April 13, 2012
By Kirk Sampson
This is the third story in a series of three to document memories from behind the scenes from the perspective of the Sports Information / Media Relations Director.
The 2010 Outback Bowl victory over Northwestern was certainly an exciting and memorable game to conclude head coach Gene Chizik's first season. But little did I know that New Year's Eve would forever change the history of Auburn football.
THE PRESS RELEASE
Earlier that day in Tampa, Coach Chizik notified me that we would be signing a junior college quarterback named Cameron Newton and to begin preparing a press release. I've written countless press releases in my 14 years at Auburn, but at the time it was just another press release.
Typically the night before a game is calm. This time it was not. Most of the release was prepared and Coach Chizik called while I was at dinner with my family. It was done. His paperwork was in and we could release. My family and I hurried back to the hotel and the wheels were in motion. At 10:30 p.m. ET I hit the send button. It was official...."Auburn Football Signs JUCO Quarterback Cameron Newton To National Letter Of Intent".
From Cam's arrival to campus a few days later through winter workouts, spring practice and into two-a-days in August, it was obvious that he was something special. He had the "it" factor. He was a quarterback in a defensive end's body, had a great personality and a smile that would light up a room. While I am not a football coach, nor will ever claim to be, it was obvious watching him in practice, around his teammates and away from the football field that he had the "it" factor. Sure, there were question marks. He donned an orange jersey during spring football and fall camp, so he was never tackled and there seemed to be talk in the media about his throwing accuracy.
THE SEASON BEGINS
As the 2010 season opened, Cam had an impressive opening game against Arkansas State, including a 71-yard touchdown run in which after he got beyond the line of scrimmage it appeared as if he were the only person on the field. I remember looking at my co-worker Brad Gust and we both gave each other that look like, "Wow!"
Auburn posted a close win at Mississippi State and an overtime thriller at home against Clemson, before Cam had an incredible game against a very good South Carolina defense, rushing for 176 yards and three TDs along with two passing scores. It was his first-quarter run however, the Superman leap into the end zone, where he gave us a "Heisman Moment."
After the game, I began to wonder, is this guy for real? Maybe he has a shot to be a Heisman contender? Cam's play on the field the next three weeks was magical.
The word Heisman truly hit home the night of Oct. 9 in Lexington, Ky. In the first half alone, he rushed for 132 yards and four touchdowns. At halftime the press box was buzzing. Cam Newton had arrived! ESPN broadcasters Mark Jones and Bob Davie raved about him. It was obvious. If Cam Newton continued to play this way, not only was he going to be in New York, but he had a great chance to be the school's third Heisman winner. He led the team down the field in the closing minutes of a tie game, Wes Byrum hit a field goal as time expired and the Tigers flew home 6-0.
The following day, I had a conversation with Coach Chizik to discuss the thoughts of beginning a campaign for Cam. It was a little early. We didn't want to do anything to disrupt the flow of the team, especially with important upcoming home games against Arkansas and LSU.
In this day of the 24/7 news cycle, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the SEC television contract, there was one thing certainly clear. I wouldn't have to worry about "getting the word out." If anything, I had to manage not over-promoting Cam. It was important for the team to continue winning, for Cam to play well.
Against Arkansas and LSU, Cam led the Tigers to a pair of impressive victories. And most importantly for Cam's Heisman campaign, he continued to exude his leadership abilities with fourth quarter comebacks and a pair of "Heisman Moments." The touchdown run against Arkansas, as he bowled over a Razorback linebacker en route to the end zone, was impressive, but turning on the jets to outrun LSU All-American Patrick Peterson is one of the most vivid moments of the season to me.
THE CAMPAIGN BEGINS
The next day, Coach Chizik and I met with Cam. We explained to them that we would begin a campaign for Cam and the Heisman Trophy. All I could think about was, "If Cam continues to play like this, I don't have to do a Heisman campaign. He may have already won this."
That Monday, it began. We prepared a website for Cam and I began sending out well thought out bullet points about Cam to the national media. Again, in this day and age, there is not a concern of them knowing who Cam was and what he had accomplished, but it was the fear of oversaturating the media with too much.
As part of the Cam for Heisman website, we did a photo shoot with Cam in full uniform. We were strapped for time, trying to get the shoot in between his classes and the start of meetings before practice. In full uniform, Cam came to the Rane Room in the Athletic Complex. Our photographer, Todd Van Emst, and I could tell Cam had his thoughts on meetings. Attempting to get that signature Cam smile, Todd said to him, "Come on Cam, we need a big smile...imagine Kirk with his shirt off." That caused a loud laugh from Cam and a chuckle that gave Todd some good animated shots.
The Sunday after the Ole Miss game (and another "Heisman Moment" with a touchdown reception from wide out Kodi Burns), there was a team meal and Halloween costume contest. There were lots of smiles and happiness that night. Cam was dressed as The Rock in the Tooth Fairy movie, and several players had some creative costumes. Children of the staff were there, in their uniforms, and my two boys, Hayes and Jake, were dressed up like their new favorite Superhero--Cam Newton.
Through all the rising fame, Cam never changed, but the world around him did. There were no more scooter rides around campus, no walking into a public place without being noticed. I witnessed it first hand as the award circuit began the week following the SEC Championship game.
THE AUTOGRAPH SEEKERS After attending the ESPN Home Depot Awards in Orlando, an early morning flight on Friday awaited. When we arrived at the airport in Orlando, autograph seekers rushed Cam. It was the first sign that it was going to be crazy in New York. The good folks at the Heisman Trust warned us before we arrived in New York--there are autograph professionals everywhere and they will try every trick in the book to secure an autograph, including soliciting the services of kids and teenagers.
Once off the jet way at JFK, there they were waiting on Cam and the other finalists at the gate. These people were so desperate for their signatures these individuals bought airline tickets, just to get through security.
There was one particular teen that was not going away...he was at the gate and after security asked him to leave, arrived at baggage claim again. NYPD told him to get lost, in a way only the NYPD can. After checking in at the Marriott Marquis, the Heisman finalists walked through Times Square to an Italian restaurant for lunch. Who was waiting outside of the hotel? That's right, Cam's friend asking for an autograph. Security asked the teen to leave.
Later that night when the Heisman group visited the Waterford crystal ball that drops on New Year's Eve in Times Square, who did we run into? Cam's friend. Through it all, Cam smiled and seemed to have gotten a kick out of the teen. Finally after repeated requests, Cam said "You sing the words to War Eagle, and I'll sign your football." The boy didn't have a response, and walked away. The next day, he was back, and at it again. Out of a sign of respect to the boy's persistence, Cam finally signed the ball.
"YO GET OUTTA THE WAY!"
Later that night, the Heisman Trust took the finalists and the former winners on a tour of the city. One of the stops along the way was a visit to the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center for a media/photo opportunity. Amongst the madness, Cam hollered at Van Emst to come take a picture of him and the other finalists. He accidentally knocked over a photographer in his haste to capture the image, resulting in Cam getting a good laugh out of the ordeal. The remainder of the weekend, Cam, using his best New York accent, yelled at Todd, "Yo, get outta the way!!" It was a phrase that stuck throughout the BCS National Championship and awards tour.
THE HEISMAN EXPERIENCE
Saturday morning, the Heisman finalists--Cam, Andrew Luck of Stanford, LaMichael James of Oregon, and Kellen Moore of Boise State, headed for the Best Buy Theatre for a walk through, photo shoot and interviews on the ESPN bus. It was early in the morning and I was worn out from a long week. I really wanted to sleep in, but I'm thankful that Todd and I attended. It was in the green room where I was able to watch Cam and the others cut up, interact and relax. It was there where Todd captured the image of Cam that later resulted in the Heisman poster that Auburn produced, as well as an image of Cam and LaMichael having some playful fun in preparation for their showdown in the BCS title game.
I knew in the Southeast and in the world of college football, Cam Newton was a big deal. He was a household face and a household name. Having lived briefly in the Northeast before I arrived at Auburn, I knew that college football didn't have the appeal that the NFL did. But the Heisman weekend opened my eyes that Cam was a national celebrity. As we walked across 45th Street to the Best Buy Theatre for the Heisman ceremony and one of the most impressive Tiger Walks ever, a New Yorker in a delivery truck stuck his head out the window and yelled, "Yo Cam, congrats!" It wasn't the first or last time during the Heisman weekend that people greeted Cam or took pictures, but it was that delivery driver, that made me come to the realization, that Cam had achieved rock-star status.
The Heisman weekend provided a lifetime of memories, but there was no more satisfaction than to be standing under an overhang, off camera, to the left of the audience, and watch Cam win the Heisman Trophy. His life had changed, as had all of ours, in a short period of time and it was special to see him win an award he had earned and truly deserved.
I've been extremely blessed with the opportunities that I've had in almost 20 years in this profession. I can say without hesitation, that I may have had the easiest job ever in promoting a Heisman winner, if promoting is even the proper term. I certainly had no impact or bearing on the outcome, I was just along for the ride, and what a ride it was.