Shaun Rutherford knows what the reaction will be like when the new quarterback in town walks through the Patriots locker room for the first time.
It’s a combination of shock and awe as 6-foot-5-inch, 245-pound Cam Newton makes his presence felt for the first time.
“Damn, this dude is big," Rutherford said with a chuckle recently as he remembered the pair’s first encounter at tiny Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, back in early 2009.
Rutherford knew the defensive end-sized signal caller was coming to campus and even watched tape of Newton running guys over during his brief stint at Florida when he heard the news. Still, seeing Newton up close and personal was a stunner.
Brenham, a tiny dot on the map between Houston and Austin, hardly seemed like the place where rebirths occur — unless you’re a talented college football player who has hit some bumps in the road. It’s where he went from problem child to problem solver.
Following a stellar high school career in Atlanta, Newton accepted a scholarship to Florida. He won a battle to be Tim Tebow’s backup in 2007 and flashed glimpses of his enormous talent in a handful of cameo appearances as a freshman.
When he showed up at The Swamp in 2008, Tebow was still around and another season of clipboard toting seemed inevitable. However, an ankle injury suffered during mop-up duty in the opener against Hawaii ended his season. And for all intents and purposes, his time in Gainesville.
In November 2008, he was arrested on a felony burglary charge after a laptop was stolen from a fellow Florida student. He was subsequently suspended from the football team and announced his intentions to transfer.
He chose the community college route in order to avoid sitting out a season and purposefully wound up in the middle of nowhere — a.k.a. Blinn’s desolate campus along Highway 290.
“Oh man, you’re giving me PTSD,” Rutherford said when asked what life is like in Brenham. “There’s not much to do but there’s a lot to do — if that makes sense. I mean, you try to make the most of it. We did small stuff to try an entertain ourselves.”
Rutherford can also relate to how Jarrett Stidham may be feeling with real training camp practices about to ramp up in Foxborough. Rutherford was the Buccaneers’ presumed starter before Newton crashed the party.
Instead of feeling threatened, however, Rutherford embraced the challenge, welcomed the competition, and “meshed right away” with Newton.
“So literally right after we shook hands, he was like, ‘Hey, you play ping-pong?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I play ping-pong.’ So he’s like, ‘Well, let’s play.’ So, we sat there, and we probably played ping-pong for two straight hours, just going back and forth. And I’m pretty good at ping-pong, Cam was pretty damn good, too,” Rutherford said. “Then once we got tired of playing each other, we ended up partnering up, and we called out anybody on the team that wanted to play. So, we sat there for another hour, just beating everybody on the team."
The two became inseparable. They lived two doors from each other, rode to practice together, went over plays together, stayed for extra postpractice throwing together.
“I think for a lot of other people, it would have kind of caused some friction. As far as for me, I thrive off competition and I can say the same for Cam," said Rutherford. “So, it’s like we pushed each other. We both knew that if I slack on this day, and Cam thrives on this day and does better than me, then Cam is going to be in the No. 1 spot. If Cam has a bad day, and then I have a better day than him, then I’m going to be in the No. 1 spot. So, we kind of went back and forth like that. But we pushed each other to be better."
Newton won the No. 1 spot and Blinn’s coaches, eager to get Rutherford on the field, converted him to receiver and he became one of Newton’s top targets.
Newton led Blinn to the NJCAA national championship, accounting for more than 3,400 yards from scrimmage.
For the second time, he became one of the most highly recruited quarterbacks in the land and for the second time, landed in the Southeastern Conference — this time at Auburn.
And, for the second time, he led his new team to a national title.
Newton threw for 2,854 yards and rushed for another 1,473 en route to collecting every major award, including the Heisman Trophy.
The Carolina Panthers drafted Newton No. 1 in 2011 and he continued to build a resume few could match. He was the Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowler and led the Panthers to a 12-4 mark in his third season.
Newton overwhelmed the league in 2015, winning the MVP and leading Carolina to a 15-1 record and a berth in the Super Bowl.
Since that magical season, however, Newton is 23-23 and has suffered several significant injuries that have prevented him from reaching the elite level again.
In 2017, he had surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff. Following a 6-2 start to 2018, Newton’s play deteriorated. After six straight losses, Newton was placed on injured reserve and underwent another shoulder surgery in January 2019.
Shoulder strength didn’t appear to be an issue as the Panthers began 2019. In recent social media posts, Newton appears to be slinging the ball free and easy.
Dr. Michael Banffy, an orthopedic specialist at the Kerlan-Jobe Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, liked what he saw in Newton’s brief 2019 outings and in his Instagram videos, including his recent post where he’s throwing to Julian Edelman.
“Yeah, 100 percent — I think he’s doing really well with the shoulder," said Banffy, also a team doctor for the Rams and Dodgers.
“I think the rationale for that is, he probably had this chronic partial tear for several seasons, and it wasn’t like he was necessarily compensating and getting an injury somewhere else, but he was compensating in that he wasn’t throwing to his max potential. So, once that got fixed and he had proper rehab and his mechanics were improved because of that rehab, now he’s throwing the ball up better."
What really derailed Newton in 2019 was an injury to his left Lisfranc — a joint in the foot between the first and second toes — suffered in an August preseason game against the Patriots. He tried to play through it but was shut down after two games.
“It’s through trauma, where someone’s pushing off. We’ll see them a lot in football, where the foot’s planted in the ground and then there’s some force directed from the back, on the heel, and it drives the foot into the ground," said Ken Jung, a foot and ankle specialist at the Kerlan-Jobe. “And then that causes a displacement or tearing of the ligaments there at that joint."
The goal of Lisfranc surgery “is to realign the bones so it allows that ligament to heal in proper alignment,” according to Jung.
Jung said it’s “very reasonable” to expect a player to come back within 12 months of the injury.
Based on the doctors’ opinions and Newton’s expansive collection of workout posts (where he’s been working with his new receivers), it’s logical to think the Patriots are getting a healthy and motivated player.
“I’m still upset that Cam didn’t get that Super Bowl ring,” said Rutherford. “I’m really interested to see him in New England. I’m excited about this move."
As is New England itself.