SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Cam Newton is everywhere these days.
If he’s not flying through your television set on Cam’s Night Out hawking Under Armour gear or sucking down Gatorade and “Winning the Fifth Quarter,” chances are you’ve seen the 23-year-old quarterback featured prominently by the NFL in advertisements for its upcoming preseason games.
He’s featured in the intro to ESPN SportsCenter.
And, if not for Calvin Johnson, he’d be on the cover of Madden NFL 13, too.
In just 15 months Newton has developed into a national celebrity unlike anything the Panthers have seen since they began play in 1995.
Charismatic, built like a Greek god and, above all, incredibly talented, Newton has taken the country by storm since being drafted No. 1 overall last year. As Panthers teammate Jon Beason said, Newton has become “a mega-superstar.”
Steve Smith? Julius Peppers? Sam Mills?
All great players for the Panthers over the years, but none has come close to grabbing the national spotlight as Newton has after a record-setting season in which he combined for 35 touchdowns and became the first rookie to throw for more than 4,000 yards.
“We haven’t had a guy who gets this much attention – ever,” said offensive tackle Jordan Gross, now in his 10th season with the Panthers.
When asked about Newton’s impact on the Panthers, teammate Charles Johnson laughed and said, “Can’t you tell? Just like when he walked on to the practice field (Sunday) night.”
Newton did so to a rock star’s welcome, entering Wofford College’s Gibbs Stadium for the first training camp practice before a fired-up crowd of 12,871. Fans wearing his No. 1 jersey were everywhere, far outnumbering any other member of the team.
It was the largest crowd ever assembled for a single practice in the 18 summers the Panthers have spent in Spartanburg, according to team spokesman Charlie Dayton.
Call it the Cam factor.
And Newton, who has a flare for showmanship, didn’t shy away from attention.
He raced up the field for a 25-yard gain on a play-action fake, veered out of bounds and ran along the inside wall of the stadium pumping his left fist at fans.
They roared with delight.
After practice, Newton had a little fun with fans, pretending first to run to one side of the field and then the other.
Every time he changed directions, fans cheered, each side pleading with him to come over to sign autographs.
“He’s become the face of this team,” Johnson said. “He’s a monster out on the field. I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Not only do they appear to have a legit star quarterback for the first time in 18 seasons, they have an identity.
Of the season ahead, coach Ron Rivera said, “As Cam goes, we go.”
“I think we need that in Charlotte,” Beason said. “We’re still a very young franchise in a city where NASCAR is superior. If we win more games here, more of you guys (the media) are going to show up; there will be more endorsement deals and TV commercials for everybody. I think when you do have a mega-superstar on your team it definitely helps you.”
Of course, with fame come potential pitfalls.
Rivera’s aware of that.
That’s one of the reasons he pulled Newton aside in February for a private talk, making sure he kept his priorities straight in the offseason.
“We talked about what he was going to be doing and he was very forthright about it – and we have no issue with it,” Rivera said. “The biggest thing he understands is that once we’re in the season, it’s time to work. And his focus and attention is about what we do. And it is. So I have no problem.”
Center Ryan Kalil Newton’s desire to win is unrivaled.
“People see him on commercials and think that’s what he’s been doing in the offseason, but they don’t know what he’s done behind the scenes,” Kalil said.
“I’m just working on being great,” Newton said. “It’s the little things. Everybody wants to win the Super Bowl, but let’s worry about today. Tomorrow is not promised. Let’s worry about trying to go out and execute every play and focus on the small things.”