The people Nate Newton once knew still run from him. He will encounter them in an airport sometime or see them on the street or get a glimpse of them across a crowded restaurant as they hurry to gather their possessions and head for the exit. If his eyes somehow make contact with their eyes, he will see a fear that embarrasses him. Was he really that bad? Yes, he was. The legacy of a bully is hard to shake.
"I was terrible," he says.
"I was the worst," he says.
"If you were having a party and I wasn't invited?" he says. "I would walk inside and shut that #@%%$#@ down. Just shut it down. I was very good at shutting a party down."
Newton is the 6'3", 335-pound offensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys. He is 32 years old and recently signed a contract for $3.46 million that will keep him with the Cowboys for the next three seasons. Across the country he is perceived as some kind of enormous, lovable Chia Pet, a big huggy-bear of a man in the NFL's cast of cartoon characters. Two consecutive Super Bowls and two consecutive Pro Bowls and the unabashed "Whoaaaaaa!" and "Heyyyyyyyy!" of John Madden have lifted Newton above the anonymity of the offensive line. For five straight years—two at tackle, three at guard—he has been named to the All-Madden Team, an honor earned by get-dirty football traditionalists who seem to enjoy their work. Newton is a big, strong man, as quotable and profane as an MTV comedian as he recounts his battles with a body that has weighed between 297 and 400-plus pounds during his 10-year professional career.
Nate Newton? A bully? The idea that he could be anything but this roly-poly, happy warrior is a surprise. "There's a woman who can tell you about me," he says. "Her name is Pam Oliver, and she's a reporter on ESPN. She went to college with me at Florida A&M. She was the girlfriend of my best friend, Tony Hayes. Two years ago we played a preseason game in Tokyo, and she showed up. I hadn't seen her since college, and there she was. I smiled and started to say hello. I just saw her eyes go real wide. I could see she wanted to run away. I said, 'Pam, wait, I'm not like that anymore. Really, I'm a different guy.' "
Was he really that bad?
"Nate Newton," Oliver says, "was a monster."
His base of operations on the Florida A&M campus in Tallahassee was a street called the Set. Every campus has a similar place, where everyone hangs around to see and be seen. This place was near the dining hall and en route to the women's dorms, and it drew its name from the fact that everyone approached it with a Hollywood attitude. Newton's attitude came from action movies. He was Jaws, the oversized James Bond villain.
"He was the biggest guy on campus, first of all," says Hayes, now a Dallas policeman. "Second, this was before guys shaved their heads. Nate's head was shaved. Third, he always wore shorts. It could be the coldest day of the year, and he'd be wearing shorts and these businessman's hard-soled shoes and these long black businessman's socks. He was something to see."
What makes a bully? It was hard to figure in his case. He had grown up in Orlando. His father, Nate Sr., ran a filling station that gradually expanded to sell food and detergent and all manner of items. His mother, Margret, is a schoolteacher. He had a sister and three brothers, one of whom, Tim, would play defensive tackle for three NFL teams. Nate played football and basketball, wrestled and put the shot at Jones High and worked in his father's store. He remembers that he mostly was a loner and liked to stay home. He never was a neighborhood gang guy, a hang-around guy, a follower.
The colleges that approached him in his senior year were big-time places. Arizona State, for one, was very hot in its pursuit. Arizona State? The thought of going so far away and working under a coach, Frank Kush, who made players run up and down a mountain, was not appealing. Newton asked his high school coach to contact A&M, which had not called. The predominantly black school 260 miles away expressed an interest in him, and Newton decided to go there as soon as he saw the campus, which was never the same once he arrived.
"One thing I've always liked to do is curse," he says. "I was cursing once when I was a kid, and my father heard me. He told me that when I was big enough and when I was away from home, I could start cursing, not before. I hit FAMU and I said, 'All right. Here I am. I'm big enough, and I'm away from home.' "
Words were his primary weapon. The happy one-liners of today were dipped in chem-lab acid in college and fired in lethal barrages. No one was safe. Especially women. Woe to the A&M woman who dressed in a morning hurry, mismatching the colors of her skirt and blouse. Woe to the poor soul who was having a bad hair day. Newton was walking his beat. Hey, wait a minute. Don't they have a *&%%$# comb in your dormitory? Don't they have a hairbrush ?
He was funny, for sure, but the laughter of those around him always was nervous. First, there was relief that someone else was the target. Second, there was fear that the target might change. Third, if there was going to be a physical confrontation, well, the biggest man on campus was ready for that, too, at any time.
"Here's how bad it got," Hayes says. "Nate would go to dinner. He would sit by the door. No one would leave the dining hall, because they knew they would have to walk past him. Thirty minutes would go by, an hour. It would be eight o'clock at night, and no one would be leaving. Just because they didn't want to go past Nate."
His mistake, Newton thinks now, was that he considered himself funny. Weren't people laughing? For the longest time he wasn't hearing the nervousness. He knew something was wrong—he didn't have many real friends, and he didn't have as many dates as he wanted—but he wasn't sure what it was. He was the fool, and he didn't know it.
"Something happened, though, that got me thinking," he says. "There was this little dude around campus who owed money to this big dude. The big dude told the little dude not to show up at this bar on Saturday night without the money, because he'd hurt him bad. Well, the little dude showed up. Without the money. The big dude came over, and they were talking, and the little dude pulled out a .45. He put the gun under the big dude's chin and blew his brains out. Just like that.
"The whole thing, you see, happened because the little dude was so scared of the big dude. I got thinking about having people afraid of you. It's not a good way to live. I don't care how bad you are, how big you are, there's someone inside who wants to be liked. Nobody wants to be treated like some kind of leper when he comes around."
The change had begun.
"I like riding the bike," he says now. it's the best exercise for me, especially because it keeps the weight off my knees. You should see me out there. I bought the $2,000 bike. I have the helmet. I have the Spandex shorts. I have those funny little shoes that fit in the pedals. The only thing that gels to me is that tiny little seat. You know what I mean? If I get by that, in two years I'll be ready for that *&$$##@ Greg LeMond."
(He can be a real panic.)
"I tell kids that when they leave the house, they're either going to do good or do bad," he says. "I tell them that whatever they do, to do it because it's their own idea. Don't be good or bad because somebody else leads you. Be good or bad because it's your own choice."
(He can also be something of a seat-of-the-pants philosopher.)
"I had 14 pit bulls in a pen behind my house until a few months ago," he says. "I got rid of them because I wanted to be ready to move if I went to some other city as a free agent. I didn't want to have to worry about the dogs. I had two fences, a wooden fence and a chain-link fence, so they weren't a danger to anyone. If someone got through those fences, his biggest problem wouldn't have been with the dogs—it would have been with me."
(He can bring back just a little bit of the old intimidation every now and then.)
Twelve years have passed since A&M and the Set, and for Newton those years have been an upward, successful march. Undrafted by the NFL, cut as a free agent in 1983 by the Washington Redskins, injured in a serious car accident the night he was cut, he landed in the now defunct USFL with the Tampa Bay Bandits, for whom he played for two years. He signed with the Cowboys in 1986 and for a while was treated as an overweight curiosity. His nickname was the Kitchen (bigger than the Fridge, get it?), and he had to endure all the fat jokes and the fat pictures in the newspaper articles, which he has carefully saved in a scrapbook.
His breakout came with the arrival of Jimmy Johnson as the Dallas coach in 1989. Johnson didn't care what a player looked like or sounded like or smelled like as long as the player could play the game. That fit fine with Newton. He was always one of the team's strongest players though he had lost weight and gained weight and lost weight and gained weight by following an assortment of plans in search of his best weight (about 335). Then three years ago he discovered the bicycles and off-season trainer Mike Spotts in Orlando. This was the regimen that has worked best of all. He has made himself what he is, traveling from fat-man joke to Pro Bowl starter. A stiffening of league steroid rules has been an obvious help; football has again become a game of naturally huge men.
"You look around the league now, and every team has one of me—every team with a good offensive line, at least," Newton says. "I started out as this big fat guy all by myself, and it turns out I was the *&%%#@ prototype."
"Look at our draft," Dallas offensive line coach Hudson Houck says. "The two offensive linemen we drafted are bigger than Nate. He has fit very well with our offense, where we rely on area or one-on-one blocking. Not that there's anything wrong with him pulling, either. He's just an extremely powerful man who understands this game and loves to compete."
The Cowboys showed how much they value him when he and fullback Daryl Johnston became the first free agents retained after the departure of Johnson and the arrival of Barry Switzer in this tumultuous off-season. Two other veteran free-agent guards, Kevin Gogan and John Gesek, were allowed to, move along to other cities. Newton will be the foundation of a line that has to be rebuilt. This is fine with him. He would have moved for the right money, but he wanted to stay.
"I'm happy," he says. "I'm as happy these past few years as I've ever been. I look back and see that I was nothing but a fool, a clown. You can't live that way."
The bully is gone. Time changes people as much as anything. Time and experience. He is married and financially secure. He and his wife, Dorothy, have a son, Nate III, and his personal life, after having had three children with three different women, has settled. His mind has settled. There still might be public problems here and there—he will appear in court on June 27 on a 1993 charge of driving while intoxicated, and he has gone back to Spotts in Orlando to lose 45 pounds before the start of training camp—but he is certainly no longer the menacing figure of the Set. He has changed that. Oliver saw Newton at the Super Bowl in January 1993. "He was sitting there with a microphone and with his little name card in front of him, talking to all of these people," she says. "He was talking so nice, and everyone was writing down what he said. I said to myself, 'Look at Nate. He's all grown up.' "