NEW YORK -- It began with the usual, feel-good moment: The newly announced Heisman Trophy winner smiling, hugging his mother, ascending nervously to the stage to accept his prize. But then, shortly into his acceptance speech, Cam Newton uttered a line that in any other year would have gone completely unnoticed.
"I'd like to thank my beautiful mother and my father," said the Auburn quarterback. "My parents do a lot of things behind the scenes that go unnoticed."
He meant well. But in the press room at the Marriott Marquis -- and, presumably, in living rooms across America -- the otherwise innocent remark elicited a cascade of groans and snickers. The scene pretty much summed up Newton's 2010 Heisman victory: Deserved, but awkward.
When the final votes were counted, Newton had earned more than double the points (2,263) of his closest competitor, Stanford's Andrew Luck (1079). But it could have been even more lopsided if not for the extenuating circumstances. Newton ranked first on 93 percent of the ballots on which his name appeared. But 105 of the 886 voters left him off entirely, presumably due to the NCAA violation in which his father, Cecil, solicited money from Mississippi State recruiters.
Newton got to hear his name called, got to give a speech, got to enjoy the same celebratory moment as 75 young men did before him, but there was no escaping the elephant in the room. Thus, during a press conference 30 minutes later, he was asked whether there was any concern he might eventually have to return the trophy, a la Reggie Bush.
"Two letters for you, my friend," said Newton. "No."
He accepted his award and answered the ensuing questions with that same ear-to-ear grin we've seen him flash in postgame interviews and jubilant leaps into the stands. His smile, his charismatic personality are so indisputably captivating so as to make you temporarily forget this is the same guy embroiled in the sport's biggest pay-for-play scandal in nearly a decade.
Even more intoxicating, of course, is watching Newton play football. While the off-field ambiguity may never dissipate, his actions on the field these past three months were far more decisive.
His was a remarkable ascension from unseen junior college transfer and former Florida backup to the most dominant player in the land. In fact, a year ago this weekend he was merely a recruit on his official visit to Auburn. "I went from visiting and seeing the best Auburn has, to a year later, seeing what New York has," he said Friday.
Tigers fans got an early glimpse of it on opening weekend against Arkansas State, when the first-time starter ran for 171 yards and passed for 186. The rest of the country started taking notice the last Saturday of September, when he notched 334 total yards and five touchdowns in a comeback win over South Carolina.
He officially catapulted into the superstar stratum following a 217-yard rushing performance in an Oct. 23 win over then-undefeated LSU, just 12 days before the first reports of the NCAA allegations and the ensuing firestorm. On Nov. 9, he found himself answering questions about academic misconduct allegations dating to his time at Florida, his last public comments for nearly four weeks.
Amidst the hovering uncertainty about his eligibility, Newton turned in his signature performance, leading the Tigers back from a 24-0 deficit to win the Nov. 26 Iron Bowl. "We were watching the Alabama game in the locker room," recalled Stanford's Luck. "At halftime we went for our Friday walk-through. When we came back, it was: 'What happened?' Well, Cam Newton happened." Cleared by the NCAA over the Mississippi State violation days later, he went out and shredded South Carolina again for six touchdowns in last weekend's SEC Championship game.
And then, for the first time in nearly a month, he spoke. "I did nothing wrong," he told ESPN's Chris Fowler in a sit-down interview this week, and that may well be true. All allegations to this point have been pointed toward Cecil Newton, who steered clear of Saturday's festivities, and broker Kenny Rogers. Cam Newton, we're told, knew nothing of it. Most find hard that to believe, but how are we to know otherwise when he's yet to address the story in any detail?
He gave Fowler a long list of reasons why he chose Auburn over Mississippi State ("Auburn possessed what's best for Cam Newton," he said), thus contradicting his October comment to Sports Illustrated that he let his father make the decision for him. "It's Auburn," Cecil Newton declared at dinner shortly before Christmas.
On Friday, Newton spoke continually of his love for his father, and how disappointing it was that Cecil wouldn't be in the audience Saturday night. Asked, however, if he was disappointed in his father over his role in an NCAA violation, the son replied, "No, I am not." At a pre-ceremony press gathering Saturday, the first question asked was whether he told a Mississippi State recruiter that "the money was too much" at Auburn, as ESPN.com reported last month.
"I'm honestly not about to entertain [questions] regarding any situation about that right now," he said. "I think that tonight takes along something that's very special to me, and the last thing I would like to talk about is something of that caliber."
It's certainly Newton's prerogative to dodge all those nagging questions the way he did LSU's defenders, but in doing so, he makes it harder for non-partisan viewers to fully share in his joy. There's usually no sweeter moment than a Heisman winner hugging his teary-eyed mother, as Cam did Jackie Newton moments after his name was called. This year, even that scene elicited its own share of questions.
"When I embraced my mother," he said later, "I didn't want to let go. Because, while this has been hard for me, it's been extremely hard for her."
Just moments earlier, he'd high-fived a young Make-a-Wish recipient who had the honor of introducing him. Asked about his studies at Auburn, Newton said he's majoring in sociology because, "One day I hope to open my own day-care center. My passion for kids is through the roof."
There's a lot to like about Cam Newton -- and not just his arm strength, his accuracy or his elusiveness. When he takes off the helmet, when he strides through New York City in a suit, he does so with a beaming grin and a magnetic ray of confidence. It's not hard to see him playing the role of Peyton Manning in the next generation of DirecTV commercials or Tom Brady kissing a Super Bowl trophy one day.
But Cam Newton the college player will likely go down as one of the sport's biggest enigmas. Saturday he was officially immortalized as one of the all-time greats, and he can add to his legend with a national championship victory over Oregon next month.
Only history can say whether his legacy will carry with it the same suspicion that left him off those ballots.