HE WAS A HOOT, a cutup, a profane clown with a round, unathletic build. Those things made it easier for people to forget that Nate Newton was one of the best offensive linemen of his day, a six-time Pro Bowler and a key reason Emmitt Smith became the NFL's alltime leading rusher. Befitting a guard who did some of his best work on counter plays, Newton was also a contrarian whose default mode was against the grain.
This is an article from the July 7, 2014 issue
That helps explain why Newton chafes when he's asked to identify the low point of his time in federal prison. "There wasn't no low point," Newton insists in his rumbling basso profundo. "I mean, I didn't have fun in there. But I wasn't gonna die, either. See, people think you have to reach a low point and want to jump off a cliff or stab yourself or something, but I wasn't going there, brother."
Nate Newton has forgiven himself, so maybe you can forgive him too.
In the crowded annals of Cowboys malfeasance—from the indecent exposure of Lance Rentzel to the larceny of the late Larry Bethea (who stole his mother's life savings) to the crack-fueled depredations of Hollywood Henderson—Newton's transgressions stand out for their sheer hubris and stupidity. On Nov. 4, 2001, he was arrested in St. Martin Parish, La., after police found 213 pounds of marijuana in a van he was driving. Less than six weeks later, after being released on a $100,000 bond, Newton was involved in another traffic stop, in Ellis County, Texas. This time cops found 175 pounds of weed in the trunk of a car he was traveling with.
There is belaboring the obvious, and then there is the rhetorical question posed by bail bondsman David Wells to Newton shortly after the second arrest: You know you f----- up, right?
"He said, 'I know that,' " recalls Wells, who has long worked as a behind-the-scenes fixer for Cowboys players who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Newton told Wells not to bother trying to fix anything: "Don't even get me out. Just let me start doing my time now."
"That's when the light went on," says Wells. "That's when he got it."
Newton recalls that while serving 30 months—he was released in November 2004—he was sitting with a group of inmates when each was asked, "What have you learned in prison?" "I ain't learned nothing but one thing," he replied. "I know damn well I ain't coming back. Because you know why? I find [prison is] full of a bunch of whining, sorry, crybaby-ass men who made a bad decision, and now they don't want to live up to it, don't want to accept responsibility for it."
Give Newton this: He owns his shortcomings. He blames only himself for his poor decisions. Don't call them mistakes—he'll correct you while verbally spanking himself. "Yeah, I made a mistake and sold 213 pounds of weed," he says. "And then—guess what?—I made the same mistake again, less than two months later! Come on, man. We don't have to deal in that foolishness."
In the 10 years since his incarceration ended, Newton has by all indications trod the path of righteousness. He has mentored high schoolers in South Dallas. He has returned to the local airwaves, disseminating his tart opinions on sports talk radio and providing postgame analysis on Fox Sports Southwest. He recently spent several days as an in-studio guest at the NFL Network, which was featuring his former team on Dynasty Week.
Among those who saw him on that TV gig was his former Cowboys coach Barry Switzer. "I texted him, told him he looked great," says Switzer. "But I'll tell you this: He couldn't play today. His ass is too small."
NEWTON IS standing impatiently beside his red pickup truck outside the Coppell Deli, a short drive north of Dallas--Fort Worth Airport. I got lost on the way and kept him waiting for 15 minutes. He's cranky, but he'll get over it. Once, when I reintroduced myself to him in the mid-'90s, he said, "I know who you are. You're that preppy motherf----- from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED." Then he smiled.
Newton is 52, 15 years removed from his last NFL game, which came late in a disappointing one-year stint with the Panthers. The jolly warrior, once renowned for his Falstaffian girth—his vast perspiration stains were enthusiastically circled by a telestrator-wielding John Madden—now has the ascetic aspect of a man training for a half-marathon. Newton has a waist, a jawline, discernible facial features. Gone are the beanbag-chair buttocks, the engines of the road grader that paved the way for Emmitt. To Switzer's point, Newton's ass is, well, nondescript. And that's a good thing.
Four years ago, with his weight above 410 pounds and his body-mass index at an alarming 50—doctors told him he'd crossed the threshold from "morbidly obese" to "super obese"—Newton feared for his life. He underwent a procedure called a vertical sleeve gastrectomy: Doctors removed roughly 75% of his stomach. Newton also embraced lifestyle changes, eating better and working out. He climbs onto the recumbent stationary bike in his house most mornings and also gets out on his road bike a few times a week. Asked if he rocks form-fitting Lycra cycling shorts in the saddle, Newton replies in the affirmative: "Whatever it takes to get the job done, keep the goobers in place."
Whatever he's doing, it's working. Within six months of the surgery he'd lost nearly 200 pounds.
Arriving at the deli, we take a table near the entrance. The guy behind the counter greets Newton as if he were Norm walking into Cheers. A sandwich on the menu is named after him. But the new, streamlined Newton can't get through even half of his eponymous entrée: ham, turkey, bacon, Swiss and American cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and mayo on three pieces of white toast.
Asked to list the major changes in his diet, he cites one: "I quit drinking beer." He's still eating what he used to eat, he adds, "just less of it."
Adorning the walls are scores of autographed photos of Cowboys from the team's most recent glory days, the 1990s, after arriviste owner Jerry Jones unceremoniously dumped fedora-topped legend Tom Landry as coach and replaced him with the helmet-haired Jimmy Johnson. The loutishness of that move was overlooked by the Dallas faithful once the team started winning Super Bowls. The Cowboys won it all in '92, '93 and '95. (The last of those title squads was coached by Switzer, Johnson having resigned after the '93 season, when it became clear that his and Jones's egos could no longer fit comfortably inside the old Texas Stadium.)
There, in a Dallas team photo taken in 1992, is the 30-year-old version of Newton. Number 61 stands just behind fullback Daryl Johnston and in front of defensive tackle Tony Casillas. A roster from that season says Newton stood 6'3" and tipped the scales at 318 pounds. He looks good. He's not remotely defined, mind you. Nor is he morbidly—let alone super—obese.
Throughout his career, the expansion and contraction of Newton's waistline provided Cowboys beat writers with a go-to training-camp story line. Upon Johnson's arrival in Dallas in 1989, the coach recalls, he was told by holdovers from the previous staff that, though Newton had potential, it would never be realized: He was too fat.
But Johnson was coming from the University of Miami, where he'd opened his arms to overlooked butterballs such as Russell Maryland and Cortez Kennedy and helped transform them into All-Americas. "When I talked to Nate," recalls Johnson, "I said, 'Listen, I'm starting fresh with you. As long as you perform, I'll deal with whatever problems you might have' "—a pragmatic, see-no-evil approach that served Johnson well with a number of his star players.
Open-minded though he was, Johnson still wanted a leaner Newton than the Weeble-shaped utility lineman who reported to camp in July 1989. Thus was the USFL refugee out of Florida A&M forced to eat at a special salad- and vegetable-intensive training table. "Every night I tell myself I'm gonna dream about my girl," a forlorn Newton told reporters after practice one day, "but it's always ham hocks."
At one point, recalls then Cowboys offensive line coach Tony Wise, the team decided to put Newton on a Jenny Craig diet. Wise remembers sitting in a staff meeting discussing a letter from a Jenny Craig rep who was, Wise says, "concerned that Nate Newton had not been showing up for his appointments, and also because he had been spotted the previous Saturday at a rib-eating contest."
But a funny thing happened once Newton took the field. He mauled people. From a distance he "looked like this big, round guy," recalls John Gesek, a Dallas offensive lineman who won a pair of Super Bowls playing alongside Newton. "Up close, you see he's got bodybuilder features: big ol' chest, giant legs, monstrous calves. He was really well built—just with a big gut, you know?"
The gut slowed Newton some, but he still excelled for the Cowboys right away. Says Wise, "Nate had quickness, he was physical, he liked to hit guys, he was plenty smart. He was great in meetings, great in practice. And when you saw the film on him, he was out there goring people. I never really understood what the issues were."
Newton's issues were off the field. Unlike the sandwich named after him at the Coppell Deli, they were not for public consumption.
ONE DAY in the late 1990s, a handful of Cowboys made the drive from Dallas to training camp in Wichita Falls, Texas, where the team held two-a-days from '98 through 2001. Wideouts Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper were piloting their respective Mercedes 500 SLs, recalls Newton, who was behind the wheel of his trusty Ford F150 with, he says, "extra cab." The receivers were giving him grief about his truck, telling him he wouldn't be able to keep up.
"I took off going 120," Newton recalls. "Left 'em all behind. At the next stop I told 'em, 'It ain't how fast your motherf------ car goes, it's how far you wanna push the gas.' "
Nate Newton wanted to punch the accelerator. He was a locker room jester, a font of one-liners. But it's always ham hocks. By his own admission, however, he lived a "dual life." Behind the blubber and the bluster was a guy with a dangerous lead foot and no governor. Throughout his career—and at the expense of his first marriage—Newton indulged Dionysian appetites for alcohol and women.
"I was wild, man," he says, sitting in the deli. "When I die, brother, the world gonna be mad at me, because I took everything it had to offer."
He had plenty of hell-raising company on those Cowboys clubs. It was Irvin whose 30th birthday party—featuring an ounce of marijuana, 10 grams of cocaine, assorted drug paraphernalia, sex toys and a pair of self-employed "models"—was famously interrupted by police. The question Irvin posed to one of the officers who knocked on his hotel room door—"Can I tell you who I am?"—came to symbolize the arrogance and entitlement, the debauchery and obliviousness of some Cowboys of that era.
Irvin's arrest, and the subsequent sensational court proceedings—"Dallas finally got its trial of the century," said Texas Monthly—led to the revelation of the existence of the so-called White House, a two-story residence adjacent to the Cowboys' Valley Ranch training facility where Irvin and select teammates escaped the pressures of fame (and their families) in the company of still more self-employed "models." Newton, an occasional White House visitor, failed to cut a sympathetic figure when he complained to The Dallas Morning News, "We've got us a little place over here where we're running some whores in and out, trying to be responsible, and we're criticized for that, too."
Life can be so unfair!
That team "did everything to excess," says Babe Laufenberg, a former reserve quarterback for the Cowboys who is now a sports anchor in Dallas. "The egos were excessive, the partying was clearly excessive. But they were exceedingly good, and that made all the other excesses fade into the background."
Newton embodied that ethos of excess. "In the beginning he got pigeonholed as this certain guy—always jovial, always ready with a quip," says Laufenberg. "But there was more going on in his life than people saw."
Much more. In 1992, Newton had married his longtime sweetheart, Dorothy Johnson, who'd played varsity volleyball at Louisiana-Lafayette. The couple had two sons: Nathaniel (Tre') Newton III, now 24; and King, now a senior at Southlake Carroll High near Fort Worth, where he's a defensive end on the football team. Tre', a four-year starter at running back for Southlake Carroll, played for two years at Texas but was forced to quit football following his seventh concussion. An aspiring athletic director, he completed his master's degree in Sports Management at UT last December.
Nate and Dorothy divorced in 2000. Two years ago Dorothy published her autobiography, Silent Tears, in which she chronicles the serial philandering and verbal and physical abuse to which Nate subjected her. A disturbing sampler:
• I was exhausted from taking care of the baby, but to refuse him meant an argument.... Once or twice he grabbed me and shoved me against the wall.
• I put the car in gear to back out, and in a split second Nate's fist crashed into the windshield, shattering it on the driver's side.
• I remember one night Nate grabbed me by the hair and pulled me around the house.
Asked to address these allegations of criminal behavior toward the mother of his children, Newton doesn't deny or evade. "A lot of times I would come home in a bad [condition], mentally and physically," he says. "But nobody ever deserves that. I don't care what you do. I look back, man, and I ask, How big of a coward can you be? I had to do a lot of praying about that."
NEWTON DIDN'T have some blinding epiphany, like Saul on the road to Damascus. "There wasn't no thunder and lightning," he says. "I didn't have an out-of-body experience and go flying over the city." His journey to faith did take him to a Hooters, however, an indication that the Almighty may have a sense of humor. Shortly after Newton was released from prison, he called Wells, the bail bondsman. Newton needed to find a job fast, he explained, or be in violation of his parole. Wells set up a meeting—at, yes, Hooters—with Omar Jahwar, a local community activist and minister. The reverend helped Newton get that job mentoring high school students in South Dallas.
Leaving the Hooters that night, Newton sat in his truck and looked back on his life. "I said to myself, I've lived all these years without God. I've flipped not one, not two, but three or four cars—we're talkin' high-dollar cars. The only way I could've gotten through all this was because of his grace.
"So I thought about it. Here I am, coming out of prison, got nothin'. Then, all of a sudden, I got a job." He addressed his maker directly: "You know what, God? I'm going to give you a try. I'm going to ride with you."
After "getting right with Christ," he says, he apologized to Dorothy, his sons, his parents, the Cowboys organization and its fans. He remarried in 2004 to Michelle Murphy, whom he met at a nightclub shortly before he went to prison. Since he got out, "Nate's been all about keeping it real and keeping it straight," Wells reports.
In Newton's mind, he's playing catchup with those who found the Lord earlier in their lives. It's tougher for him, he says, because he's "lived in the flesh" for so long.
It helps that he has less flesh to live in. As his weight ballooned four years ago, his blood pressure spiked. The extra pounds aggravated the arthritis from which he suffers all over his body. The simple act of walking became uncomfortable. He was diagnosed with diabetes and feared that he might not live long enough to see King, then 12, play high school football.
Since the stomach surgery, all those symptoms have abated. Newton is a fixture at Dragons football games. He's also healthy enough to drive to Florida and visit family a half-dozen times a year. Perhaps not surprisingly, he gets pulled over. A lot.
"I've been pulled over three times in a 400-mile stretch," he reports. "The cops asked me, 'Why are you getting upset?' And I say, 'You just pulled me over 200 miles ago! You think I'm gonna stop between then and now to put weed in my car?'
"I mean, I'm crazy. But I ain't stupid."