One year ago today, I feared that I would soon be writing Cam Newton's obituary.
December 9 marks the one-year anniversary of Newton rolling his truck after a collision and breaking two bones in his back. Photos of the crash were gruesome. Initial reports on Twitter were sparse and conflicting. Sitting at a desk 500 miles away, seeing images of an upside-down truck, frantically trying to gather accurate information, I feared the worst.
I wasn't alone. "There was very much a sense of: 'Oh my God, they killed the quarterback,'" said Darin Gantt, Charlotte-based writer for Pro Football Talk.
"When you first heard Cam Newton was involved and saw the picture of the truck, it was scary," said Bobby Rosinski of radio station 730 AM in Charlotte, who was preparing to go on the air when news reached the station. "At first, panic set in."
Within an hour or so, it became clear that Newton was not critically injured. We all breathed a sigh of relief. In fact, he would play football again. Soon.
Not only that, but the Newton who returned to the field just two weeks later was different—better. Before the crash, Newton was a slumping, disappointing young quarterback playing out the string for a 4-8-1 team. Since his return to the field, he has been a nearly undefeatable MVP candidate.
A miracle? Newton said as much after the crash.
Silly jokes about God's fantasy team 48 hours after breaking his back in a terrifying auto accident? Yep, that was the same Cam Newton. Maybe just our appreciation of him changed on the day we nearly lost him.
Putting Football Aside
December 9, 2014, was a Tuesday, an off day for the Panthers. Newton was driving his Dodge pickup truck to work on his day off to watch film. The Panthers had just snapped a six-game losing streak with a win in New Orleans. Newton had three touchdown passes in the win. It had been his first truly good performance in over a month.
Then Newton reached the corner of South Church Street and West Hill Street, an intersection with access to Interstate 277 and no traffic lights. In the clinical language of the official accident report, Newton was simply "Driver of vehicle 2:"
Driver of vehicle 2 advised that as he was traveling on S Church St., vehicle 1 pulled out in front of him and collided into his vehicle. Driver of vehicle 2 advised that he tried to maneuver to avoid the collision but unsuccessful. As a result of the collision, vehicle 2 rolled over.
"Rolled over" is an understatement. Newton's truck flipped several times, according to reports. After the collision, it was lying on its roof in the middle of Church Street. Newton was lucky the truck stopped rolling where it did.
"The wreck happened on a bridge with a steep embankment that feeds down to one of Charlotte's busiest highways," said Tommy Tomlinson, former Charlotte Observer columnist now with ESPN. "If his truck goes down that embankment, it's a lot worse."
Local reporters were on the scene quickly. More accurately, Newton had arrived on the scene of local reporters. The Charlotte Observer is headquartered on the same block as the crash site.
With the Observer at the crash site instantaneously, photographs and accurate reports reached the Internet within minutes. The Cam Newton broke both his legs rumor—an old Internet urban legend that goes back at least as far as Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle crash—soon gave way to images from the scene that were not comforting. Looking at the crash site, well, maybe Newton did break both his legs.
Downtown Charlotte is compact: Stadiums, dangerous intersections, newspapers, radio stations and hospitals are almost within sight of one another. Police and ambulances were on the scene of the crash within minutes. News reached the football world in real time. Listeners began calling in to radio 730 AM while producers sent interns to the crash site and tried to collect information from firsthand sources.
"Callers were certainly panicked about it," on-air personality Chris Allison said. "You put football aside and you just start thinking about life. You forget about Cam Newton the quarterback and just start thinking about Cam Newton the person."
Newton's crash brought back memories of Bobby Phills for many Charlotte sports fans. Phills, a popular Hornets guard, died in a car crash after allegedly drag-racing with a teammate on the way home from an afternoon shootaround in 2000.
Had Newton been driving recklessly, too? It would not have been out of character with his reputation.
But the police issued no citations. This was not a story of immature irresponsibility. Newton was just a commuter involved in a crash at a notoriously dangerous intersection. He was also the most important sports personality in Charlotte and a polarizing national icon. We waited and wondered just how critically he was injured.
And then we were given a sign. Not a press release. Not a medical report. A smile.
Bill Voth, founder of independent Panthers website Black and Blue Review, was racing to the crash scene from the suburbs when he saw the photograph of Newton lying in the street, grinning ear-to-ear with paramedics tending to him.
"That picture was so important, because he was smiling," Voth said. "You saw him smiling, and you knew he would be back."
Newton's Cheshire Cat smile infuriates a certain breed of football fan. It is often interpreted as a sign of cockiness or immaturity. But when Newton smiled for cameras from the Church Street blacktop, his car totaled and (we would soon learn) his back broken, the smile was a symbol of something else. Hope. Optimism. Toughness.
Victim of Perception
It's not hard to remember who Cam Newton was to much of the NFL world before this time last year. We get a reminder every time an end-zone dance offends an angry mother from Tennessee. We see reminders every time the television cameras flash images of Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick in a baseball cap on the sideline. Newton was another young, mobile quarterback on the verge of squandering his potential.
"There were some people who thought that Derek Anderson should be the quarterback of this football team," Rosinski said.
It wasn't just the talk radio crowd. On the Sunday before the crash, the day Newton went on to help the Panthers snap their losing streak, the Charlotte Observer published two long, largely pessimistic Newton columns.
"Newton hasn't proven he’s a $100 million quarterback," read the headline of Scott Fowler's column. He went on to write, "Have Newton's running skills eroded enough because of all those hits that, even at the age of 25, his best years are actually behind him?"
Joseph Person's column was more conciliatory. "Critics say Newton has reverted to bad habits from early in his career, throwing off his back foot, making poor decisions and forcing passes into coverage," he wrote. "But they also say Newton lacks adequate pass protection, and they don't believe there are enough offensive weapons around him."
Those who followed the Panthers closely knew the full story. Newton had ankle surgery in the 2014 offseason. He was limited in training camp. He suffered a rib injury late in the preseason and missed the season opener. He returned to find his offensive line and receiving corps depleted by a salary-cap purge. Newton had spent the losing streak playing through pain and hobbling for his life.
But national perceptions about quarterbacks are rarely based on close examination of evidence. To most of the nation, Newton was the guy who made Superman gestures after first downs and sulked beneath a towel when the Panthers lost.
"I think a lot of people made up their minds about Cam Newton either when he stole the laptop at Florida or when Peter King wrote the 'Icon and Entertainer' line before the 2011 combine," Gantt said. "Cam's a victim of perception, because people still view him through that lens."
Newton's post-crash smile brought a sigh of relief. It replaced the draped towel as his iconic image. Coming moments after a painful auto accident instead of a touchdown, the smile forced us to see Newton as more than just a goofy kid.
"Cam has always been really, really positive," Voth said. "He's always had that big smile and believed that everything would work out. So this just took his positivity and perspective to a whole other level."
Or, as Newton put it after the accident: "I'm looking at this truck and I'm like, 'Somebody's supposed to be dead.' And I just can't stop smiling because it's like, God has his hands on me."
Newton spent the night of December 9, 2014, at Carolinas Medical Center. Then-Panthers communications director Charlie Dayton made a brief statement from outside the facility. Newton had two transverse process fractures in his lower back, but he was in fair condition.
"Right now, it's all about Cam's well-being," Dayton said when asked a football question.
Voth and other reporters staked out the hospital early the next morning, waiting for news of Newton's release. While there, they received word that Newton was named the NFC's Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Saints.
"All of these TV trucks and reporters are standing outside of the hospital, and the guy who's inside of it just won Offensive Player of the Week," he said. "That was another surreal part of it."
Two days later, Newton returned to work, stood in front of the media and made jokes about being on God's fantasy team.
"As far as when I'm coming back, who cares? That's not something that I'm worried about right now," Newton said. "I'm just thankful to have breath in my lungs."
Newton missed the following game; Derek Anderson led the Panthers to victory over the Buccaneers. But he wasn't gone for long. A week after the crash, he dressed up as Santa Claus and toured local elementary schools, delivering gifts and shooting hoops with kids. Then he returned to the Panthers lineup and won a home game against the Browns less than a mile from the scene of the collision.
Newton and the Panthers have not lost a regular-season game since.
A Different Mood
Newton was an immature kid who "didn't get it" before the crash, and he became a mature adult who understood how fleeting and precious his youth and talent were after the crash.
What a trite angle.
Newton was a quarterback literally at the crossroads on December 9. He flipped his truck through those crossroads and came out the other side a changed man.
C'mon. Get real. That kind of cut-and-dry thinking is for television characters, not real humans.
"I don't think he was ever that immature," Voth said. "If you are looking for a line of demarcation, I don't think that's it."
Voth notes that the Newton has grown up storylines have been circulating since the Panthers made the playoffs in 2013.
Newton has obviously grown up since his collegiate mistakes, icon-and-entertainer remarks or early seasons beneath the towel. Everyone grows up in their early 20s. But perhaps our perception of Newton matured after the crash. Sure, we still work ourselves into a tizzy about dabbing. But after someone crawls out from beneath a flipped truck with a smile on his face and returns to work with two broken bones in his back, it's impossible to question his toughness. And once you start acknowledging a young quarterback's toughness, the pouting-under-a-towel stuff becomes outdated news.
"I feel around the country, early on this season, the mood toward Cam has changed," Rosinski said. "Instead of all the criticism of the past, it became: 'Carolina's not giving him a chance to succeed because they have bad receivers around him.'"
Those bad receivers are still there, dropping as many touchdown passes as they catch. But a 12-0 record was bound to turn Newton doubters into believers. A season of adversity—head coach Ron Rivera's home burned down weeks after Newton's crash—may have made the Panthers stronger this year. But the truck accident did not give Newton superpowers or make him immune to criticism.
It did force the Newton narrative to a halt long enough to remind those of us who tell quarterback tales for a living about what is really important. It's terrifying to see potentially tragic news flash across your desk. We know the feeling all too well. It reminds us of human frailty. Caricatures play football games, gesture after first downs and dress strangely at press conferences. Friends, neighbors, citizens, real human beings get injured in car wrecks.
"We're not all one thing," Voth said. "Cam is not just goofy or giddy. He also has been criticized for being too serious. Which one is it? Is he too goofy or too mopey? Or is he just like all of us? We're all moody. He just wears his heart on his sleeve a little more than us and has the cameras on him a little more than us."
The accident opened our eyes to the real, three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood Newton. This real Newton then got healthy and continued doing what he has been doing since he entered the NFL. He worked on his game. He matured and improved. He embarked on a winning streak that still hasn't stopped.
Who cares if the accident changed Newton, or even if it changed the way we perceive Newton? He survived it. He has thrived since. For those of us who braced for the worst a year ago today, those are the only stories that matter.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.