Thursday, March 31, 2016

Leading With A Smile

Published previously in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Cam Newton is a direct young man.  The greater Charlotte area’s euphoria still simmered after the Panthers’ 49-15 destruction of the Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game when Newton dropped this nugget at a press conference: “I said it since Day One, I’m an African-American quarterback.  That may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.” 
Wow.  So much for setting an even pace and avoiding controversy during the obsessive two-week media buildup to the Super Bowl.  Newton looked the world in the eye – critics and supporters alike – and introduced the elephant in the room. 

I love it.

Twenty-eight years ago, Doug Williams became the first African-American quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl.  As significant as Williams’s accomplishment was, it proved not to be revolutionary: It took 26 years for Russell Wilson to finally match Williams’s feat. 

The NFL, the quarterback position and race is and will remain an issue.  I don’t know NFL player demographics, but my eyes tell me that a majority are African-American, yet only five of 32 teams had an African-American as its primary starting quarterback.  That’s not necessarily an NFL issue – a quarterback is trained long before his NFL eligibility – but it’s a curious (is that the right word?) situation the league advertises, via its massive stage, every year.

Newton’s race isn’t the issue it once was, but it still matters.  Most people don’t care; but some, sadly, still do.  Incomprehensible, race-based hate lingers.  Despicable people like Dylann Roof walk among us. And, despite progress, a pathetic segment of the population still has an issue with Newton just because his skin is a different hue. 


So I’m glad Newton threw some verbal haymakers.  I’ve been drawn to him all season; bluntly acknowledging the truth – that he navigated an additional level of complexity in his career - just adds to his appeal and what prompted me to write this piece in the first place: Newton’s amazing growth as a man, leader and quarterback. 

The pre-2015 version of Newton was often and fairly criticized for having terrible body language.  Adversity caused Newton to visibly mope, place a towel over his head or sit alone on the bench.  Situations could get the better of him and he felt entitled to disconnect from the moment.  It wasn’t a good look, especially from the franchise quarterback, the supposed leader of the team. 

This season, Newton’s been different: He’s taught a nation to “Dab”, he’s handing footballs to kids after touchdowns and has an infectious, perma-smile affixed to his face.  Newton set a positive tone early in the season, backed it up with his play and got his teammates to buy-in.  His self-confidence and comfort in his own skin is apparent; the joy he exudes is refreshing.  This is a young man who is obviously aware of his detractors, but he has grown impervious to the negativity.

Newton’s transformed non-verbal communications have resulted in a 17-1 record, a birth in the Super Bowl and a likely MVP award for the once sulking quarterback.  I’m not a huge believer in mystical forces but Newton’s positive energy has had a palatable impact on the team.  You can feel Carolina’s togetherness.  They’re a pro football team having college-like fun. 

While watching Newton, two local athletes come to mind: Stephen Strasburg and Bradley Beal.  Strasburg and Beal, despite being young, wealthy and insanely talented, are both oddly inclined toward melancholy.  Nagging injuries and pouty looks are common; smiles are not.  It’s hard to tell if they are playing a sport or forcing down vegetables.  The vibe I get from them is they expect something to go wrong, as if they have some fatal attraction to darkness and fear the light. 

Not everyone’s a cheerleader, but attitude is a controllable component of success.  As Stephen Covey once said, “Sometimes the most proactive thing we can do is to just genuinely smile.”  Is Newton a “7-Habits” junkie?  Probably not, but he’s living Covey’s point and the results are inarguable.  Strasburg and Beal should take notice.  I suppose we all should.  Group Dab anyone?  

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