He’s bounding across the sun-soaked turf field, covering nearly 10 feet on every leap, but Cam Newton’s face wears a calm, cool expression that borders on sleepy.
To his left and right, a handful of Carolina Panther receivers move through a warm-up. It’s a little past noon on a Thursday, just a few weeks before NFL players report for training camp. Newton and his teammates have sequestered themselves here, at the Under Armour Performance Center in Baltimore, for two weeks in one final push to prepare for the 2015 NFL season.
Training days are long and intense. There’s strength training in the morning and agility and football drills at night. When they aren’t working out, the players eat together and play cards or video games. It’s an opportunity for them not only to improve their athleticism, but also to form a stronger connection as a team.
“It’s not just about getting good work in, it’s about bonding with each other,” Newton says.
At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds and with bridge-broad shoulders and calves the size of cannons, Newton is far and away the biggest athlete in the bunch. His loud outfit—an electric green long sleeve shirt and neon blue sneakers—complements his large stature. And he’s easily the most explosive athlete in the group, outpacing the pack on every jump and leap without even looking like he’s trying.
“He’s a monster. He’s genetically gifted, and he’d only gotten bigger, stronger and faster over the years,” says Nate Costa, the trainer who’s been working with Newton since the quarterback entered the pros.
When the warm-up moves into Side Lunges, Newton livens up. He bobs his head to Drake and Wiz Khalifa, and playfully calls out a teammate for yawning. Sweat begins to collect on his forehead and reflect the sun. He’s ready to get to work.
One thing nobody ever questioned was Newton’s work ethic. He’s always been willing to work hard. During his junior year at Westlake High School in Atlanta, he added 15 pounds of muscle to up his game and stand out to college coaches. And on the field, stand out he did, becoming one of the most highly pursued recruits in the country.
There were questions, though, about Newton’s maturity and leadership capability throughout his career. The quarterback had trouble keeping his mouth closed.
“I just wanted to make everyone laugh,” Newton says. “I was always the class clown, the person who talked when you weren’t supposed to. I never disrespected anyone, but I’d get suspended for clowning around.”
Fast forward to his rookie season with the Panthers. The questions lingered. His athletic talent was through the roof, but no one knew if he possessed the leadership skills to be a winning NFL quarterback. His loud personality seemed childish to some, and when things didn’t go the team’s way, he appeared to mope. He tried to will his team to victory with individual effort, and he had an incredible year statistically, but the team ended up with a 6-10 record.
“His first couple of years in the pros, [Newton] thought he could do everything himself,” Costa says. “But now he’s leading and saying ‘we’re going to do this together.’”
Now in his fifth pro season, Newton has embraced his role as a leader and looks far more comfortable in it. He has led the Panthers to two consecutive playoff appearances, and last off-season, he signed a massive five-year extension with the team. He also took an active role in developing chemistry among his teammates. The workouts in Baltimore were his idea. The players who came with him include both marquee names—Greg Olsen, Jerricho Cotchery and Ted Ginn, Jr.—and guys on the bubble of making the roster. Everybody was invited.
But although he’s embracing his leadership role, Newton says he won’t let it change who he is. “I pride myself on being something I naturally am,” he told the Charlotte Observer. “I’m not doing things that are changing, flipping a switch and saying, ‘OK, I’ve got to go into Leader Cam, or I’ve got to go into Playful Cam [mode].’”
Both aspects of Newton’s personality are on display inside the training center. Sweat pours from his brow, and his eyes narrow as he concentrates on keeping his balance while lifting his leg up and over a mini-hurdle again and again. When he completes the set, he enthusiastically raps along with a Rick Ross track blaring over the sound system.
Newton walks to the other side of the gym to do Box Jumps, but not before he playfully disputes the number of reps with Costa. At the end of the exchange, Newton smiles and sticks his tongue out at the trainer. But when Costa blows his whistle to signal the start of the set, Newton performs the exercise with ferocity and precision, his feet landing in the exact same spot every time.
“I think I do have a bit of A.D.D.,” Newton says. “I can easily get bored with the monotonies of working out. But Nate always finds ways to keep things fresh and challenging for me.”
Costa keeps Newton on his toes by changing the workout every session. “He has no idea what’s going on when he comes in. It’s a rarity we’ll do the same exact thing multiple times,” Costa says. “Whatever we do, he knows he needs to give me 100 percent effort.”
Next up is a Dead Hang competition. Which player can hold on to the pull-up bar the longest before dropping? Before the contest starts, Newton screams, “I’ve got to get my LeBron on!” Then he sprints across the gym like an overgrown kid chasing an ice cream truck, grabs a gigantic bucket of chalk, and runs it back to his teammates. (Newton was referring to LeBron James’s famous pre-game ritual of tossing chalk into the crowd in dramatic fashion). He and his teammates coat their hands with white powder to improve their grip, then hop up in unison to grab the bar.
For the first minute or so, Newton looks bored. His face is calm and his eyes gaze off into the distance. But as the seconds tick by, his expression morphs slowly from confidence to agony.
“The first 30 seconds or so of hanging, it’s not a big deal,” Costa says. “But slowly, everything fatigues. Your forearms and hands catch on fire. Everything inside you is telling you just to let go.”
Panthers receiver Brenton Bersin drops first. Two others fall off shortly thereafter. Past the two-minute mark, only four players remain on the bar—Newton among them. The quarterback lets go a few seconds later. The winner hangs on for two minutes and 25 seconds.
“Last time we did it, [Newton] held until about 1:30, so he did an extra 30 seconds because the men next to him weren’t dropping,” Costa says.
Newton turns his massive palms toward a nearby camera and jokes that the contest gave him nerve damage. Something in his voice seems to indicate that even this tiny, inconsequential defeat upsets him. After the workout, he says, “I hate losing. I hate someone being able to look at me and say, ‘I beat you.’”
The spirit of competition is deeply ingrained in Newton. He’s had it since he was a little kid, growing up as the son of a former professional football player, Cecil Newton, Sr.
“I just wanted to be like my idol, and my idol at that time and still to this day is my father,” Newton says. “My father played football and told us a lot of stories of playing football, and I just wanted to be able to share my stories with my son or children when their time came. My biggest accomplishment would still be being able to play something that started as a hope when I was seven years old.”
Newton tries to pass on that hope through the Cam Newton Foundation, an organization that gives kids educational and athletic opportunities they might not otherwise have. The foundation sponsors holiday gift drives (Newton is always an active participant) and awards scholarships to high school students who’ve had a positive impact on their community.
Every summer, the foundation organizes a 7-on-7 football game with high school athletes who’ve attended Newton’s camps. At one such event this past July, Newton delivered an impassioned speech about staying on track. He said, “This sport reciprocates respect. If you’re a baller, you’re probably coachable and do the extra things. If you’re a scrub, you don’t. My life changed forever when I received a contract for $103 million. Why’d I get it? Because I respected the game. I listened to my dad and my mom. I listened to my coaches. I didn’t hit the blunt. I didn’t drink. I didn’t need it.”
Later, Newton explains that he tries to get this message to every young athlete he meets, because he’s seen too many fall into trouble—including his childhood friends.
“Numerous friends I grew up with today are locked up for life in prison because of a senseless mistake—‘Somebody said this to me, somebody did this to me so I had to get the last laugh.’” Newton shakes his head. “Unbelievable athletes, unbelievable talents.”
Newton also conveys the importance of focus. “I try to always tell kids what my father told me: ‘The man of many talents doesn’t necessarily get the notoriety. The man with one talent who perfects that talent gets it.’”
The final exercise of the training session is a competitive Row Relay. The players split into four groups of two. The first pair that can cover 2,200 meters wins.
Each machine is equipped with an LED display tracking distance covered. When an athlete gets tired and isn’t covering enough ground as fast as he’d like, he tags his partner—but the transition costs precious seconds.
Newton partners up with Bersin, a receiver who signed with the Panthers as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and recorded his first reception with the team last season. As the players move to the rowing machines, Newton busts out a freestyle rap about what’s happening right at that minute. It isn’t terrible, but let’s just say the quarterback probably won’t be dropping an album anytime soon.
Just before the competition starts, Newton grabs his right hamstring, throws his head back to the sky and lets out a pained “Ahhhhh!”
Concern flashes across Costa’s face until he pairs Newton’s over-the-top acting with the laughs from the others and realizes the quarterback is faking it.
“You’re so full of it,” Costa says with a smile.
Costa blows his whistle, the rowing starts and Newton’s smile vanishes. He pulls the handle toward his chest and releases it in one fluid motion, timing his breathing with the rhythm of each pull.
“Leave nothing! This is it!” Costa shouts.
Newton covers about 750 meters before tagging Bersin. The two are tied for the lead with Panthers receiver Jarrett Boykin and Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb, a friend and training partner of Newton’s.
Newton catches his breath and towels off the sweat dripping from his face while Bersin powers through the next 700 meters. When the wideout starts slowing down, he hops off and Newton hops on. Seconds later, Cobb subs in for Boykin.
The Packers receiver and Newton match stroke for stroke for the next few hundred meters. Newton appears to be grinning again, but it’s not his million-dollar smile. It’s more like what happens when you’re so dead tired that the corners of your mouth instinctively pull back so you can inhale more air. Cobb looks equally spent but keeps pulling. The two are close to even heading into the homestretch.
“You don’t want to switch if you want to win!” Costa shouts.
With 300 meters left, Newton and Cobb are pulling on sheer willpower. Neither man wants to be the first to quit. Each hammers out rep after rep, when suddenly Cobb steps off the machine and Boykin jumps on. Cobb doubles over in exhaustion, hands on his knees, while Newton continues to hammer away. The quarterback got a few seconds lead during the change, but now Boykin and his fresh legs are gaining.
“You got it if you can finish, Cam!” Bersin shouts.
Newton closes his eyes. He looks like a lumberjack sawing through a thick, stubborn tree—the pain is evident with every pull. But he somehow manages to hold it together for the few final reps, and the LED display ticks over the 2,200-meter mark.
Newton lets out a shout, then smiles. The final score: He and Bersin, seven minutes and 41 seconds; Cobb and Boykin, seven minutes and 44 seconds.
Newton slaps Bersin’s hand as he climbs off the rowing machine. Dripping sweat and chasing his breath, he’s too exhausted to talk—a first for the day. But in his eyes, you can see the satisfaction of victory. “There’s no secret to why I do the things I do—I’m just trying to win,” Newton says. Good luck stopping him.
On Complacency: “I’ll never be at a point in my life where I feel like I’ve arrived. I refuse to be complacent as an athlete and as a person. I’m still chasing greatness every day.”
On Consistency: “It’s important that I be the same person every day. There’s not a Monday Cam, a Tuesday Cam, a Wednesday Cam—I try to be consistent and be positive, energetic and infectious each and every day.”
On Motivation: “Everything I’m doing is based on trying to win. There’s no hidden secret to why I do the things I do.”
On Teammates: “I cherish hanging out with my teammates. It puts me at ease knowing we share something we all want. It sounds cliché, but we’re one team with one dream.”
On Legacy: “When it’s all said and done, I want to be the best football player to ever play this game. I know it’s a big statement, but if I don’t have that type of confidence in myself, how can I expect others to?”
Two years ago, Newton switched to a pescetarian diet—no meat, but fish is OK—and he’s stuck with it. “Being a pescetarian is a challenge, but I enjoy it,” he says. “I always try to eat fresh food. If you’re eating Cheetos or Fritos after a workout, you’ve defeated the entire purpose.”
When he lets himself indulge, Newton’s favorite treat is cotton candy ice cream with caramel and extra marshmallows. Seriously—don’t skimp on the marshmallows. He says, “I tell the guy, ‘Don’t be stingy with the marshmallows, my man. More marshmallows! I know it costs extra, but it’s alright,’”