The bar for instant success and acceptance was set too high even for the strapping Cam Newton to clear when he joined the NFL in 2011. It usually is for the first overall selection in the draft.
Newton joined a needy team, Carolina Panthers, while himself facing a steep learning curve as a player and leader, the additional burden placed on every incoming quarterback.
Early on, Newton was slammed for creating a perception of immaturity and egocentrism. Images of him on the sidelines apparently sulking or with his head bowed drew criticism, even from respected teammate Steve Smith. His body language was foreign to players and viewers who demand that quarterbacks exude positivity and all-for-one.
The media took him to task for comments considered unbecoming of a team-oriented QB.
“I see myself not only as a football player, but as an entertainer and an icon,” he once said, triggering groans.
Remarks that might have elicited laughs if spoken by Tom Brady or Peyton Manning were denounced. Newton said he would post a suggestion box, following a loss, so recommendations on fixing the offence could be submitted.
Newton managed to taint his Pro Bowl appearance last season, alienating veterans for what they perceived as a diva attitude.
Newton is no saint, which was evident going back to his university days, when he was implicated in academic cheating and was arrested for allegedly buying a stolen computer.
Yet his personal growth seems to be catching up with his often delightful demeanour, all of which is mixing nicely with his vast talent. It might explain the three-game tear that has moved him closer to the elite label.
His passer rating of 130.3 during the stretch is unmatched. His passes are connecting at a 77.3 per cent clip. His six touchdown throws and two scoring runs are applaudable, his lack of interceptions parade-worthy.
He has hoisted Carolina (4-3) to a winning record for the first time since the 2009 season.
Most of Newton’s comments of late strike a balance between self-confidence and humility.
“I think my best is yet to come,” he said. “And I’m not celebrating right now because we’re just seven games in. If you want to celebrate off that, then that tells you what type of person you really are.”
Translated: I am going to be really good someday, but that day has not arrived.
Maybe Newton has learnt to respect his elders. He said Smith was “a fatherly figure off the field. He does help me in everyday life”.
Transitioning from boy to man is difficult enough without eyes trained on you and minds making snap judgements. If Newton is completing the journey, his radiant smile could light up a city starved for football success.