CHARLOTTE — Superman stood on his own 16-yard line, and the world spun away from him. Sequences like these are shown again and again, in slower and slower motion, from angle after angle, until all mystery is lost, until all of the supersonic chaos of the moment fades away and it just becomes a THING. Ball dribbles through Bill Buckner’s legs. Scott Norwood’s kick floats wide right. Scott Hoch’s putt skims the left edge of the hole. Cam Newton doesn’t go for the ball. A THING.
Newton did not know any of this would become a THING, not yet. The Broncos’ fantastic defense was frustrating him. The ball had just been knocked from his hand, it bounced erratically and then settled on the field. He saw the ball clearly but not as clearly as 112 million across America watching the Super Bowl on television. They saw the ball, and they also saw the score (Denver leading Carolina by seven), and they saw the clock (about four minutes left). They saw it all with crystal clarity. If Carolina did not recover the fumble, the game was lost.
Newton took one quick step toward the ball, and then a second step. He got to the ball at the same time that Denver’s DeMarcus Ware, who was on the ground nearby, reached out his left arm for it. America braced itself for a mighty collision.
Then Cam Newton stopped. He jumped back a little.
After several others arrived on the scene, Newton fell to his knees in a less-than-convincing effort to join the ball-chasing fray. The ball popped free, rolled behind him. Denver safety T.J. Ward fell on it at the Carolina 4-yard line. And the game was over.
“Can you put your disappointment into words,” Newton was asked just moments after the game. He was not ready to talk. Later, he would express regret for his gloom and rage. Everything was anger and humiliation and a crushing sense of failure. He wore a hood over his head, and his expression was dead, and he spit out short answers with as much disgust as he could manage. This too would become part of the THING.
‘We lost,” he said. And after three minutes of pained two-word answers, he walked out.
* * *
Athletes will tell you that the worst part of losing is not the pain. That fades after a while. No, the toughest is the wait that follows, the interminable wait for another chance.
Carolina starts the new season tonight and at this particular moment in time — before the first kickoff, before the first interception, before the first big play — the Panthers are serious Super Bowl contenders. Who is better? Newton had a season for the ages last year, and the Panthers scored more points than any team in the NFL; the whole offense is back with the return of brilliant receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who had 1,008 yards receiving as a rookie but missed all of last season with a torn ACL injury.
The defense, well, everyone knows just how good that front seven is led by linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The secondary is a bit questionable with cornerback Josh Norman gone, but those linebackers are so good in coverage that no one expects the defense to fall off much, if at all.
So, if you use the past as your guide, the Panthers should be great again and should give Newton another opportunity to win the biggest game in sports.
But this is sports and so you can’t really use the past as your guide. Circumstances change. Expectations change. Motivations change. For the Carolina Panthers, 2015 was a free-flowing season. Nobody expected anything from them. Nobody really bought into them even after they started the year 7-0, then 8-0, then 9-0 and so on. For the Panthers, for Cam Newton, the whole season was one big dance party, with team selfies and giving footballs to kids and so on. The biggest question (and criticism) was: “Are Cam and the Panthers having TOO much fun?”
Then, the Super Bowl, and the THING, and now it’s different. This whole Carolina Panthers season, this whole Cam Newton season is essentially about one thing: Getting back to the place they were so that this time they can get it right.
And getting back is always harder than getting there in the first place.
* * *
We live in a time where athletes often speak through their television commercials, and the newest Cam Newton commercial for Under Armour is dark, dark, dark.
It begins with a shot of Newton from behind. He’s standing in an empty field with a towel over his head. “All the world,” the narrator says, “will be your enemy.”
We get a shot of Newton’s face. “Prince,” the narrator says, “with a thousand enemies.”
The words are from Richard Adams’ marvelous novel “Watership Down” — the quote is from a story within the story, about a rabbit’s place in the world. In the Newton commercial, though, it takes on a significantly edgier theme. Newton drops pulls the towel off his head, stretches his neck a couple of times, and runs into the woods.
“And whenever they catch you,” the narrator says, followed by the sound of a menacing growl. “But first they must catch you.” Newton runs through the woods, eluding trees, escaping darkness.
“Digger,” the narrator says. “Listener. Runner. Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning.”
Newton shouts and smashes through a tree.
“Full of tricks,” the narrator says.
Newton smashes through another tree. He stops to rest as two trees tumble behind him. He then walks to a dark and abandoned road.
“Prince with a thousand enemies,” the narrator says. “Never be destroyed.”
And it ends with a closeup of Newton’s face and then a close up of his feet as he walks down that lonely road.
The narrator, you should know, is Cam Newton’s mother, Jackie.
So, yeah, there’s a lot going on there. It is just a commercial, of course, but it might give us just a little insight into what drives Cam Newton now. Last year was about fun. This year is about enemies. Last year was about dancing and surprising and celebrating. This year is about avoiding destruction. Cam Newton has always had doubters, of course. But after the Super Bowl, after the THING, those doubters are enemies, a thousand enemies, chasing him, on his tail, pushing him.
“I can’t even look back or dwell on the past,” he said this week. He’s right. But it’s not as easy as words.
* * *
Most athletes who have had to endure being the center of a THING never get a chance to make it right. There were no more World Series grounders for Buckner, no more chances for Craig Ehlo to stop Michael Jordan on the final play, no more Super Bowl-winning kicks for Norwood, no more Super Bowls at all for Dan Marino after the crushing first one.
But it does happen sometimes. Dan Jansen did get one final race to win his gold medal. John Elway did get his chance to smash into the end zone after all those years of Super Bowl heartache. LeBron James did get his chance to give Cleveland a championship.
Newton is just 27 years old, in the prime of his athletic career. He has already done things that no NFL player has ever done. He’s the only player to ever throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 700 yards in the same season — he did that as a rookie. He’s the only player to have at least 30 touchdown passes and rush for 10 touchdowns in a season — he did that last year.
But as remarkable as the stats look, they do not fully describe what Newton can do at his best. He can turn third-and-four or less into automatic first downs because, realistically, how are you going to stop him? He forces teams to crowd the line because no team in the NFL runs more than than Panthers, and at the same time, he forces teams to play deep because of his phenomenally strong arm and fantastic ability to play-action pass.
In other words, he’s fundamentally different — there just has never been a 6-foot-6, 260-pound quarterback who could plow over defensive tackles and outrun safeties and throw 50-yard lasers. He really is Superman.
But that THING is there, in the air, in everybody’s memory including his own. You know, just know, that the next time the Prince with a Thousand Enemies is in that Super Bowl moment, with victory and defeat on the line, he will go after the ball with the fury he showed smashing through trees in the commercial. You know he will do it right next time.
The question of this Cam Newton season — and every season — is: Will there be a next time?