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The Ballad of Cam Newton’s COVID-Plagued Comeback

The story of Cam Newton isn’t about his fall from grace as America’s biggest athlete. It’s how he got there in the first place — despite every social barrier imaginable in his way.

It didn’t take long for a 31-year-old Cam Newton to turn back the clock against the Miami Dolphins. With a flick of his left wrist, the offense began to churn in motion. And with a growl of his signature snap count — “one-EIGHT-teeeeeeeeee, wuhnehHUH” — the football was back in his massive hands, ready to fly and spin and plow toward the end zone. 

Assessing the churning sea of flesh ahead, Newton shuffled to the right, then jabbed his foot into the turf, cutting his momentum and surging forward. It didn’t matter that he felt the hands of a linebacker gripping tightly to his back. The quarterback put one foot ahead of the other, again and again, dragging both of them 25 feet before finally falling to his knees. 

It was a routine 2nd-and-three in the first game of the NFL season, but for Newton, it was a taste of vintage glory. So much for the busted shoulder and bum left foot that haunted him in 2019. So much for the bittersweet departure from Carolina, where he had won Rookie of the Year and league MVP. So much for the doubts of whether he had played his final snap as a bonafide starting quarterback in November. 

As he popped up to his feet and pointed toward the end zone, chirping merrily at the foes trudging back to the line of scrimmage, you could feel it: Cam was back.

And then he wasn’t. On Saturday, October 2nd, just days before his biggest challenge as the improbable new quarterback of New England Patriots, Newton tested positive for COVID-19. News dropped that several of his peers on the team were sick, too. He was done for the following week’s anticipated matchup against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. All he could do was watch from home as his team fought and lost, unable to keep up without Newton’s creativity and bravado with the ball. 

Of course his auspicious comeback couldn’t unfold smoothly. Of course he had to be the first starting QB to get COVID, despite sticking to team health rules and expressing genuine concern about league safety. It was never going to be easy for Newton, because it never has been easy for him. And given his past, the fact that he contracted a virus that is disproportionately wrecking Black lives seems less like a coincidence and more like some kind of predestined metaphor. 

Being able to watch football games is some kind of miracle amid the pandemic, and one that even fans didn’t think was possible a few months ago. But it’s an uncomfortable reality, too, given all the ways we know the league willfully risks the health of its athletes. You can’t ignore the fact that 70 percent of those athletes are Black, nor the racism that has always run rampant within its fanbase. And few Black athletes of the last decade have been as contentious as Newton, whose pride and talent seemed to attract a virulent kind of hate from across America. 

Black quarterbacks have always faced increased scrutiny and criticism from fans and teams alike, and Newton wasn’t spared from explicit doubts and oft-repeated cliches about his lack of throwing skill during this past offseason. Nevermind that milquetoast duds and sloppy gunslingers like Brian Hoyer and Ryan Fitzpatrick still got playing time; Newton was ignored by basically the entire league and got scooped up with a bottom-barrel, one-year deal with the Pats. This wasn’t just the machinations of a free agency market — it felt like something more, and Newton wasn’t shy when addressing what happened and why. 

“Honestly? We going honest? It’s because I’m a Black athlete, a quarterback that for a long time, I’ve been unapologetic, carried myself in a way that the media hasn’t gave me my just due,” he told reporters in September. “I think the narrative coming here was kind of stereotypical to an unjust eye. ‘We heard this about Cam. We heard that. He’s a prima donna. He’s this and he’s that.’”

This is a moment at the end of a thread that winds back to 2011, when a fresh-faced Newton couldn’t have imagined the travails that lay after college and the NFL Draft. There was that infamous scouting report that picked on his “fake smile” and “selfish, me-first makeup” that made him “difficult to manage” — stereotypical statements that stank of the kind of dog-whistle racism employed by those who can’t stand Blackness. But there was also the constant pressure of having to disprove the myth that Black men just can’t quarterback, or only do so with their physicality rather than their wits. 

Newton could hardly stand to camouflage his technicolor personality, and at first, he spoke bluntly about issues of race and class. His desire to test the rules of athlete decorum led him to experiment — with his image, his quotes and the boundaries of his bosses (e.g., Panthers head coach Ron Rivera once benched Newton for not wearing a tie). His greatness at Auburn, and the intense personality that greatness stoked seemed to be the perfect foil for the NFL. But after his miserable Super Bowl, it felt like fans were more interested in mocking him for screwing up a fumble than empathizing with his struggle. Every time Newton even touched the issue of race, a bunch of white critics took it as the perfect opportunity to tell him how wrong he was. They seemed to relish his failures. It’s all why the story of Cam Newton isn’t about his fall from grace as America’s biggest athlete. It’s how he got there in the first place, despite every social barrier that has held Black quarterbacks back in the last 30 years. 

“Like Jack Johnson and early Mike Vick, Newton refuses to acquiesce to the expectations of white folks. He has young, white middle class kids doing the Dab, and he organically uses metaphors centered in the black experience when talking to the media. (When was the last time you heard a quarterback talk about collard greens?),” wrote Lawrence Ware, an expert on race and philosophy, in 2016 for Counterpunch. 

To have him gleam so brightly in the first few weeks of this cursed 2020 season, despite all the ups and downs, felt like a rebuke of the hate he had received during a string of recent injury-plagued, inconsistent years. To lose that promise to the scourge of COVID felt like a cruel kind of injustice, at least in the context of professional sports. The good news is he’s supposed to return soon, as early as this weekend, thanks to an infection that appears asymptomatic and unlikely to worsen. Meanwhile, in 2020, the fans appear to have taken notice of just how terrible the Patriots were without Newton — and how clumsy his old team, the Panthers, look without his talents on tap. 

It’s been year after year of uncertainty for Newton, and this recent scare frames how fragile the alchemy of his unbelievable career can be. Yet in the third act of his NFL life, nearing the years when a quarterback can’t help but ponder retirement, Newton appears more ready than ever for his comeback coronation, against all odds.