CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was only November, and he was coming off one of his biggest road tests.
There were expectations around his team now — the kind it hadn’t had to live up to in years — and the weight of it fell on his shoulders.
The feeling was familiar and foreign at the same time.
He and the spotlight had a mutual affection when he was in college, back when he was a one-man meteor shower from a school no one saw coming.
But in his early years as a pro, the light got dimmer and dimmer. Losing has a way of doing that. But the sting of losing was nothing compared with the numbness of being irrelevant.
It’s why winning felt different now, and why taking back-to-back losses in San Antonio and Memphis mattered again.
But Steph Curry still had 75 games left with the Golden State Warriors.
When Curry popped into the Carolina Panthers locker room after the Panthers’ 10-9 win over the San Francisco 49ers, his season was still young.
Curry was there, wearing a Carolina blue Panthers cap and a victor’s smile, to celebrate with his hometown team, the team that had won five straight games, the team that suddenly had the attention of the NFL, and the team that had Cam Newton — the young quarterback who, like Curry, had reminded everyone why he was stamped as a star before losing seasons made them question whether they were right.
The Panthers went into the house of the NFC champions and won by the thinnest strand of hair (more specifically, a 53-yard field goal). The win was so fresh Newton barely had time to shower and was still dressing with Curry by his locker. But, to an extent, Curry’s presence reminded Newton what it felt like to be relevant again.
After starting the season 1-3, the Panthers have gone on a tear that now has them trailing just New Orleans (8-2) for the NFC South lead. At 6-3, the Panthers are just one win shy of their total for all of last season, and three wins shy of their first winning season since 2008.
As the victories stacked on top of each other, they could sense just how special their season could be.
“In that locker room after that game, you would’ve thought doggone Jesus came back,” Newton said. “Honestly, it was that type of feeling. It was a great feeling and we want to keep having that feeling.”
The mantra Panthers coach Ron Rivera ingrains in his players is that their Monday night matchup with the Patriots is the most important game because it’s the next one.
But the last time the Panthers hosted a Monday night game was five years ago, when they beat the Buccaneers, 38-23.
They can sense how big the game is.
“It’s an extremely big opportunity and that’s out of respect of trying to tone it down as much as possible,” Newton said. “For us, we need this more than anything. I think the Carolinas need this more than anything.
“I think I’m stating the obvious when I say everyone has been fiending for a magical season. No one wants to be a part of, no one wants to be affiliated with, a mediocrity or something that’s just bland. I think for the past couple years, the Carolina Panthers haven’t been the hot topic or the hot thing in the league. For us, we just take it one game at a time and this game has a lot of promise.”
The difference in the standings for the Panthers seems as stark as the difference in Newton as a quarterback.
In his rookie season in 2011, he passed for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushed for 706 yards and 14 more TDs, although the team finished 6-10.
This season, Newton’s numbers aren’t eye-popping. He’s passed for 1,970 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 266 yards and four TDs.
But by doing a bit less, he already has as many wins this season as he did in 2011.
When the team struggled to a 7-9 record in 2012, Newton questioned himself, his offensive coordinator, and his team as a whole, going so far as to throw out the idea of a suggestion box to express just how much the Panthers needed change.
Now, having survived the 1-3 start and in the third year of his career, the successes and failures are collective, not individual.
“We’ve always been in these type situations before,” Newton said. “Not playing as good as we’re capable of playing, throwing interceptions, fumbling the football, missing assignments on defense, holding calls, offsides, false starts. And we, as a team, are mature enough to press the reset button and say, ‘Hey, let’s all come back together and say this game’s not over.’ ”
Over Carolina’s five-game win streak, Newton has passed for 1,085 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s also completed 67.4 percent of his throws over that span, and has spread the wealth in the process.
“I think that’s the way our offense is set up,” said tight end Greg Olsen. “I think that’s the nature of this game and I think good offenses have multiple weapons that can do things in any particular game. I think that’s a positive. We don’t have any one guy that has any gaudy stats, but I think that’s what our system is.”
Having the league’s second-best defense in points allowed also makes a difference, and at times Newton catches himself being a spectator.
“You have players that are making big plays, the sacks, the turnovers,” Newton said. “It’s just fun to watch on the sideline, let alone in HDTV.”
Before their ironman match with the 49ers, the Panthers had scored at least 30 straight points in four straight games, winning by at least 15 points in each of them.
Newton said he took more from the Niners win than the others.
“It’s easy for a team to build camaraderie after a 30-15 win,” Newton said. “Everyone’s on the sideline, the stars are pretty much out of the game. But I think more than anything, you build a tighter bond with your teammates being in a game like we were in on Sunday.
“It’s things that’s said that don’t even have to be said or looks or just feelings that you have for a particular person and that’s your brother. You realize that. You talk to each other inside that huddle, you make a pact to each other to say, ‘Look, I’m not going to let you down, you’re not going to let me down, we’re in this thing together. Let’s go get a first down, let’s go get a touchdown.’
“Being in those types of situations it just makes the environment even more special to be around.”
Tom Brady connection
Newton knows special when he’s face to face with it.
The introduction of a player whose legend updates as constantly as a Wikipedia page to a player with a clean slate and the potential to create his own legend is the stuff television commercials are made of.
So that’s what Under Armour did in its 2011 spot, “Tom Meet Cam, Cam Meet Tom.”
Newton had yet to take an NFL snap. It was his first commercial shoot. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was waiting on the sideline of a nondescript football field in Anywhereville, USA. Newton hopped giddily out of a golf cart, hand eagerly extended, in a hurry to shake hands with a player whose legend is already cemented.
As if graciousness itself was a competition, Brady beat him to the punch. Before Newton could get the words out, Brady said, “Good to meet you, man.”
Knowing it was Newton’s first time doing a commercial, someone asked Brady to give him a few words of advice.
“I don’t like giving advice,” Brady said. “ ’Cause who says I do it the right way?”
Newton said, “You do.”
They threw the football around. They threw jokes around, too. Newton accidentally took out a cameraman with a blocking pad.
“Damn,” he said, “Y’all take that out of my check, please.”
As much as Newton tried, it was impossible for him to mask how starstruck he was.
“I’m in a surreal moment right now,” Newton said. “If my little brother was here,” he said, “He’d be like, ‘Man, it’s Tom Brady. Like, yo!’
“But I’m going to call him today and tell him. You grow up, you watch the big games, and here he is right here. It’s incredible to have this opportunity.”
Two years later, his opinion of Brady hasn’t changed.
“I have the utmost respect for Tom,” Newton said. “He’s a great already.
“Very great guy, person. We all know what he can do on the field, but off the field a very humble person that has a great rapport around this league on and off the field. He’s a person that holds himself to a standard.”
The wattage around a young star like Newton facing an inevitable Hall of Famer such as Brady could be high.
It’s something Newton wants to avoid.
He’s bathed in the spotlight by himself before. Doing it on a losing team felt hollow.
“I don’t want to get into a game where it’s, ‘Well, Cam says this is the big game between him and Tom Brady,’ ” Newton said. “No, I don’t want the headlines to be that. I want it to be the Panthers are preparing for a great win and doing the right things to put themselves in position to be prepared come Monday night.”
The wins and the spotlight, Newton knows, are almost always a package deal. The spotlight usually follows the lead of the wins.
For as much as his team has done this season, Newton said, there’s obviously more to do.
“I think those moments will stand out as the season progresses,” Newton said. “And the best is yet to come, hopefully, for us. We’ve been playing great football, we’ve been winning football games, and this [high] that we’re on right now, no one in that locker room wants to come down from it.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.