It’s no secret that Indianapolis is picking Andrew Luck first overall in this week’s NFL Draft, and seemingly every pundit on the planet is convinced he’s a sure thing. Last year, things weren’t so clear-cut, as doubts about Carolina’s choice at no. 1, Cam Newton, abounded. Newton promptly went out and surpassed every rookie QB mark that matters, including those for passing yards, rushing yards and total TDs. He also broke the league record for rushing TDs by a QB and made the Pro Bowl. (And that was before he started rocking Under Armour Highlight Cleats, in action bottom of next page.) So we asked him for his secrets to raising your game at every level. Take notes, Mr. Luck.
MADE MAN: In your first and only year of junior college, you won a national title. In your first and only year at Auburn, you won a title and the Heisman. Then you came to the NFL and immediately set records. What’s the trick?
CAM NEWTON: I don’t know if there’s a trick besides looking to what works for so many people way before me. The ingredient for success is hard work. I came in from day one and tried to earn everybody’s respect by working hard, not getting anything given to me. I just wanted to prove to my teammates that I was a standup candidate for the job.
You don’t have to embrace what people think of you. I wanted people to know the stereotypes about me were all false.
MM: But three teams in three cities at three levels in three years…
CN: Long road to the top and I’m still trying to climb that mountain. Going from Florida [Newton spent his freshman and redshirt sophomore year backing up Tim Tebow, believe it or not] to junior college to Auburn to the NFL, it’s been something I wouldn’t trade for the world.
MM: Did you have any rookie moments with the Panthers, like getting stuck in traffic and almost missing the kickoff?
CN: I don’t think that would be acceptable, with so many people counting on me, particularly with my role on the team as quarterback. Me coming in and taking on a role with so much leadership… to do that, from the water boy to the head coach to the trainer, they’re looking to see how I respond to different adversities, how I handle the good and the bad.
MM: As the new guy who’s also the quarterback, how do you balance showing respect for your teammates but still taking charge?
CN: With me being the first pick, I didn’t want it to feel like everybody was obligated to give me attention. I feel like with all the public attention for me or any high-profile athlete, you’re coming in and people might call you a prima donna. You don’t have to embrace what people think of you. I wanted people to know the stereotypes about me were all false.
MM: Do you have any teammates you reached out to and said, “I respect you. What can you tell me?”
CN: Steve Smith [the Panthers’ five-time Pro Bowl receiver]. From day one he took me under his wing. Any questions I had on the field, off the field, he was there to answer them. When I needed someone to talk to, he would be there. So many different veterans stepped up and made my transition very smooth.
MM: Have you dealt with players who, unlike Smith, resented the arrival of the new star quarterback?
CN: You’d be surprised. So many people hear so much about you, and they can start to have judgmental thoughts about someone they don’t even know. It can become a bad thing. My job is not to worry about that, but to make my impression on the people I come in contact with, so that it’s a lasting positive.
MM: Do you remember facing any guys at Auburn and thinking, “He’s ready for the next level”?
CN: Patrick Peterson [former LSU cornerback who made the Pro Bowl as Arizona’s rookie return man] was by far the most NFL-ready player I played against in college. We wanted to throw away from Patrick. You can have game plans in college where you can just not throw to a side. In the NFL you can’t do that. In the NFL everybody has to be a target each and every down. In college some guys are good, some guys aren’t. In the NFL, either you’re good or you’re working to get better, because you’re gonna get exposed.
MM: How was it physically adjusting to the NFL?
CN: For basically all my life, I’ve always been able to run away from defensive linemen. That’s the biggest challenge. When the pocket collapses in the NFL… you’ve got defenders that are just as big as you, if not bigger, and running just as fast as you are. You’re playing guys like Dwight Freeney. Julius Peppers. Clay Matthews. Jared Allen. They’re so big, but they don’t lose a step when coming for the quarterback. That can be disheartening sometimes. You just have to swallow your pride.
MM: What role models do you look to as examples of how things should be done?
CN: Man, there are so many people. I was on The Dan Patrick Show and saw Kurt Warner—I have so much respect for him. Drew Brees. I don’t want to just focus on quarterbacks, because I look up to so many different players. So many guys at the Pro Bowl, like Ray Lewis. These guys are unbelievable to be around. You ask, “How do these guys, year in and year out, play to that high level?” It’s hard work. Doing what’s asked of them and more…