” Allen says.

Just like Allen says he would have never imagined Cecil Newton Sr. would shop his son in a pay-for-play scheme.

“He always wanted the best for his kids,” Allen says, shaking his head during an interview at Westlake last month.

The controversy has weighed deeply on Cecil Newton Sr., Allen says. He says Cecil Newton Sr. has not admitted any wrongdoing to him.

“He’s hurt,” Allen says. “He’s disappointed that this thing was blown up like this, but I think it has humbled him.”

Blitch doesn’t talk with Cecil Newton Sr. about the ordeal. He describes his friend as “the golden ticket” for the football success of Cameron and Cecil Jr., who had a brief NFL stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“If he done it, then he certainly had a reason to do it,” Blitch says of Cecil Newton Sr.’s shopping of Cameron. “It wasn’t no greed. He’s not that kind of person.”

Every spring since Newton left for college, his mother brings him back to the schools he attended. During those visits, Newton talks candidly about his lack of focus in school and challenges students to do better than he did, Jimmerson says.

“I mean, he’s been doing this before he was Cam Newton,” she says.

And Newton knows it’s his parents’ involvement that’s made him more than just the Cameron Newton they raised.

“That’s why,” he says, “I’m right here, right now.”

And that’s been for the best and the worst.

Tagged: Auburn, Georgia, Cameron Allen, Cam Newton

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