Auburn's Cam Newton stepped up to the podium in Best Buy Theater, that gigantic smile we've seen so many times this season stretched wide across his face. He took a few deep breaths in and looked out toward the crowd: It included past winners, his fellow finalists, his coach Gene Chizik and his mother.
"I'd like to thank my beautiful mother, Jackie," Newton said. "And my father ..." He put his head down and paused, seemingly fighting back tears.
What would he say?
Cecil Newton wasn't sitting in the crowd watching his son receive that iconic statue. He had released a statement earlier in the week that said, in part, "I have decided not to be in attendance ... as it will perhaps rob Cam and the event of a sacred moment."
But even if he wasn't physically there, Cecil Newton's presence was unavoidable. There's no getting around that he was part of a pay-for-play scheme during Cam's recruitment at Mississippi State. There's no getting around that his access to the Auburn program had to be limited after the NCAA declared he had broken rules.
And there's no getting around the fact that some voters made Cam Newton pay for that scandal.
He still won by a comfortable margin, beating out Stanford's Andrew Luck by 1,184 points, taking 82.5 percent of all first-place votes and coming in first in all six regions. But Newton was also missing from 105 ballots, and this comes on the heels of the release of the Football Writers Association of America's All-America team, which omitted Newton. His margin of victory was only 11th-largest all time between Billy Cannon (1,316 points in 1959) and Archie Griffin (1,101 in 1974), and given the way he dominated this season, that was certainly the most astonishing result to come from a vote we've known the outcome of for weeks.
So what would Newton say? Would he address the scandal? Would he defend his father? Would he again ask us all to believe he knew nothing of the pay-for-play scheme?
As he continued to stand there, his head down trying to collect himself, Bo Jackson, Auburn's 1985 winner, told him "Take a couple of deep breaths, man. Take a couple of deep breaths." But before Newton could continue, someone from the crowd yelled out "WE LOVE YOU, CAM."
In the end, we got nothing. Like so much else with Newton off the field, it's an ending that leaves us speculating.
Someday soon in his Oswego, Kan. studio, Ted Watts will begin work on Newton's portrait, like he's done for every winner. It will take months for the 67-year-old to complete and when it's done, it will be hung alongside legends like Doak Walker, Roger Staubach and Herschel Walker. It is heady company, for sure. But for many, it is a player whose likeness and win have been removed from the annals of the trophy's history who Newton will continue to be most associated with: Reggie Bush.
While the NCAA has ruled Newton eligible, it also hasn't said it has closed the case. It has left open the possibility for further action if it discovers Newton and or Auburn knew of the payment scheme. Newton's story could still end like that of USC's '05 winner -- with another vacated Heisman. Whether he had any fears of that happening, Newton had a simple and judging from his deliver, a rehearsed response: "I have two letters for you, my friend," he said. "N-O."
That was the risk with voting for with Newton, but it's one that the vast majority of voters, myself included, had to take. No matter your stance on the nation's most polarizing player -- victim or villain -- this much has been undeniable. Newton was the year's best, hands down. It wasn't even close. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior threw for 2,589 yards and ran for another 1,409 in amassing a nation's best 49 touchdowns and led the nation in passing efficiency (188.1). He also became just the third player in major college football history to rush for 20 touchdowns and pass for 20 in the same year, and the first QB in SEC history to post a season with 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 rushing. And most amazingly, he's done it all in just his first season in Auburn.
Let that all soak in for a moment. Try and forget the scandal and revel in it all.
"[The] road to redemption has no GPS," T.I. tells us in Get Back Up. "So guess the time must be invested." It's as if he had written that line for Newton, who has navigated the most unlikely of paths in becoming the third winner in Auburn history, following Pat Sullivan (1971) and Jackson and the third recipient from the SEC in the last four years after Tim Tebow (2007) and last year's winner, Mark Ingram.
Newton went from an unceremonious exit at Florida after he was arrested in 2008 for possession of a stolen laptop to fighting for another chance while isolated from the world of major college football at tiny Blinn College in Brenham, Texas. He resurfaced at Auburn and dominated arguably the toughest division in the toughest conference in the country in leading the Tigers to a 13-0 regular season, an SEC title and a spot in the BCS Championship Game. And now, when he takes the field in Glendale on Jan. 10 vs. Oregon, he'll do it as a Heisman Trophy winner.
"This whole thing right now is beyond me. I feel like I'm in a dream and I haven't woken up yet," he said. "It hasn't even come up to me yet what I have accomplished."
This should have been a night to celebrate Newton's story of redemption, not dwell on speculation; as his father said in his statement: This was Cam's moment. This was Newton's time to take his place among the giants of the past. Before he walked up to the podium as the latest Heisman winner, he shared a long embrace with his mother.
"I didn't want to let her go," Newton said. "It's been hard for me, but it's been extremely hard for her to see how much her son has been through. I wanted to just hug her the whole night, just to make her feel at ease and know that it's over for us."
That's the part that's inescapable. We don't know if it is. Newton's legacy will never be one befitting one of the most dominant individual seasons in recent memory. Fair or not, innocent or guilty, the scandal will be just as much a part of his time at Auburn as the 25-pound prize he leaves Times Square with.