Commentary

Cam Newton fights through pain

Originally Published: January 10, 2011
By Michael Wilbon | ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The hip-hop songs popped full volume throughout the Auburn locker room in the aftermath. The new champions bear-hugged one another; many snapped pictures with cell phones to capture the scene, which was gloriously chaotic and celebratory. Every single player wore either a national championship ball cap, T-shirt or both, except one. Cam Newton, the face of the Auburn Tigers and the face of the 2010 college football season, surely wanted to participate but couldn't.

His back was killing him.

He spent more time getting X-rays than with his teammates. He walked gingerly to an abbreviated news conference. He winced. His right hand went to his lower back. The kid was in obvious pain, serious pain, even if the X-rays were said to be negative some 90 minutes after the game. A golf cart took him from the news conference to the X-ray room and back to the locker room, which was almost empty by the time he began to get out of his uniform.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCam Newton took a slow walk through the tunnels of the stadium after the game.

When I asked about the pain he was in, about the big hit in the fourth quarter that left him awfully slow to get up, Newton smiled for the only time and said, "I'm OK; it was worth it." And he added it wasn't just one hit that put him in a golf cart. Then Newton showed he's ready for the culture of professional sports when he gave a little shot to his critics without demonstrating the need to come off as churlish. "I don't want nobody to feel sorry for me, because throughout this year didn't nobody feel sorry for Auburn." There was the trace of another smile, but very quickly he was on the golf cart, head down, again in pain.

This certainly wasn't Cam Newton's finest night of football. He completed 20 of 34 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns. But he threw a pick, fumbled once, ran for a relatively pedestrian 64 yards, which was well below his season's average. But there were a couple of "Oh, my God" moments, such as the one when he lowered his shoulder and intentionally ran over an Oregon linebacker for a 3-yard gain on third-and-3, just because he could. It was a devastating piece of football -- and gamesmanship.

The Tostitos BCS Championship Game so many of us hoped for never materialized. There was no shootout, and those of us who have been covering football all our lives were stupid to suggest it would happen, if for no other reason than the teams had been off for five weeks. They couldn't get back to midseason form. As one Auburn assistant coach said afterward: "If we had played this game the week after we beat South Carolina in the SEC championship game and the week after they beat Oregon State [in Oregon's season finale], it would have been 51-48 instead of 22-19. Nobody would have stopped either offense. But playing the game this long after the season … it's like starting a new season, it's like swinging a golf club for the first time in a month. The form isn't there right away."

So Newton and his offense were less than impressive. Darron Thomas and his Oregon offense were a beat off. The game's stars were defensive studs: the All-American tackle Nick Fairley for Auburn, who has a bit of Ndamukong Suh in him; and Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews, Clay Matthews' younger brother, son of Clay, nephew of Bruce. Somehow, the story goes, USC didn't want Casey Matthews, which ought to get a recruiting coordinator fired. If you don't want one of the Matthews boys, anybody Clay sires, you don't want to win. If I was a college recruiter I'd go to Clay Sr. now and try to get a commitment from one of his unborn grandsons.

I don't want nobody to feel sorry for me, because throughout this year didn't nobody feel sorry for Auburn.

-- Auburn QB Cam Newton

Anyway, Casey Matthews nearly wrecked Newton's night when he stripped the Heisman Trophy winner from behind, causing the turnover that led to Oregon's touchdown and game-tying 2-point conversion. Again, it wasn't what most of us expected to see -- nor was that Michael Dyer stop-and-start roller-over dash that will live forever in college football lore, the run that ultimately won the game for Auburn. It wasn't a great game, but it had its moments, to be sure.

Surely, it was Newton's last game in college, no matter how diplomatically he sidestepped the issue of playing one more season. You get slammed to the turf the way he did -- even at his considerable size -- you get while the getting's good. Newton went to college to become a professional football player, and in this one season he served his apprenticeship. No matter what you think of his father Cecil's value system, or whether you even believe the accusations that his daddy was looking for a cut, it matters not to the pros. They could give a damn.

Cam Newton is a big, strong, talented kid with wondrous feet and a cannon of an arm. And while most people want to lazily compare all black athletes exclusively with black athletes and white athletes with whites, the guy in the NFL that Newton is most similar to is probably Ben Roethlisberger -- except that Newton is faster by a lot. The reports that A.J. Green, the Georgia receiver, ranks higher on some NFL draft boards than Newton is laughable. Talent evaluators sometimes overthink these things, such as when they decide the Matthews boys should be passed over in favor of others who are supposedly more talented. Sure, right.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesIt wasn't just one hit that sent Newton off for X-rays after the game.

Newton isn't JaMarcus Russell, and the two have little in common other than both being 6-foot-6 or thereabouts and having played in the SEC. Newton, when he walks in a room, commands it. He's got the voice to take over a huddle; the rugged good looks that make even the tough guys in the room realize he's dripping with star appeal. Average performance in the championship game or not, Newton is done with college football. The next time the kid plays, in September, his daddy won't have to strike some silly deal with school officials to stay away lest he attract too much media attention. His daddy, as it turned out, wasn't even around after the game to give his son a hug when he emerged from the X-ray room.

He won't go into the NFL with that Vince Young ending, having run in the championship-winning touchdown, a moment Young likely will never approach as a pro. Newton, at least, left himself plenty of room for greater exploits, although he still heads to the next level as a champion. The thing I liked most about Newton on Monday night was that the first thought he expressed postgame was support for his team's defense. "All eyes," he said, "were on the Auburn defense to see how they would respond to the Oregon offense … and they did respond."

And after that, following the X-rays, Newton said he wasn't buying the excuse that the offenses were rusty. The kid is sure enough of himself to admit that the moment sometimes reduces even great players and units. "We had a lot of distractions all season," he said, "and Coach [Gus] Malzahn would never let us let up. No matter what was happening around us, he made sure we kept pressing on."

I asked Newton what, then, was the matter with the two usually unstoppable offenses on this night, which is when he said, "I think there's a big-game factor which affects everybody," and perhaps Newton's reasoning was as sound as any theory about rust.

With that, the locker room closed. Players filed out, just about all of them except Newton, who accepted a congratulatory handshake and said he was going to be just fine. There will be plenty of time, when the pain subsides, to revel in the school's first football championship since 1957, to bring to Auburn something the school's most famous alums, Charles Barkley and Bo Jackson, couldn't do. By the time they arrive back in Alabama, heroes all, chances are Newton's smile will return and he'll have recovered sufficiently to accept, dare we say it, a few bear hugs and some old-fashioned pats on the back.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.

Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon

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