Cam Newton is a prodigy. Prodigies are blessed with abilities that most of us would kill for but their talents are also a curse. In our country, we identify and then isolate our best and brightest, funneling them into a tunnel-driven system that only develops their gifts. Parents put all their energy into turning their child into the next (insert actor, musician or athlete), that they don’t allow their children to experience normalcy. The result is usually an aloof person who lacks balance and perspective.
Cam Newton’s gifts have always made room for him. Urban Meyer offered him a scholarship to the University of Florida where he would be groomed as the heir apparent to Tim Tebow. Newton blew his shot with the Gators when he stole a fellow student’s laptop computer. Newton received a slap on the wrist and transferred to a junior college. After leading Blinn College to the 2009 NJCAA National Football Championship, Newton became the most sought-after recruit in the nation, eventually choosing Auburn. At Auburn, Newton was again embroiled in controversy. Newton again came away unscathed leading Auburn to a national title and taking home the Heisman.
Despite the red flags, the Carolina Panthers chose Newton with the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. Once again, Newton’s talent won the day, with little or no consequence for his negative actions. That’s the problem with being a prodigy; people rarely tell you the truth. Those around you create a bubble and any subsequent criticism is viewed as adversarial. Character flaws aren’t corrected because the only feedback the prodigy receives is positive. Every time Cam Newton has faced an obstacle, his talent has either given him a free pass or a second chance. The people responsible have allowed Newton to ignore his flaws, stunting his growth.
Newton’s rookie season earned him even more praise. Newton shattered expectations by throwing for over 4,000 yards, with a 60% completion percentage and accounting for 33 touchdowns. Heading into the 2012 season, the Panthers became the trendy pick for a breakout season. A 1-6 start crushed any thoughts of the playoffs and cast a spotlight on Newton’s limitations. Newton’s now infamous press conference following a loss to the Dallas Cowboys has become a symbol of the young superstar’s immaturity.
Prodigies aren’t used to failure. Life comes easy to them. Worse yet, the adults in their lives often become leeches instead of leaders. Regardless of how talented a person is, they have flaws, especially when the majority of their lives are devoted to a solitary endeavor. Prodigies are socially awkward because they are pushed into a sport while neglecting the other life skills that will make them a successful person.
Money, fame and talent have inoculated the former Heisman Trophy winner from receiving critical character attributes like humility, introspection and perspective. In Newton’s mind, Carolina’s struggle last year was the fault of the coaching staff. He lacks the self-reflection to realize that there are holes in his game, starting with his inaccuracy. Newton’s completion percentage has dropped from 60% in his rookie season, to 57% last year.
Cam Newton is finally faced with a challenge that his talents can’t overcome. During his rookie year, he was able to get by on talent alone. His sophomore campaign was less successful because the league adjusted. Now, Newton must adjust; he must fix the holes in this game but first he must fix the holes in his heart.
There’s a thin line between becoming the next Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning. Coming out of college, the two men were considered to be on a level playing field. The difference between Leaf and Manning was maturity, maturity accepts responsibility, it improves and leads whereas immaturity casts blame, is stagnant and alienates.
Our standards for athletes are too high. We expect these young men to be finished-products when the reality is that they are a few years into manhood. There’s time for Cam Newton to mature but the choice is his. Talent can only take a person so far, opportunity may knock but greatness must always be pursued.