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They were alone together, driving through the darkness of southeast Texas on a winter night in January 2009. Cruising westward down Highway 290 in a rented four-door Chevy Corsica at 55 mph, Cecil Newton looked at his son Cameron, who was in the passenger seat staring out the window. The father and son were 800 miles away from their home outside of Atlanta, and with every click of the odometer, that distance grew.
"This next year is either going to make you or break you, Cam," the father said. "You'll either go onto the big stage from here or you'll fade into obscurity. Are you that thug that people have made you out to be or are you the good son that I raised?"
Cam remained quiet. Minutes later they rolled into the town of Brenham, about 70 miles northwest of Houston and home of Blinn College, a two-year junior college. It was nearing 10 p.m. when Cam stepped out of the car and into the chill of the evening. Carrying a suitcase, he walked into the house of Blinn football coach Brad Franchione, the son of former Alabama and Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione. Brad's wife, Rebecca, had put a sheet, blanket and pillow on their living room couch, which is where the 19-year-old Newton—exhausted, scared and still silent on why he had withdrawn from the University of Florida three weeks earlier—slept his first night in Brenham, the unlikely place that would offer him redemption.
Before he left to return to Georgia, Cecil, a pastor, put an arm around Cam. "Just be a man, son," the father said. "Just be a man."
Last Saturday in Auburn, Ala., on the biggest stage of his life to date, Cam was indeed the man. Behind the play of the 6'6", 250-pound Newton—now a junior quarterback for Auburn who has emerged as the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy—the No. 5 Tigers toppled sixth-ranked LSU 24--17 to raise their record to 8--0 and move the team to No. 1 in the BCS rankings. Facing the top-rated defense in the SEC, Newton ran for a career-high 217 yards and two touchdowns and passed for another 86 yards. His Heisman moment occurred early in the third quarter on an electrifying 49-yard touchdown run. Zigzagging across the field, Newton broke two tackles, sidestepped two more and dragged All-America cornerback Patrick Peterson the last eight yards into the end zone.
"Cam is the most talented quarterback I've ever been around," says Auburn coach Gene Chizik, who has been on the coaching staff of teams that featured Vince Young and Daunte Culpepper in his 23-year coaching career. "When he walked through my office door the first time, I was blown away. I thought, We don't have any defensive linemen that look this good."
Newton leads the SEC and ranks sixth nationally in rushing (134.6 yards per game). He's first in the country with 27 combined touchdowns rushing (14) and passing (13) and third in passing efficiency (172.1). He also has a chance to become the second player in Division I-A history to pass for 20 touchdowns and rush for 20 touchdowns in the same season. The only person to accomplish the feat was Tim Tebow, in his Heisman-winning year of 2007—the irony of which we'll return to later.
"I've grown so much as a person in the last two years, and it all goes back to my time in Brenham," says Newton. "I made a mistake that almost cost me everything. I'm an example of why people deserve second chances."
Newton has always been big. At the age of eight, standing 4'8" and weighing almost 100 pounds, Cam would awaken before dawn on fall Saturdays and throw on his shoulder pads, cleats and uniform. Helmet in hand, he'd be at the breakfast table of his College Park, Ga., home by 6:30 ("It was the only day of the week that he didn't have to be woken up," says his father) but often didn't eat. "Cam was in a weight-based league, and he'd do whatever it took to be under the maximum weight," says Cecil, who played safety and linebacker at Savannah State from 1979 through '83. "Sometimes he wouldn't eat for an entire day before a game. If he didn't make weight, he'd cry like he was going to have his leg amputated."
Young Cam was constantly in the shadow of his older brother, Cecil Jr. (who spent the 2009 season as a backup center for the Jacksonville Jaguars). Cecil Jr. would frequently invite friends who were three years older than Cam to play backyard football. Cam dominated, displaying a rare grace and silkiness whenever he had the ball in his arms, as if the game was as easy for him as whistling.