The House That Built Cam

The Holy Zion Center of Deliverance church played an integral part in Cam Newton's upbringing. We visited the church, where Cam's father Cecil Newton was a reluctant host.

by Eric Nusbaum
Feb 5 2016, 3:40pm

Photo by Eric Nusbaum

Cecil Newton, Sr. almost kicked me out of his church on Sunday. It was the week before the Super Bowl, and he sat me down across from him in his cramped office at the Holy Zion Center of Deliverance. He then leaned back, and crossed his arms. The desk between us was crowded with paperwork and the sounds of Sunday school filtered in from the next room. I was hoping to eventually interview Cecil about his son, but it turned out that first he would interview me.

Holy Zion is a small church housed in an old building supplies warehouse set a little ways back from the sidewalk in a quiet town 45 minutes outside of Atlanta. It does not stand out. The only thing bearing the church's name is a tin mailbox onto which the words "Holy Zion COD" and the address, 115 Temple Street, are spelled out in black letters. I didn't even see the mailbox at first—I recognized the church by a pair of small signs stuck into the grass by the curb:

Cam & The Panthers Fans
Super Bowl Bound & Heaven Bound
Join Us!"

Cecil Newton and his wife Jackie run the church. Cam is their son, and the most talked about athlete in America, who is about to play in the biggest game of his life. My intention, having arrived in Atlanta three days earlier with the assignment of writing something insightful about Cam, was to do exactly what the sign said: to join them. But if Holy Zion did not stand out amongst the low-slung buildings of Newnan, Georgia, I certainly stood out amongst the congregation of Holy Zion.

Dressed in a suit and tie, and conspicuously white, I parked my rental car in the lot out front, and walked through a vestibule and into a humble but nicely appointed sanctuary with gray carpet and lavender and purple walls. After calling and emailing the church repeatedly in the previous weeks, I had been acknowledged but not specifically invited. Still, I was greeted kindly by the handful of congregants sitting before the church's deacon, Derick Irving, for pre-worship Sunday school. One man lent me his textbook so I could follow along as the group read.

"It's all about doing unto others as they would do to you, it really comes down to that," said one woman with shiny auburn hair. Deacon Irving agreed. His own golden rule went one step further, he said: treat people the way you'd want them to treat your mother.

At precisely that moment, a tall and broad-shouldered man in a blue blazer and checkered pants emerged in the back of the sanctuary. He looked right at me, and I knew that this was Cecil Newton, Sr., Cam's father, the Bishop of Holy Zion. He waved me into a back room and he was not smiling. It felt, in fact, like I was getting summoned into the principal's office.

A few paragraphs ago, I called Cam Newton the "most talked about athlete in America." I also considered the phrases "most famous," "most talented," and "most controversial." But while "talked about" feels insufficient, the truth is that none of the alternatives were quite right, either. Cam Newton is not more famous than his counterpart in Super Bowl 50, Peyton Manning. He is not necessarily more talented than, say, LeBron James or Mike Trout.

What he is, is talked about. He is talked about because he is revolutionizing the position of quarterback, both as it is played on the field and as it is occupied off it. He is talked about because he dances and wears gold Versace pants, and because his smile lights up television screens across America like no athlete's since Magic Johnson. He is talked about because his particular brand of confidence, and of excellence, seems to strike an invisible raw nerve in the subconscious of a certain segment of white America.

Cam Newton has led his team to 17 wins in 18 games this season, his fifth as an NFL quarterback. He is all but officially the NFL's most valuable player, and Manning has already declared him the future face of the league. But Cam's journey to NFL superstardom has thrust him into the center of the perpetual and perpetually insufficient conversation America is having with itself on the subject of race. A supposed NFL draft expert calls him "very disingenuous" and "not dependable." A mother infamously writes to the Charlotte Observer decrying his "arrogant struts" and "pelvic thrusts." An influential NFL writer paternalistically declares that 26-year-old Cam has finally grown up.

Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

His father, understandably, is exhausted by it and has grown wary of the press. So in his office, he asked what made me different from every other writer—every other white writer, he meant (and in sports, nearly every other writer is white)—who has come looking for something from him. He asked me if I had any kids. He asked me what my writing was. I told him that I have a six-month-old son. I told him that I try to be empathetic and honest and, as the material allows, a decent storyteller. The truth was, I would not have blamed him if he kicked me out. I had never covered the NFL, never met him, never even been to Atlanta before. I might have kicked myself out. But he didn't. He nodded, and it was clear that I was invited to stay.

Sunday school ended and the church began to fill up as the service eased into motion. The woman who referenced the Golden Rule turned out to be Cam's mother, Jackie Newton, who introduced herself kindly. She asked about my own faith, and when I told her I was Jewish, she said that I came on a day with a good sermon for a Jewish person.

She and Cecil sat in chairs beside the pulpit, which was not elevated. Deacon Irving read from Ephesians. "Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the spirit of the devil." Then the music began: in a corner at the front of the room were a keyboard and a drum set. Cam's younger brother, Caylin, played the drums until his older brother, Cecil, arrived and took over. Jackie led the singing.

"One unique thing about the black church tradition, particularly in small churches, is that a sense of community forms that's intergenerational," Rev. Dr. Gregory Ellison II, an associate professor at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, told me. "There is a sense of family, that we will take a collective effort in nurturing, supporting, and standing by the young people in our church to somewhat protect and inoculate them from the pressures of the world."

While Ellison has never been to Holy Zion, he, like Cam Newton, is a native of Southwest Atlanta, and he says that to understand Cam Newton, especially in the context of his faith and family, it is important to understand where he comes from.

In Southwest Atlanta, empowerment is an expectation. Ellison describes Southwest Atlanta as a unique place in terms of the African-American experience: a vibrant community where the notions of black excellence, of activist Christianity, and of radical creativity are all present in equal measure—a place uniquely well suited to incubating a person like Cam Newton.

"Within this 20-mile radius, wherever you go, you can see black excellence," Ellison explained. He noted that it was a place with a substantial middle class, where the doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, and judges would all be black. At the same time, it was also home to a vibrant hip-hop scene. "There's this very eclectic sound of music that's developing in Atlanta with LaFace records, So So Def Recordings, the Dungeon Family, Outkast, TLC . And then you have rappers coming up like Lil Jon and Ludacris." A young child growing up there would be steeped in music and style.

"And then, of course, Atlanta also has a very rich legacy in terms of activism," Ellison said. "People like Andrew Young"—the minister, civil-rights leader, and former Mayor of Atlanta, Congressman, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations—"live 10 minutes away from where Cam would have been playing football."

Holy Zion Center of Deliverance has called Newnan home for about ten years. Before that, it was located in Atlanta, closer to where Cam grew up in the southwest suburb of College Park. While the building has changed, the church's message has not. The small Pentecostal ministry—which was founded by Cam's maternal grandparents, Talmadge and Bernice Wilder, and includes four other small churches—is dedicated to bettering the daily lives of its community.

"A lot of what the Pentecostal Church in the past had been known for was a lot of whooping and exuberant preaching and that kind of stuff, and I think that has its place," Cecil would tell me when we met the the next afternoon. "But at the end of the day, outside of salvation, what have you empowered people with? When they come away with something, are they going be better citizens? Are they going to address their economic plight? Or are they going to just wait for this great city in the sky that we've been hearing about since grandmama's days?"

As Jackie sang, I stood with the congregation clapping and moving my feet as un-awkwardly as I could manage, not knowing the words but enjoying myself as one song bled into another. Underneath it all, I could feel some of the urgency and empowerment that Cecil would later tell me about. At the very least, I couldn't help but think about how different the service was from the structured form of worship in the big synagogues I had grown up attending, where after "Amen," the most uttered phrase was "turn to page X in your prayer book."

You just got a good feeling at Holy Zion. Part of it was the improvisational, egalitarian nature of the worship, but part of it was also the spirit of the place, the intimacy of the worshippers. Five, 10, 15, 20 minutes passed by and the chairs around me filled with people and the room continued to swell with their voices.

"It's not about the Panthers," preached Jackie Newton mid-song, as old women fanned themselves and friends greeted each other with hugs as they entered the church. "It's not about Cam. We're here for Jesus."

Photo by Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

This, of course, was true. Holy Zion Center of Deliverance would exist with or without Cam Newton, whether or not he was a superstar football player. But a few moments earlier, sitting in his office, Cecil Newton had mentioned that this church was a sacred place for him, not just because of the word of God but because of his family. This was the village that raised his sons. If I was going to write something about this place, I had to understand that. In a way, being there for Jesus and being there for Cam were the same act, because religion and family were just that deeply intertwined.

A few minutes later, the tormented look having disappeared from his face, and the disciplinarian tone having been discarded in favor of the slow-building cadence of a preacher, Cecil Newton would be stalking around the room with a microphone; he would have the boys in the front row of the church hitting the dab. Even if they primarily are here for Jesus, they are here for Cam, too.

Cam Newton dances after touchdowns. He hits the dab. He smiles. If Peyton Manning makes quarterbacking look like work, Cam Newton makes it look like play. In fact, that's what everybody, even his critics, seems to agree on when it comes to Cam Newton: he makes football look like fun. He plays the game with the same joyful spirit he did growing up.

Cecil told me a story about Cam as a boy. Cam sucked his thumb until he was seven years old. His parents tried everything to get him to stop. They tried dipping his thumb in hot sauce, and they tried wrapping it with tape. They tried all kinds of remedies but nothing seemed to work. It drove them crazy. It exasperated them. They feared he would develop an underbite. Then, one day when he happened to be especially frustrated by Cam's thumbsucking, Cecil went fishing with the oldest of his three sons, Cecil, Jr., and caught an eight-pound largemouth bass. When they got home, he was struck by sudden inspiration: he made Cam hold the largemouth bass with the thumb he had been sucking for ten minutes. After that, Cam never sucked his thumb again.

"He squirmed as if I was sawing his leg off," Cecil said. "And to this day, he doesn't like fishing. But now that he has his radiant smile, he should thank Dad for that tough lesson learned at age seven."

And that's what Cam's childhood was like: exceedingly normal, almost quaint. His father is a storyteller and a charismatic man, but when he talks about his family, even he sounds a little bit boring. "We're normal," he told me. "We eat out occasionally, we eat at home for the most part. Our values are directly in line with Christian principles and the American mainstream public."

Cam was in the Boy Scouts. He was a class clown. He is the only member of his immediate family who can't play the drums. The one place he always stood out was in sports. Cecil says he saw greatness in his son from his first Pop Warner game at seven years old, but that he never pressured Cam to play. He never had to. "He was born with it. Born 10 pounds, 9 ounces. He has never had a small day in his life." So it went in Pop Warner and Little League and in basketball, and so it went at Westlake High School in Atlanta.

His coaches and teammates at Westlake say the Cam Newton America sees now is the same person they saw back then—right down to the smile and the hospital wristbands he wears. He was always special, but he didn't show signs of becoming the physical specimen he is today until a growth spurt before his junior year. He was hyper-competitive, a hard worker, and the kind of kid who built his teammates up, who brought them with him. He was also something of a quarterbacking savant, even back then.

His quarterbacks coach at Westlake, Tony Slaton, called him a "mad scientist." His running back, Michael Harrison, said, "He's so football smart, it's crazy."

"When people say he's a student of the game, not just the X's and O's, he's a student of the history of the game," said Slaton. "He knows about all these quarterbacks, not just the African-Americans but all quarterbacks. He understands from that perspective, not just an African-American quarterback but a pro quarterback."

Photo by Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Slaton said Cam used to watch game tape and highlights from the NFL and then come to practice in character as old-time quarterbacks. One day, he'd run around behind the line of scrimmage like Fran Tarkenton. The next, he'd say, "I'm Steve DeBerg," and limp around the pocket like the hobbled journeyman backup once did.

When Cam played in college and then entered the NFL, nobody was telling these high school anecdotes. Or if they were, nobody was listening. Instead, supposed football experts openly wondered whether he had the intellect or leadership skills to play quarterback. There were message board rumors that Auburn dumbed down their playbook for him. He stumbled on the influential Jon Gruden's QB Camp show on ESPN.

"That's condescending, again," said Cecil Newton. "Does a black quarterback have the intelligence to play at the level of other quarterbacks? Let's dispel that myth. Let's put it to bed. If that were to be the case, then he would not be able to perform at the level he's performing at."

I heard pain in that answer, just as I could hear it when he sat me down in the office at Holy Zion trying to find out whether I was going to write the same tired story about his son. So I asked him the question that had been nagging at me ever since I began to think about Cam Newton and Cam Newton's family. Maybe it nagged because I am a son, one of three boys just like Cam, or because I had recently become a father myself.

What is it like to watch your son—the boy you raised right—have his intelligence mocked and his character questioned by haughty writers and analysts for silly reasons like dancing or wearing a towel on his head?

His son had made mistakes, Cecil said, before I could finish the question. At the University of Florida, Cam was arrested for possession of a stolen laptop, and entered into a pretrial diversion program. He was also reported to have been caught violating the University's academic honor code. But Cecil was proud of how Cam had learned from this mistakes and grown. As for Cam's portrayal in the media?

"It kind of tears at you. Because a lot of the times you aren't given an equal platform."

Cecil Newton has thought a lot about the press, and he does not necessarily think highly of them. He is well aware of how easily criticism can come hidden in reports from anonymous sources, and is amazed that those reports can be published "on the four-letter network." He understands how the context we writers give, or don't give, can change everything.

"To the public, when you write it or when you articulate it behind a camera, they trust you. And I want to go on record to say that there is such recklessness in the media," he said. "There are some scummy people. Scummy people in the media who have all kinds of biases. But what goes around happens to come around."

And it was very clear that the "you" Cecil was referring to was not merely a collective one, or a theoretical one. It was also, he would remind me throughout our time together, specific to me.

After the singing ended, Cecil took the microphone from Jackie and began his sermon slowly. He welcomed the congregation. He made a few announcements. He and his family would have to play hooky next Sunday, he said, and everybody understood why. Then he mentioned the special guest in the audience, the journalist. He held my card in front of him and struggled to pronounce my last name—not the first person to do so—as he called me up to the pulpit and asked me to tell the church why I was there.

"I'm calling him up here as a friend," he told the congregation, looking at me like it was a challenge.

I don't remember exactly what I said into the microphone, but I kept it short and polite. I said thank you for having me. And I was warmly welcomed.

Next Cecil addressed the front row of seats, which were all filled with middle and high school grade boys, including his son Caylin. These boys were Holy Zion's army, he said. And each had to turn to the congregation and say his name, his school, and his grade. They would get homework, too, in honor of black history month: a recitation by memory before the church, and it couldn't be a Martin Luther King speech, either. There were many other great African Americans who deserved attention, Cecil said, listing a handful of names. Later, eight of the kids would pile into Cecil's SUV and they would spend the afternoon together.

Finally, he began to preach. He preached self-improvement. "Get comfortable being uncomfortable," he said. Stretch your limits. Search your soul. Develop good habits. Improve your attitude. He talked of the Israelites wandering the desert for 40 years. He talked of their patience having to eat the same thing over and over.

"Forty years, and most of that time they could not just stop at Zaxby's or McDonald's," Cecil joked. Living in faith was not about the immediate rewards. It was not about material objects. Sometimes the fruits of righteousness are slow in bearing. "Your possessions," he said, "must not possess you."

And if I am making it sound dry, it wasn't dry. There was music behind him and he was really preaching, with one-syllable words getting stretched out to two and three syllables. The closest thing I'd ever experienced to this was watching clips of ministers from the civil-rights era, or hearing Bobby Womack or James Brown records.

Live with God, he commanded. And he sang, and he danced, and the keyboard jumped. "Life is too short to live it based on other people's expectations," he said, which maybe was a line meant for me. Because after that, he talked about his son Cam. He spoke about Cam's own struggles when he left the University of Florida after facing the fallout from his arrest and the prospect of yet another season backing up Tim Tebow. He transferred to obscure Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, "where it ain't nothing but cows." Cecil spoke about being yourself, no matter what people thought.

"Gone are the days of just preaching 'What did Peter say? What did John say?'" Cecil explained to me later. "It's now about what we say that is going to empower people. Those are farfetched characters in the minds of most people sitting in the congregation. Who is Peter? What did he say? We can exegete the scripture and use theology and all that but how does it apply to now? Two thousand-plus years later? What does that really mean today, for any ethnicity? How does it apply to us and how do we grow and gain from it?"

It was about showing your faith and living it together as a community. Call and response. Dancing. Needing to take a drink of water or wipe your face with a towel in the middle of the sermon. Even hitting the dab. I remembered that Cam's high school quarterback coach Slaton said he thought that Cam's playing and leadership were influenced by watching his father preach. In the moment, it made sense to me. Cam wasn't in church that day, but I could definitely see how church was in Cam.

Later, I asked Cecil about the implied metaphor in his sermon. I had thought about it and decided that one would not be entirely crazy, scripturally, to draw a loose comparison between Cam's time in Brenham, Texas, and the Israelites' 40 years in the desert. At the very least, this story seemed worthy of more discussion. After all, the church itself was called Holy Zion Center of Deliverance.

But Cecil disavowed that notion. Not only did the metaphor not work; it was not serious enough to be worthy of consideration. "I don't want the context of football to be the preeminent narrative of gospel and righteousness," he told me.

There's also the fact that Cam was not delivered from Brenham, Texas, directly into the land of milk and honey and yogurt endorsement deals. He first had to stop in Auburn, where he found his stride as a quarterback and became a superstar. National championship. Heisman. He went back there this past offseason to finish his degree. But Auburn was also the site of his biggest challenge as a person, what Cecil called their lowest point as a family in his journey.

During Cam's only season on campus, in 2010, he was caught up in a pay-for-play scandal that came to light after one Mississippi State alum, John Bond, declared that another Mississippi State alum, Kenny Rogers, who had been working as a representative for the Newton family, had sought a cash payment of up to $180,000 to secure Cam's commitment to the school. The church and Cecil were embroiled in the investigation, which played in the course of Cam's undefeated season, leaving his eligibility up in the air every week.

"I think the remnants of disappointment still kind of hover deep down within," Cecil told me. "Because I in particular was made to seem as if I was all that was wrong with a parent. And I'd like to also go on record and say that the reason I willfully fell on the sword was because the investigation came in midseason, Eric. Midseason!"

"It couldn't wait? We couldn't at some particular point after the season recant victories? You slam him against the wall and body search him at one of the most important times, as if it was a wedding and we come in here in a costume and you put him up against a wall looking for drugs and contraband. That couldn't wait? Let's ask ourselves that, America and NCAA."

The pain was back in Cecil's voice, almost like he was pleading—but he also knows perfectly well that it's too late to plead. He has used this phrase "willfully fell on his sword" before. What he means by it is that although he maintains he did not take money, in order to deflect the spotlight from his son, he admitted to having been an affiliate of Rogers, admitted to having a relationship with the wrong person.

The bigger issue, as Cecil sees it, is the whole idea of amateurism.

"I think it needs to be fixed," Cecil, a former D1 football player himself, told me. "I think it needs to be adjusted to the times, to where, when you start seeing even the SEC conference profiting to the tune of $200 to $500 million just within that conference—I mean, what are you doing with this money? We don't need new carpet in the weight room, we don't need paint, we don't need a new building.

"You're erecting this stuff at the expense of sweat equity of amateur athletes and, by and large, 65-75 percent of those amateur athletes—black, white, and every other ethnicity—have labored at four in the morning until God knows what time at night to maintain their scholarship. And they have been driven to the lengths of physical commitment, and when they leave that school, whether they leave with a degree—some do, some don't—but they don't leave with a contract as the Lord has blessed Cam with, and they have to return back to a Dalton, Alabama, or back to a Sacramento, California, or back to a Hempstead, New York, to take on a job that will pay them $40,000 a year but they have two [bad] ACLs and a bum shoulder. Is that fair? Let's ask ourselves that."

As he spoke, Cecil's voice began to rise the way it did on the pulpit.

"I think that the time has come, and we need to be screaming it from the housetops, the time for the amateur status of collegiate students needs to be revisited," he said. "My son didn't get a dime from anybody. Not a dime. He rode a scooter that I bought. He lived in an apartment that we paid rent for."

With about thirty minutes left in the sermon, Cecil Newton said he was going to wrap things up quickly. "We'll get out of here in ten minutes," he told the congregation. But he was still all wound up, and nobody seemed like they were in any kind of a hurry to go home or eat their lunch. He had us high-fiving our neighbors and spinning in circles in our seats.

Eventually, he called up one woman, who had come in rolling an oxygen tank, and he placed his hand over hers, and the congregation prayed for her health. We prayed for a pastor in Savannah, a friend of the church's, who had recently passed. Then Cecil invited anybody new to the church who wished to join the family—and he called it a family—to come up to the stage. As the band played, and we stood before our seats, a mother, her son, and her nephew answered the call. They were anointed with oil and welcomed into the church. Referring to me in the third person, Cecil even invited the journalist ("or publisher or whatever his title is") to walk up to the stage and join the family. I smiled but stayed put.

They sang one last gospel song, and then it was over. But nobody went home right away. Everybody stood around taking pictures together, hugging, making plans to eat, talking about Cam and the Super Bowl. One person after another thanked me for coming and one person after another invited me back.

Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Afterward, Cecil pulled me aside and said he wanted to show me something. "This is really only the vestibule," he said, pointing at the room where the service had taken place. We walked through a set of doors to the unused warehouse: a big, empty space with a pitched wooden ceiling. Holy Zion was two years away from opening this sanctuary, he said. And even though it was a warehouse with thin walls and some tools strewn out on the floor, you could see a church in there. Then he pointed through a window at a building next door. That would be a community center with a barbershop upstairs and everything.

Cecil said that a lot of people ask him why Cam doesn't just write a check, and make it happen. Why wait two years? Because, he explained, if the church doesn't grow organically, it won't be sustainable. He's thinking long-term.

The same goes for his son's career.

"People want this 100-million-dollar athlete, and they'll do anything to get to him," Cecil told me. "Those are the ones—it's my job to kind of beat back all of that."

Is he proud?

"Extremely. But I'm cautiously optimistic. Because just as he's getting a lot of fanfare, being celebrated for having an off-the-chain year, where will he be three years from now? Five years? Ten years? It's my job as a father to help navigate. We don't want it to end like some celebrated careers have ended. We don't want it like that."

As we walked back in from the warehouse, I saw Cecil greeting the boys from the front row and stacking his handwritten notes from the sermon, and I thought about the neat parallel between his weekly routine and his son's. The most obvious connection between football and Christianity is, of course, Sunday worship. Cam and Cecil both spend their week, Monday through Saturday, preparing for a few hours on Sunday. And for both men, those few hours of performance go beyond the act of preaching or of throwing a football; they are channeling the traditions that have made them who they are.

"The church of African-American people, since days of slavery, has been an institution that humanizes people, that humanizes African-Americans in a community, in a country that sees them as less than human," said Ellison. "In a church, you can become the head of the deacon board, or you can become an usher, or you can become a member of the trustee board. And you wear your best clothing, because on Monday you may not have a title. You may not be referred to as 'Mister' or 'Sir.' You'll be referred to as 'boy.' These kinds of institutions have been not only humanizing but hope-giving places for the formation of a people."

This is where Cam Newton comes from: an institution where being African-American and excellent, African-American and respected, African-American and optimistic are normal conditions. A place where, unlike the NFL, and unlike our society at large, a black man is fully visible, and fully human.

You see all of it in those not so rare moments when he is scoring touchdowns:

As he improvises on the field, a step ahead mentally and a step faster physically, to find the open man or the unlikely path to the end zone, channeling what Ellison called "the creativity and improvisation that happens in the preaching moment." As he celebrates the achievement, embodying the expressive, creative spirit of his hometown not just by dabbing but by being, exuberantly, himself. And finally, as he jogs out of the end zone, smiling, to do a small act of kindness, and hand the football he just scored with to a kid sitting in the front row.

That is not to say Cam Newton is perfect. Not even Cam Newton thinks he is. "There was only one person that walked this green earth that was perfect and we know who that is," he said at a press conference last week. "But yet that's not Cam, that's not you, that's not nobody."

I asked Ellison about something else Cam said at that press conference.

"I'm an African-American quarterback," he declared. "That may scare a lot of people because they haven't seen nothing that they can compare me to."

Was Cam simply stating what was obvious to him having grown up in a place where black excellence was expected? Having both read the history books and then written himself into them? Or was he challenging the establishment—making a small activist gesture in the tradition of his faith and his city?