April 2, 2014
AUBURN, Ala. - As Auburn's seventh day of spring practice ended Tuesday, I caught sight of a tall man pushing himself along with one leg on a knee scooter. If you don't know, a knee scooter is a contraption for someone who only has full use of one leg.
At first, I wondered who it was. Was there an injury I wasn't aware of to an Auburn player? Then, as he got closer, I saw his big smile. I knew for sure who it was. It was Cam Newton, who in one remarkable season became an Auburn icon for all time.
Newton, of course, is now the wealthy and famous franchise quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. He underwent ankle surgery in March to repair ligaments stretched by multiple sprains. He'll be back in time for his fourth NFL season.
When Newton stopped his scooter to chat with an old sports writer Tuesday, he said he thought the ankle had bothered for longer than even he realized.
"I think you kind of just get used to it," Newton said. "You don't realize how much it is affecting you. I think it affected more than I knew it did. Hopefully, now I'll be better and it will show up where it needs to show up."
The surgery, he said, was successful.
"It went good," Newton said. "I think I'll be a lot better off for it."
We chatted a little more, and Newton went on his way. He's back at Auburn for the second consecutive offseason working toward finishing his degree. Having already made more money than he can ever spend, it would have certainly been easy for Newton to toss aside any thought of more school. But he set out to get that degree, promised his mother he would do it and has almost done it. If all goes as planned, that will happen in May.
When Newton walks across campus, heads turn and mouths drop open. When he takes his seat in class, Twitter accounts go into action. Certainly, he will be the first Auburn graduate who already has a statue on campus.
Newton was a shooting star at Auburn. He signed in late December of 2009, had perhaps the best season of any quarterback in college football history in 2010, led Auburn to the national championship and won the Heisman Trophy. After ESPN.com reported that his father was being investigated for allegedly asking Mississippi State for money in exchange for his son's signature, Newton endured more personal attacks than any quarterback in college football history.
The Football Writers Association of America should forever be shamed for leaving him off its All-America team in a misguided attempt at claiming the moral high ground by penalizing someone who had not been accused of wrongdoing. His own conference named a Tennessee tennis player SEC Athlete of the Year. Newton answered by playing better week after week, and smiling all the way. Surely, in private, there was anger and frustration. But he never showed it publicly. Not even once.
Three-plus years after he celebrated the national championship with his teammates in Glendale, Ariz., Newton is loyal to the program that catapulted him to fame, loyal to his former teammates and maybe most of all to Gus Malzahn, the offensive coordinator then and the head coach now.
Newton is not just an Auburn icon. He's an American sports icon now.
And he's still smiling.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: Follow @PMarshOnAU