NEW YORK – In a victory resonating all along I-85 from Atlanta to Auburn, in a vote for excellence over conjecture, Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy Saturday night.
The result was as definitive as a Newton carry on fourth-and-one. And the other three finalists – Oregon running back LaMichael James, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore – were like some poor, undersized defensive backs in the way.
The former Westlake High School star did not, however, win by an historic measure as some predicted; he had the third-highest percentage ever of first place votes (78.7 percent) and his margin of victory was the 11th greatest of all time. Chalk that up to the 105 of the 886 voters who omitted Newton completely from their top three, in apparent protest over ongoing questions about his recruitment out of junior college. On the remaining 781 ballots, Newton was listed first on 729 of them (93 percent).
Newton was emotional in accepting the award, pausing to gather himself at one point as he spoke of his family, with a chorus of past Heisman winners advising him, “Take a deep breath ... take your time.”
“God is blessing me and he has brought me a long way,” Newton said.
And he added moments later, “It’s like I’m in a dream and haven’t woken up yet.”
At 6 feet 6 and 250 pounds, the supersized quarterback built a season to scale: leading unbeaten Auburn to next month’s national championship game with a devastating combination speed, power and passing accuracy, mass producing touchdowns at a startling rate – throwing for 28, running for 20 more.
Joining Newton at the ceremony were his mother, Jackie, and brothers, Cecil Jr. and Cailyn. Not present was his father, Cecil, who was found by the NCAA to have attempted to solicit cash during his son’s recruitment out of Blinn (Texas) College. He chose not to be at his son’s side and distract from the moment.
There was even a little bit of Auburn on Broadway as a miniature Tiger Walk – the cordon of fans who usher Auburn players into each home game – formed outside the theater where the trophy was presented. They cheered and chanted as Newton walked past on his way in to the ceremony.
“That put joy in my heart,” Newton said. “That showed the Auburn family is something special and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Sharing in that celebration long distance was the south Fulton community where Newton came of age. At his old high school, Westlake in south Atlanta, they held a day-long Heisman Watch celebration, almost certain of a happy ending when the winner was announced.
Westlake had produced such NFL notables as Keyaron Fox (Pittsburgh), Sean Jones (Tampa Bay) and Adam Jones (Dallas). But never before has it seen a player acclaimed to be the best in all of college football.
How can anyone foresee such a thing?
“I saw him as a Division I ballplayer, a pro athlete. That was always on my mind. It never entered my mind that he would be a Heisman Trophy winner,” said Dallas Allen, Newton’s former coach at Westlake, now at Douglass.
It is one thing to be among the best at this level and quite another to be The One.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Allen, who was part of the celebration at Westlake. “I’ve coached guys who have been first-round draft picks and been to Super Bowls. But never a Heisman winner until now.”
At Westlake, any mention of the play-for-pay controversy that has roiled for the last month was taboo. Theirs was a stubborn pride.
“To say you know a Heisman Trophy winner is phenomenal,” said Westlake athletic director Hilda Hankerson, one of the organizers of the celebration. “We say that with a lot of pride. He’s a great athlete. Period.”
“A lot of things have changed at Westlake, like the coach. But I always know my roots and where I came from,” Newton said Saturday before the trophy presentation, recognizing the people back home.
Nor did any of Newton’s supporters care to hear about any Heisman voter who left Newton off their ballots in reaction to the allegations against that Cecil Newton sought from Mississippi State a six-figure payment to secure his son. The NCAA confirmed that, but has yet to tie Cam or Auburn to any wrongdoing, though the investigation is reportedly ongoing.
“Life goes on without those [voters],” Hankerson said.
On the day of Heisman, Newton attempted to set his surroundings, if only briefly, as a scandal-free zone. In trying to construct that bubble, he said Saturday, “Tonight is special, that is the last thing I want to talk about.”
Before the allegations broke, Newton’s journey to the Heisman already was strewn with obstacles. He left Westlake for Florida, where while biding his time behind Tim Tebow, he was charged with buying a stolen laptop and obstructing justice. Transferring out of Gainesville, Newton had to rebuild his career in southeast Texas, where he won a national junior college title at Blinn.
And even after the allegations broke of soliciting money during the recruiting process from Blinn, so powerful were the statements Newton made on the field that he rendered them momentarily moot. So buoyant was his performance, he floated on quicksand.
He never allowed the building controversy to affect his play on the field, as he withdrew from the media but never from his team. His best game may have been his last one, accounting for six touchdowns against South Carolina in the SEC championship game.
“Cam Newton is as physically and mentally tough as anyone I’ve been around,” his coach at Auburn, Gene Chizik, declared.
With one game left to be played, this Auburn season can be summed up thusly: Wham, bam, thank you, Cam.
Across the landscape of college football, all kinds of people put their stamp of approval on what Newton did.
Bo Jackson, Auburn’s Heisman winner from a quarter century ago, said earlier this year, “He’s doing it on a level where it looks easy and I know that it’s not.”
Chizik called Newton the most talented quarterback he ever worked with. And as an assistant, he worked with the likes of Vince Young and Duante Culpepper.
After seeing Newton first-hand, other coaches were equally effusive.
South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier: “You can’t tackle him.”
LSU’s Les Miles: “I thought Tim Tebow was one of kind. I think Cam Newton is one of a kind.”
Georgia’s Mark Richt: “It’s real difficult to stop a quarterback who can run like that. The only way you can out-number a running game like that is to bring both safeties up. When you do that, he throws the ball too well. They have other good players, but Newton is the difference.”
Newton became the third native Georgian to win the award, joining UGA’s Herschel Walker (born in Augusta, played at Wrightsville) and South Carolina running back George Rogers (Duluth).
He had a Herschel-like sudden impact on a program. As a freshman (who did not win the Heisman until two years later), Walker elevated a Bulldogs team that was 6-5 the previous year to the rank of unbeaten national champion in 1980. A year ago, Auburn was 8-5, with many observers still uncertain about the hiring of Chizik, a coach who was just 5-19 in two previous seasons at Iowa State. Now, Chizik has a couple coach of the year honors in his pocket and his 13-0 Tigers are poised to play Oregon for the national title.
Speaking a month ago, Pat Sullivan, the Auburn quarterback who won the Heisman in 1971 said, “[Newton] gave Auburn people hope they could get back on top a little quicker.”
Even Oregon’s James, his rival for this award as well as in the national title game to come, suggested stuffing the ballot box: “I’d vote for [Newton] twice.”
No need for any double-dipping. Newton had more than enough support in hand to overcome all that football talent from the West lined up against him as well as the disbelievers with voting privileges.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com