Cam Newton’s adventure

For all those critics out there who thought the balance of power in college football had shifted and that the Southeastern Conference had lost some its luster, think again.

Auburn wrapped up the perfect season Monday night, completing the “Cam Slam” and bringing the crystal ball home to the SEC for the fifth straight season, thus concluding the remarkable adventure of quarterback Cam Newton. Newton’s improbable journey from junior college anonymity to the big national stage, from the doghouse at Florida to the penthouse at Auburn, was one of the most epic transformations in college football history.

The former Florida quarterback, who once backed up Tim Tebow, led his team to a 22-19 victory, relying on a stout defense led by defensive tackle Nick Fairley and some savvy running by true freshman Michael Dyer. Even though he didn’t win the offensive MVP — it went to Dyer — Newton already has plenty of bling in his trophy case. Fairley was defensive MVP.

Although he got off to a slow start and didn’t play his best game of the season, Newton was the beneficiary of outstanding performance by his defense in a game that produced a little more than half of the total points expected to be scored by the two high-powered, fast-moving offenses.

It wasn’t a great night statistically for Cam Newton, but a great night nonetheless.

Asked to describe his journey from Blinn Junior College to the BCS championship, Newton said:

“It’s just a God thing. I thank God every single day. I’m just His instrument and He’s using me on a consistent basis. He’s using me to extend His word. And I’m a prime example of how God can turn something that was bad into something that was very great.”

He said what he and family learned from this experience:

“Anything is possible. I guarantee you five or six months ago, nobody would have bet their last dollar to say that Auburn University was going to win the national championship. January 10, 2011, we’re smiling right now, saying we did it.”

So Auburn won the national title, the SEC and produced the Heisman trophy winner in 2010.  Now Tiger fans just have to hold their breath and hope they get to keep all the loot.

* * *

To paraphrase Dickens, these have been the best of times and the worst of times for Cameron Newton.

For one day, unbeknownst to the entire football universe except the utmost highest at Auburn, Newton was actually declared ineligible in December, the week before the SEC Championship game. In one fell swoop, Auburn reported an NCAA violation involving their star, suspended him and applied for reinstatement. We learned about it after it was over when Newton was reinstated.

Just one more bizarre incident which added to the intrigue of the back-story and fueled the drama of the national championship game.

By all accounts, Newton was liked by his teammates at Florida. Joe Haden was among those who publicly hailed him. And as a Gator, though his legacy was marked by scandal, Cam had a chance to learn a new persona he would unveil at a later date.

Meanwhile, think about this: Had Newton stayed at Florida and accomplished all the things that he did at Auburn, he would have been the fourth in the Gator Heisman genealogy as “son of a preacher man” to win a Heisman and a national championship.

Oddly enough, it was his minister father whose unethical practices nearly cost him all of it — and leaves a giant shadow cast over Auburn’s program and his son’s glory. 

* * *

If you watched Newton closely, he brought the Tim Tebow paradigm with him, crow-hopping around the field to fire up the fans, leaping in the stands after a touchdown, taking a victory lap after beating South Carolina to win the SEC.

At Auburn, he also seemed to bring a certain joy to the fans in the Loveliest Village on the Plains. Amazingly, Newton played with grace and poise, like a man with a clear conscience. That is the greatest testimony to his intentions.

One advantage to playing behind Tebow is that he could take notes of the model he would someday try to emulate.

Tebow’s former teammate and understudy might be able to someday match his skills on the football field, but Newton could never have lived up to the true Tebow icon. (Not that anybody else could, either.) On that count Newton failed after his brush with the law over his purchase of the stolen computer which he then ditched out the window when police came to his door. And then there was the story charging him with being caught cheating on an exam one or more times.

It has never been proven why Newton suddenly decided to withdraw from Florida and enroll in junior college — the Newtons say it’s because Tebow chose to come back is senior year — but little did he realize what a profound impact it would have on college football.

Never mind that he wound up winning the Heisman and playing for the BCS championship. How might have he changed the destiny of the 2011 Florida Gators?

Think about this Part II: Urban Meyer had two Heisman Trophy winners on his roster at once, both playing the same position.

* * *

The paradoxical ride of Newton defies the stereotypical image of a football hero. In American sports culture, college stars are deities. They are paragons of virtue, gifted with physical and mental strength, roles models to youth and inspirational voices of their community — an image that borders on the impossible. On that count, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner comes up short. Yet he also seemed gracious in victory and by all appearances may find redemption of sorts.

Then there was Cecil Newton, who comes off as the villain in this story because he was in the eye of the storm of an FBI and NCAA investigation about soliciting money in return for his son’s talents. Cecil was practically banished and reportedly didn’t attend the BCS title game Monday night. He had become an embarrassment to Auburn, college football and maybe even to his family. Yet his son continued to say his father’s support gave him peace and confidence.

Even if Cam really didn’t know his father was peddling his wares on the open market, allegedly asking for upwards of $180,000 for his services at Mississippi State, there is still Cam’s poor lifestyle decisions while at Florida.

* * *

Heisman winners don’t always plays lights out in championship games and quite often come out on the wrong end of the score — as Ohio State’s Troy Smith and Oklahoma Sam Bradford did against the Gators.

How would Newton perform against Oregon?

We kept wondering if there was enough bad karma to impact the plight of Newton and his team’s mission. Perhaps that riddle was solved in part Monday night in Arizona. He played well enough to lead his team to victory after a season of scrutiny perhaps like no other college football player has been forced to endure.

For the first quarter he did struggle, but it was a scoreless period and that gave him time to refocus. He did miss two other chances for touchdown passes, under throwing a wide open receiver in the end zone and overthrowing wide receiver Darwin Adams, who had beaten the Oregon secondary and would have easily scored.

Yet it was two defensive plays — a safety and a goal line stand — which sparked Auburn’s victory. After a slow start, Newton warmed up and finished with a pair of touchdown passes, 280 yards (258 in the second quarter alone) and a 16-11 lead at the half. 

Thanks to a brilliant goal line stand at the 1-yard line and a near second half shutdown of the high-powered Duck offense, Newton only had to do just enough to win the game. However, he almost became the goat, because Oregon’s Casey Mathews stripped him of the football with just under five minutes to play while the Tigers were trying to protect at 19-11 lead. Oregon drove it in from 40 yards out, however, scored on the shovel pass, went for two and scored to tie the game at 19.

It was a bizarre play in a bizarre season for Auburn that finally decided the game. With under two minutes to play, true freshman Michael Dyer ran for a short gain and appeared to be down, but was encouraged by the players and coaches on the Auburn sideline to keep on running and restarted, rolling 34 yards down to the Oregon 24. And it was Dyer who broke off a long run to the ½-yard line with 10 seconds left in the game.

Taking no chances, Gene Chizik elected to go for a field goal instead of punching the ball in, sending Wes Byrum on the field to kick it. However, Oregon took a timeout and Chizik sent the offense back on the field to kill eight seconds off the clocked, calling time out after the play and putting Byrum back on the field.

Again, more irony — two explosive offenses and a field goal decides the outcome.

It took nothing away from Cam Newton’s Adventure, however, and the remarkable ending. There was the matter of Newton being slammed to the ground at the end of the game and appearing to be injured. He cut short his interviews and went to have X-rays, presumably of is back, which has been troubling him. Asked how he felt, Newton said, “I’m fine. I just feel blessed.”

Newton’s future as a football player will depend on whether he elects to return to Auburn for his senior season or leave early for the NFL draft. For now, however, there is plenty of glory in his present to carry him for a long, long time.