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By 17, Newton had grown into a 6'4", 230-pound quarterback for Westlake High. He could throw the ball 75 yards, run 40 yards in less than 4.6 seconds and power over defenders like a fullback. Rivals.com rated him the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the nation in the 2007 class. Nearly every school in the SEC offered him a scholarship; he chose Florida, hoping to become the next Tebow, who was finishing up his freshman year.
Newton played five games as a freshman, rushing for 103 yards and passing for 40 in mop-up duty. As a sophomore in 2008, he sprained an ankle in the season opener and ended up redshirting. "Not playing was hard on Cam," Cecil says. "He didn't handle it well."
As the Gators charged toward the national championship that autumn, Newton's life unraveled. On Nov. 21 University of Florida police officers came to his dorm room in search of a laptop that had been reported stolen. According to the police report, they entered the room and found the computer, at which point Newton asked to speak with his lawyer. The officers stepped out of the room, and, in a panic, Newton tossed the laptop out of the window of his third-floor room. The officers found the computer behind a trash bin outside the dorm. Newton was arrested and charged with burglary, larceny and obstruction of justice—all felonies.
Newton says he bought the laptop for $120 from a man selling electronics out of the trunk of his car, though the computer was valued at more than $1,000. "It was really too good to be true," Newton says of the transaction. "It was just a dumb move." After completing a pretrial diversion program, the charges against Newton were dropped.
Gators coach Urban Meyer suspended Newton from the team (he has been one of 25 Florida players arrested since Meyer was hired in 2005), and in the days following his arrest Newton could feel judgmental eyes following him every time he walked across campus. Still, Newton wanted to stay in Gainesville—as long as he'd have a chance to start in '09. But a few days after Florida beat Oklahoma to win its second national title in three years, Newton was sitting with his father on their living room couch in College Park when the news flashed on the television screen: Tebow was returning to the Gators for his senior season. That was the final piece of information Newton needed—he immediately told his father he wanted to transfer. When Cecil and Cam packed his belongings in Gainesville, the father struggled to hold back tears.
Less than three weeks later Cecil dropped his son off in Brenham. The first order of business for Blinn coach Franchione was to nurture Newton's leadership skills. Franchione asked his wife, Rebecca, to buy Leadership Is an Art by Max DePree for Newton. Several times a week during his first months at Blinn the quarterback and the coach would hold their own book club, discussing the finer points of the popular management strategy book. Newton, who moved into a one-bedroom, on-campus apartment, didn't have a TV, so for the first time in his life he read at night before falling asleep. "The book taught me little things about leadership, like always have a watch on, always shake hands firmly, always look people in the eye when you talk to them," Newton says. "I didn't have much else to do, so I did a lot of reading."
It didn't take long for Newton to impress his teammates. During one summer workout Franchione organized what he calls the Tire Drill. The rules are simple: Two players grab each end of an old car tire, and they must keep their hands on it until one pulls the other five yards from where he started. Facing an offensive lineman who was 6'5", 300 pounds, Newton wrapped his hands around the tire. Franchione blew his whistle. Within a few heartbeats the offensive lineman was flying toward Newton. The quarterback won. As his teammates went wild, Franchione, in awe, uttered to himself, "Holy Toledo."
Slowly, the joy of the game came back to Newton. At fall practices Franchione's wife would show up with a cooler full of Popsicles for the players. "Cam always made it a game to see if he could be the only player to get two," Franchione says. "When he did, he'd sprint around the field and jump around yelling, 'I got two Pop-si-cles. I got two Pop-si-cles.' His happiness was infectious."
Cecil could hear the newfound inner peace in his son's voice; Cam spoke to his father and mother, Jackie, several times a week over the phone. "Blinn was like a remote rehab process for Cam," says Cecil. "That was his resurrection."
Newton led Blinn to the junior college national championship, passing for 2,833 yards and 22 touchdowns while rushing for 655 yards and 16 scores. One of the hardest days of his life was when he said goodbye to the Franchiones on his last night in Brenham. "We all cried," Rebecca says, "but we knew he had bigger things to accomplish."