The festive crowd arrived at Westlake High hours before the girls’ varsity basketball game Friday.
By the time the Lions tipped off against the Langston Hughes Panthers, the lower gym was packed. The balcony, lined with 69 banners ranging from riflery to football, had a few fans, but it would fill up later.
Most weren’t there for Senior Night.
The South Fulton community, with political officials and all, were on hand to see the school retire NFL star Cam Newton’s No. 2 jersey and get a peek at the Heisman Trophy he won while leading Auburn to the BCS title after the 2010 season.
College football’s prized award arrived early. It was at the school all day in a big box underneath athletic director Hollis Bethea III’s desk, a few paces across the hall of the gym entrance.
Bethea’s office was a popular place for the administrators and teachers in the loop. They popped in to take pictures with the trophy. There’s probably a slew of them on Facebook and Twitter.
Cecil and Jackie Newton, Cam’s parents, cheered on the Lions from a front-row seat across from the Hughes bench.
Between the girls and boys games, Newton was introduced by former Westlake football coach Dallas Allen to a rousing ovation.
The ebullient Newton thanked the crowd and then ran around and asked if they were ready to get “turnt up” for the boys game.
“If you go to Westlake, let me hear some noise,” Newton said as the place erupted.
He thanked the crowd, the coaches and the community for their support. Then he went into the huddle and jumped around with the Lions boys before they took the court.
“It means a lot coming from a prestigious high school that has produced the likes of Earl Callaway, Adam Jones and Sean Jones, just to name a few,” Newton said. “It meant a great deal for me and my family.”
Newton is back at Auburn working on his sociology degree.
“That’s something that I promised my mom,” Newton said. “It’s been somewhat challenging going back and putting my school face on and trying to study up. But it’s been fun as well.”
Westlake students and supporters were more than happy to have Newton back.
“To have a night like this is pretty special,” said Bethea, who also is the school’s assistant principal. “You have an opportunity for the kids to see someone like Cam, whom they can identify with. He walked these halls. He’s an instant role model.”
Newton, who was in New Orleans making appearances on radio row before Sunday’s Super Bowl, also won a national championship for Blinn Junior College.
Newton, 23, was AP’s NFL offensive rookie of year in 2011 and followed that the next season with a 7-9 record, which was highlighted by his first win over the Falcons, a 30-20 victory in Charlotte, N.C.
Newton said returning home with a victory over the Falcons under his belt made it a little easier.
“Absolutely, but they went farther than we did, so it was kind of a win-lose thing,” Newton said. “They did a really good job with their run. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and those guys. They played unbelievably in the playoffs. Of course, when I’m not playing them, I’m rooting for them.”
Since the season ended, Mike Shula has been promoted to be Carolina’s offensive coordinator, replacing Rob Chudzinski, who left to become the Cleveland Browns’ head coach. Shula was Newton’s quarterback coach for the past two seasons.
“Just an excellent move,” Newton said. “Coach Shula knows me. He knows the things I like to do. He knows how I think and how I feel because of him being with me for two years. It’s going to be a fun transition.”
Westlake has a rich tradition of sending players to college and some into the NFL. Other NFL alums include Keith Adams, Adam Jones (formerly known as Pac Man), Sean Jones and Keyaron Fox.
During the 2005 NFL season, Westlake had six players in the league, the most of any high school in the nation at that time.
“This school has such a great legacy when it comes to athletics,” said Bill Edwards, a Fulton County commissioner.
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