Butterflies upset Cam Newton’s stomach as he prepared to make his first high school start at quarterback.
It was 2003. Newton — who will make his debut as Auburn’s starter Saturday — got the starting nod as a freshman for Westlake High in its televised game against Mays that all of Atlanta would be watching.
Despite his nerves, Cam had a security blanket in his brother, Cecil Jr., the team’s senior center.
“It was just the kind of far-fetched thing you can only dream of as a parent,” their father, Cecil Sr. said. “It was unbelievable … until they botched the snap.”
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The story has a special place in Newton family lore. It was first-and-goal. Cecil Jr., as he still does, snapped the ball hard. Cam, wide-eyed and inexperienced, wasn’t quite ready for it. The ball bounced away as the crowd groaned.
“We were getting looks like, ‘Man, you guys are brothers. How can you fumble the snap?’” Cam said. “‘You’re supposed to be snapping to each other while you’re asleep.’”
The brothers and their father didn’t sleep well that night, spread out in the den. They made sure it never happened again, practicing snaps indoors and out, over and over.
“We learn from the mistakes in our careers,” Cecil Jr. said. “We can laugh about it now.”
It was but one chapter in the family’s lengthy football history. Cecil Sr., a church pastor and construction company owner, played collegiately at Savannah State from 1979-83, a big, strong safety who had a brief taste of the NFL, playing preseason ball with the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills.
His sons have followed in his footsteps. Cecil Jr., who attended Tennessee State, is in the Jacksonville Jaguars training camp, vying for a spot. Cam hopes to revive his career at Auburn, where he’ll start his first Division I college game Saturday against Arkansas State.
Even their youngest brother, Caylin, is an up-and-coming 12-year-old quarterback who some think might be the most athletic of the bunch.
“Football is in our blood, man,” Cam said.
Questions have come at Cam from all angles this August — what’s his comfort in Gus Malzahn’s system, does he have a rapport with receivers, how often will he tuck the ball and run?
The 21-year-old handles the queries with aplomb, showing a confidence in his quarterback abilities as though he’s played there his entire life.
He hasn’t. In fact, when Cecil Sr. finally let his two oldest boys play football (they were 7 and 10), Cam was the linebacker and Cecil Jr. the skill player.
“We’d go from school straight to the park,” Cecil Jr. said. “A lot of times we were the first ones at the park and the last ones to leave.”
Cam, who was big for his age, had a knack for the game. Cecil Sr. vividly remembers Cam making a tackle on the opening kickoff of his first game.
“The aggression and the tenacity that he displayed on that field that day, I knew he was going to wind up being something special,” Cecil Sr. said.
As time passed, the brothers’ roles switched. Cecil Jr. grew into a workmanlike lineman on both sides of the ball. Although he played on a Westlake team flush with college prospects, he didn’t get many looks. Lacking a Division I scholarship offer, he enrolled at FCS Tennessee State as a walk-on.
Meanwhile, Cam’s star continued to rise. He shot up six inches between the ages of 14 and 16 and switched to quarterback. With size, mobility and an arm that was comparable to players three years his senior, he got scholarship offers from major programs across the country.
He choose to play for Urban Meyer at Florida, enrolling early to get started on what seemed destined to be a storybook career.
Trouble at Florida
The brothers’ careers took radically different paths the next few years.
Cecil Jr. came into his own at Tennessee State, named to the All-Ohio Valley Conference team as a sophomore and earning a scholarship.
By the end of his career, the 6-foot-2, 303-pound center had started three seasons, earned a degree in business administration and set his sights on signing a free-agent deal with an NFL team, another long shot.
“It is a hard place to get noticed,” Cecil Jr. said. “I didn’t focus on making the league, because it was already a far-fetched dream, coming from a small school like that. My main focus was just being as good as I could be. Everything else worked itself out.”
His persistence paid off. He signed a free agent contract with the Jaguars in the spring of 2009, eventually making the practice squad.
Cam’s career at Florida, meanwhile, unraveled. He played in three games as Tim Tebow’s backup in 2007, but injured his ankle early during what would be a medical redshirt year in 2008.
Then came the bombshell: He was arrested that November on burglary, larceny and obstruction of justice charges related to a stolen laptop, a well-chronicled and much-ridiculed incident in which Cam, panicked when police officers arrived to check the serial number, threw the laptop out the window.
The Newton family has described the incident as a misunderstanding. Cam said he bought the laptop from somebody else, not knowing it was stolen. Cam completed a pre-trial intervention program and the charges were dropped,
He’d leave Florida not long after, on his own accord, contrary to many reports. Tebow was returning for his senior season and Cam wanted a fresh start. Blinn Community College in rural Texas was his destination, which Cecil Sr. called a “safe haven.”
“It was in the middle of nowhere, which I think was one of the biggest things that happened for Cam in his career,” Cecil Jr. said. “It allowed him to open his mind, to really realize that he’s not playing D-I football. Playing in Blinn is kind of what grounded him.”
Landing at Auburn
After leading Blinn to the junior college national title in 2009, throwing for 2,833 yards and 22 touchdowns and running for 655 yards and 16 scores, a rejuvenated Newton once again was in demand. He and Cecil Sr. welcomed Cecil Jr. along on their recruiting trips last December, as Oklahoma, Mississippi State and Auburn emerged as favorites.
“Ever since he’s been in college, (my brother has) always taken that step to keep me ahead of what’s going on, what I need to keep my eyes open for,” Cam said. “He’s just been my so-called mentor. And it’s been a big help so far.”
Cecil Sr. researched every team’s depth chart, hoping to avoid another situation in which Cam would have to wait his turn. Auburn, which had the added bonus of being less than two hours from the family’s home in College Park, Ga., won out.
“It was in my opinion a no-brainer,” Cecil Sr. said.
Junior college quarterbacks have a hit-or-miss history after returning to the Division I level, and, despite his talent, questions remain about Cam’s ability to seamlessly transition back into the SEC. But Cecil Sr. warns not to underestimate the talent level of the junior college ranks.
“It’s not just throwaway athletes,” he said. “You’ve got Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Lane Kiffin, all these coaches are searching the waters in junior college to fill positions they need on their team.”
With Cam’s Auburn debut only days away, there isn’t a dissenting opinion in the Newton household for how he’ll fare.
“I think Cam is going to be outstanding,” said Cecil Jr., who has an important day of his own Thursday, one last chance to make an impression during the Jaguars’ final preseason game against Atlanta. “It’s one of those systems where he can just sit back there and make plays.”
Added Cecil Sr.: “He’s hungry to be unveiled.”