BRADENTON, Fla. -- Cam Newton is struggling with his wireless microphone.
As Newton goes through warm-up drills on a hot, humid morning on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the microphone strapped to his waist for an upcoming ESPN “SportsCenter” segment keeps jabbing him in the back.
Wearing the gear of his new sponsor and training on the field of his new marketing agency, Newton leaves the mic in place as long as he can. But as he moves to a bigger field, the Panthers’ rookie quarterback takes it off so he can more easily move and throw and do the other things that drew the interest of Under Armour, IMG and ESPN in the first place.
Newton experienced both the glory and horrors of a national spotlight last season while winning a Heisman Trophy and national championship at Auburn in the midst of an NCAA investigation. Newton found his safe place for three hours every Saturday at an SEC stadium.
To be sure, the photo shoots for GQ and TV commercials with Tom Brady are a different type of distraction than the No. 1 overall draft pick faced last year at Auburn. But Newton is dealing with them the same way: by putting football first.
“It was brought to my attention that if you take care of your No. 1 goal, two, three, four, five -- they will be taken care of,” Newton said. “My No. 1 goal is to be a great football player.”
As he prepares for his first NFL season, Newton said his goal includes winning Super Bowls. Plural.
So in addition to diving into the Panthers’ playbook, Newton studies Brady, Peyton Manning and other championship quarterbacks.
“I look up to the guys like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger. They’re great at what they do,” Newton said. “I really love how Peyton Manning controls the whole game. He is the dictator out there on the field.
“He doesn’t let the defense dictate him. Aaron Rodgers is a machine as far as his mechanics.
“Tom Brady is the ultimate leader. Drew Brees is a savvy guy in the pocket. Why not take a little something from everybody and apply it to your own?”
For parts of the past four months, Newton has honed his skills in Bradenton, a quiet community of 53,000 -- not counting 1,000 or so teens and pre-teens enrolled at IMG Academies in the hopes of becoming the next Maria Sharapova or Jim Courier, both of whom trained in tennis there under founder Nick Bollettieri.
Newton could have prepped for his Auburn pro day in a training hotbed such as Miami, Phoenix -- even his hometown of Atlanta. But he enjoys the privacy of IMG, where he can work out without the distractions inherent in a bigger city.
Bradenton has beaches. It does not have South Beach.
“You’re down here and it’s like 485 acres of just straight work, basically,” Newton said of the sprawling IMG campus.
“You’ve got three football fields you can pick from. You’ve got every opportunity to be successful. You don’t have any media out here to critique everything you do: ‘Look, Cam’s going to get lunch. Look, he ate a Honey Bun today.’ “
There are no Honey Buns at the IMG cafeteria, or any other sweets. For dessert, the choices are fruit or fruit.
Newton, who has little or no fat on his 6-foot-5, 248-pound frame, appears to be avoiding the Honey Buns.
“He sees the big picture of sports,” said Trevor Moawad, director of IMG’s Performance Institute. “How you eat, how you think, how you train -- all of those elements.”
Moawad, a sports psychologist who has worked with Alabama and Florida State’s football teams, met with Newton before the NFL combine to help prepare him for the psychological tests. Newton impressed Moawad with his willingness to learn and “his desire to be great.”
Moawad also noticed Newton didn’t arrive at IMG with a bunch of friends or hangers-on. His entourage consists of his father and two brothers, who stay with him in the on-campus villas and eat with him at the cafeteria.
“We’ve been with him for four months. The only people that have been around him are his family,” Moawad said. “They mean a lot to him.”
Some of those family ties frayed last fall when a Mississippi State booster said Cecil Newton asked for $180,000 in exchange for his son’s commitment to the Bulldogs. The NCAA ruled that neither Cam Newton nor Auburn knew about Cecil Newton’s pay-for-play scheme.
But not before Cam Newton endured several weeks of a constant media barrage and uncertainty about his eligibility.
The questions and allegations tore at Newton, who managed to block them out on game days while becoming the first player in SEC history to run for at least 1,000 yards and pass for 2,000 in the same season.
“I’d wake up in the morning, cut on the TV, ‘Well, Cam Newton is this.’ Go on campus and read the newspaper and ‘Cam Newton is that.’ Put my iPod on and you’re looking at people and they’re looking back at you,” Newton said. “But I knew none of that was going to go down in that little hour or two hours that I had on that football field. It was like I was at recess. I was like a little kid.
“My escape was football. I knew everything (else) had to wait.”
Cam Newton said he had friends and family members who questioned his role in the controversy. But his relationship with his father has never been stronger.
“It’s the definition of a person how he reacts or how she reacts when that (difficult) time comes. The funny thing about life is you don’t know when that’s going to come,” he said.
“It takes you looking back at it like, ‘Dang, we came through that.’ And if we can go through something as serious as that was, we can go through anything.”
Taking it slow
Newton was scheduled to be at the ESPYs on Wednesday night in Los Angeles, site of last month’s Under Armour shoot with Brady. IMG has tried to keep Newton’s appearances to a minimum and limited his sponsorships to blue-chip companies in Under Armour and GMC.
“Our goal is to not really do too much too early,” said Carlos Fleming, Newton’s marketing agent. “We want him to focus as much as possible on his on-field performance and not do too many endorsement deals that would have the potential to distract him while he’s making his transition into the NFL.”
Under Armour will launch an Auburn/Cam Newton apparel collection this summer; Newton’s shoe series will debut next spring.
But to build his brand, Newton knows he and the Panthers have to succeed.
“I love challenges in my life. And one of the main challenges I have right now is how am I going to affect this team to go from worst to first?” Newton said. “In my career, I’ve never been satisfied with losing. That’s never been in my vocabulary.”
Newton’s vocabulary is expanding as he learns the NFL verbiage. When he runs plays with former Panthers quarterback Chris Weinke at IMG, they come straight from the Panthers’ playbook.
At the recent workout attended by an ESPN crew and the Charlotte Observer, Newton showed off his arm strength. Before throwing a 20-yard out to Detroit rookie Titus Young, Newton advised an IMG employee taking pictures from the sideline to step back.
Newton then dropped back and threw a ball on a rope that hit Young in the hands at shoulder level, a few feet from where the IMG staffer had been standing.
Newton also displayed some of the inaccuracy he struggled with at the combine, overthrowing tight end Alex Smith over the middle on back-to-back plays.
But Weinke said most of his mechanical work with Newton has been minor.
“We’re fine-tuning his mechanics, whether it’s foot placement or level shoulders or whatever it is. There’s little things that we tweak with him,” said Weinke, director of IMG’s football academy.
“The biggest thing with him was he was not used to being under center in college. So the footwork is new to him.
“He’s been able to grasp that. He’s doing a great job now.”
Trying to be ready
Newton was diplomatic when asked about the possibility of the Panthers signing a veteran quarterback after the lockout is lifted. Despite missing out on minicamps and getting no work with coach Ron Rivera or his first-year staff during the lockout, Newton said he would try to be ready whenever he’s called upon.
In his study of successful quarterbacks, Newton also has kept an eye on San Diego’s Philip Rivers, the league leader with 4,710 passing yards in 2010. Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was on Norv Turner’s offensive staff four of the past six seasons, serving as the Chargers’ tight ends coach and assistant head coach in 2010.
Newton has spent only one day around Chudzinski -- the 24-hour window when the lockout was lifted the day after Newton was drafted. He is eager to get to work.
“There’s an old saying, ‘Men lie. Women lie. But statistics don’t lie.’
“And when I look at the statistics as far as coach Chudzinski and his offense and his philosophy, it works,” Newton said. “I’m looking at Philip Rivers, year in and year out he’s in the top five, if not the top three. And I think this past year he was the top passer in the NFL. And for me to see that and know that, that’s some impressive stuff. I’m pumped. I’m excited. Because I feel like if Philip can do it, I can do it, too.”