A lost 20-year-old quarterback arrived at a small Texas junior college in 2009 and a future NFL superstar left a year later. We visited the Brenham campus to find out how washing jerseys, mooing cows and painting bleachers transformed Cam Newton into the football player he is today
BRENHAM, Texas — Blinn College lies in the heart of bluebonnet country, a speck among acres of farmland. The 133-year-old school doesn’t have a recreation center. There’s a walkable downtown, dotted with a homemade pie shop, antique stores and two bars: one known for its $1.75-an-hour billiards while the other doubles as a fresh produce stand. On weekends, it’s rare to find any of Blinn’s 2,400 students here. If there’s no home basketball or football game, campus empties. “What do we do for fun?” says sophomore Rob Smith. “Party at Texas A&M.” College Station is 40 miles up the road.
Seven years ago, Cecil Newton dropped off his son here. Cam Newton, the prized quarterback prospect, had left the University of Florida in disgrace. The 20-year-old arrived at Blinn in 2009 with a chip on one shoulder, a Nike duffel on the other, and so began the most transformative year of his life.
Newton slept in a 100-square-foot dorm room neighboring a cow pasture; he awoke several times each night to mooing. He didn’t have a TV, he didn’t have a car. He took classes in a brick structure called “The Classroom Building.”
He left all of his Gator gear behind. The Blinn Buccaneers issued Newton—like every player—one school logo t-shirt, one pair of shoes and one pair of socks. If he wanted to wear gloves, he would need to buy them himself. If he didn’t like the shoes, ditto. He was told he had to wash his own practice jersey.
“A lot of people wonder why Cam Newton ended up here,” says Jeff Tilley, Blinn’s marketing and communications director. “I believe it was all calculated. If you want to pick somewhere that’s secluded, to get away from the limelight, to take care of business, I can’t think of a more perfect place.”
The Cam Newton playing in Super Bowl 50 is supremely confident. He embraces the nickname Superman, dances after touchdowns, wears Versace zebra-print pants and engages in debate about his role in history. “When he was here,” says Amy Winningham, Newton’s English teacher, “he was just another student. In fact, I didn’t know who he was until halfway through the semester.”
Winningham heard murmurs of the school’s new hotshot. Newton was a rare breed in Brenham; most students previously lived within a two-hour radius. And the athletes? Almost all wanted to play in the NCAA, but they just needed to get their grades up first. Newton was a 6-foot-5, five-star recruit from an Urban Meyer-run program. “My husband, who also works at Blinn, kept talking about, ‘Cam Newton, Cam Newton,’” Winnningham says. “I said, ‘I have a Cam Newton in my class, I wonder if it’s the same guy.’”
That Newton sat in the second row of her 8 a.m. section on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He had no absences, and no tardies. The 24-student class was discussion-based, and Newton shot his hand up at least once a class. Winningham remembers Newton as quiet, but respectful. He had an infectious smile. It must be the same Newton, she figured. When the students were asked to write a term-long research paper, Newton titled his, “The Life of the Student Athlete.”
Blinn promised to provide structure for Newton. The coach, Brad Franchione, offered a detailed three-step plan. 1) Newton would get a degree. By NJCAA rule, when you come down to junior college level from FBS, you need to graduate to make it back up. 2) Newton would become a better leader. The quarterback met with Franchione (son of Dennis, the former coach of Alabama and Texas A&M) for daily one-on-one sessions. Franchione assigned Newton to read “Leadership is an Art,” by Max Depree. Newton carried it around like it was his bible. 3) Newton would continue his growth as a football player.
Cecil Newton demanded that Franchione ride his son hard; in return, the father promised not to hover. Tilley can’t remember seeing Cecil Newton once on campus, not even at a game.
“You could tell,” Tilley says, “that Cam understood. This was his last chance to get back on track.”
Newton arrived first at practice and stayed 45 minutes after it ended for extra reps. About a month into spring practices, his receivers began staying, too. Newton never asked, they just didn’t want to disappoint him. Over the summer, Franchione assigned his players to paint the weathered wood bleachers at Spencer Stadium, which were nearly 50 years overdue for a manicure. By fall, Newton was ready to play. He threw for 2,833 yards, rushed for 655, and accounted for 39 total touchdowns. The Buccaneers went 11-1, and won the NJCAA national championship—and yet Newton was only named honorable mention All-America. Perhaps it was political, Tilley suggests. As much as Blinn was smitten by a humbled Newton, he had a way of irking opponents. In one game, Newton organized a celebration dance for his receivers. They huddled in the end zone, then dropped to the ground in unison. In another game, with Blinn leading by at least four scores, Newton spiced up the fourth quarter by stealing a flag from an unsuspected ref’s pocket. When the final whistle blew, Newton tossed the flag in the air. His teammates cheered in celebration, the opposing players (and confused referees) were less amused.
Three semesters later, Newton earned his associates degree, and transferred to Auburn. His legacy in Brenham was cemented. The following year, Blinn received another FBS transfer: Justin Tuggle (son of Jesse) from Boston College. A year after that, Joe Montana visited campus, looking for a fit for his son, Nick. (The University of Washington export ended up staying on the West Coast).
Each year after Newton left, Blinn receives seven or eight FBS transfers. “We have such a small advertising budget, I could never afford this kind of exposure,” Tilley says. “I couldn't put a true dollar amount to what it’s all worth.”
Second-year coach Keith Thomas brings in 20-25 recruits each winter. He sits them in a classroom and plays a video, beginning with Newton highlights. Then a familiar voice. “My name is Cam Newton, and this is what Blinn did for me…”
Inevitably, the recruits’ eyes widen. Thomas then addresses the parents in the room: “And you know, he graduated on schedule, just as we asked.” Nearly every recruiting pitch by Thomas these days involves Newton: Hey, he was sitting in the same seat you’re in now. Hey, this is where he lifted weights.
“Ninety-nine percent of the kids end up here because of academics, they didn’t take care of business for whatever reason in high school or their previous college,” Thomas says. “So they really look up to Cam. He’s an example that you can always get back on course.”
This fall, Thomas noticed that after his players scored, they began to dab. After a bench press, they’d emulate the Superman logo reveal. “I just hope next season they don’t try to give kids footballs,” Thomas says. “I don’t have enough money for that.”
Last summer, Newton returned to Blinn to film a commercial with Under Armour. He brought along Chad Froechtenicht, his former teammate who he remains close. (Froechtenicht had a car, and would often bring Newton home to Houston with him on weekends).
Junior colleges, by nature, are transient. Most of the people Newton knew on campus were gone: the dean, the entire athletic staff, his classmates. Newton halted short when he entered Spencer Stadium. A year after he left, the stands repainted by the 2009 Blinn players were deemed unsafe and removed. The Buccaneers now play home games one mile down the road at the local high school.
“What did y’all do with my bleachers?” Newton asked. “I worked hard on those!”
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