CHARLOTTE — We all knew this was going to come up. We all knew this would somehow end up being a story, maybe even THE story.
Cameron Newton knew it, too.
So he went there Wednesday. He opened the dialogue himself.
“I am an African-American quarterback,” he said.
And so it began.
Newton is the best player in the NFL. Let that sink in for a second. But he’s more than that. He is quite possibly also the face of the NFL.
He’s about to go up against the aging face of the NFL, an outgoing face and a likely retiring face.
Manning is a legend, a throwback to the old days when the league was predominantly white and quarterbacks were upright pocket passers who said all the right things and only smiled before and after games.
The new face of the NFL is a dazzling presence, a dancing, preening, smiling enigma who has led the Panthers to the Super Bowl and has changed how the NFL views quarterbacks. Not black quarterbacks. All quarterbacks.
He has revolutionized the game.
He anticipated a question lobbed his way Wednesday, deflected it at first and then decided he would deflect it no more.
“I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing they can compare me to,” Newton said.
He’d addressed it before, several years ago in fact, when the Panthers were getting ready to play another team with an African-American quarterback. He made light of it, brushed it off and said didn’t expect a party in their honor.
In fact, he said, “You don’t have a Bar Mitzvah just because you are an African-American quarterback in this league.”
He tends to say what’s on his mind, often in malaprops that somehow work anyway. He’s engaging and good-looking and funny and smart. Newton went back to Auburn last spring to finish his bachelor’s degree in sociology.
So why did he feel he needed to bring it up Wednesday, the story that he knew would be waiting in Santa Clara? Because he wanted to get there first.
Newton has seen another side of stardom, a side that few others have dealt with because we assumed this sort of thing was in the past. It’s not.
He’s out there far beyond anything we’ve witnessed. The face of the NFL has a wide smile and level of talent no one has seen before, a confidence that makes him fun to watch, makes the Panthers the best team in the NFL and makes a lot of people uncomfortable.
“You would think in this time, this day and age, it would be more about who he is as an athlete, as a person more than anything else,” Coach Ron Rivera said. "Hopefully we can get past those things.”
Rivera’s upset by it. He’s seen what Newton has put up with, the letters to the editor about the dancing and the dabbing. He’s seen the backlash from people who aren’t ready to admit that the new face of the NFL is that of an African-American.
“It’s funny we still fight that battle, based on what?” Rivera asked.
It’s based on old stereotypes, old prejudices that seem to exist just below the surface in the NFL. Rivera is the son of Mexican and Puerto Rican parents. He’s believed to be the first Latino to play and coach in a Super Bowl. Rivera is very proud of that.
And he’d very proud of his quarterback.
Newton has read the letters. He’s heard the criticism of his younger days, his immature college years. He’s endured criticism over the most precious thing in his life, the birth of his son on Christmas Eve. Newton is an unwed dad, and he’s had to hear about that, too.
“It’s like, 'Here I am, I’m doing exactly what I want to do, how I want to do it,' and when I look in the mirror it’s me,” Newton said. “Nobody changed me. Nobody made me act this certain way, and I’m true to my roots. But yet people are going to say whatever they’re going to say.
“If I’m living for that person, then I can’t look at myself in the mirror and say ‘I’m Cam Newton or Cameron Newton to most people,’ because I’m not. I’m living for you, you know what I’m saying?”
He’s saying here I am. He’s saying Cameron Newton is going to the Super Bowl, and the whole Cameron Newton is going to the Super Bowl.
On a Wednesday in Charlotte, a long, long ways from next week, Newton decided to get something off his chest. He decided to do it now, not next week for the national media which will likely poke and prod and make fun of his clothes and his fox tails and his funny-looking shoes.
Newton got ahead of all that and said what he wanted to say, how he wanted to say it and when he wanted to say it.
He’s in complete control of everything around him, standing upright and smiling and scaring the daylights out of a lot of people.
The face of the NFL can look himself in the mirror.