I played all kinds of sports growing up, but I started football earliest. I was 7 and my whole rec career, I was the youngest but the biggest. People even asked to see my birth certificate! Then, around age 9, I played baseball too. I played center field because I loved Ken Griffey Jr. I really admired him. I was always a pretty good athlete, so my coach would shuffle me around to third base or shortstop, which was fine with me. This was when the Braves were good, and they had Chipper Jones, and I was also a big fan of Derek Jeter's. Those pickup, backyard games were the most fun -- just those warms nights in the South where you smell the fresh-cut grass and walk home exhausted. Those nights were the best.
The middle school days
I quit baseball at 14 because I was afraid of the pitches. The kids started getting better and throwing faster, and it would've hurt getting hit by that ball, so I stopped playing. That left a void, so I started playing basketball in the eighth grade. It was just something to do then, and in my first high school game, I fouled out. I was big and strong, and every time I tried to steal the ball on defense, I'd knock the kid down. I had to understand the difference between basketball and football, but it was challenging being so big. My first position in football was linebacker, actually, which helped me more than anything. It gave me the mechanism to want to hit rather than to cringe at the thought of being hit. So when I got the opportunity to play offense, it was nothing. I wasn't shying away from contact. If anything, I was initiating it. I think that's what kind of made me stand out at an early age. My mom always wondered how I could be afraid of a little baseball when I always had these huge guys chasing me. It's a good question.
Sometimes I look back at those middle school class pictures, those sixth-and seventh-grade photos, and I'm always the tallest kid in the class. I used to think it was normal, but then you keep growing and growing and growing, and you realize this isn't normal. But in a great way.
The high school years
I remember the first time I traveled for football. It was junior year and I was on a seven-on-seven All-Star team. We flew to New York City to play for the national championship, which, for a 15-or 16-year-old, is a pretty big deal. You think you're pretty hot stuff, especially being in the Big Apple. And the first real camp I went to was in high school too. People were so pressed to make a highlight video. Like, "Hey, I'm Cam Newton, QB from Westlake High School [Atlanta], 200-and-x pounds, and I run an x-time." I wasn't into that, though. My talent spoke for itself. My mentality was like, If you come see me, then I'll put on a show for you. That wasn't cockiness or arrogance. That's just me speaking with confidence, saying that if you come see me, I'll hold myself accountable enough to play at a high level. I really started thinking about college football my freshman year at Westlake. My older brother was a senior when I was a freshman, and his team was very good. Being on their team, I saw coaches and scouts coming in all the time. When I saw that, I was excited. Seeing guys from Georgia Tech, Florida State, Auburn, Florida, USC, Texas, all these schools, it was a great motivator for a young kid. It was like, Okay, this pigskin can take me places.
More rising stars retrace their paths to the pros:
Maya Gabeira | Paul Goldschmidt | Brandon Jennings | Cam Newton | Jozy Altidore | Ashton Eaton | Maya Moore | Michael Crabtree | Ian Kinsler | C.J. Wilson | Nnamdi Asomugha | Bernard Pollard | Richard Seymour | Michelle Wie | Brittany Lincicome | Gordon Hayward | DeMarcus Cousins | Matt Flynn | Jairus Byrd | Rey Maualuga | Domata Peko | Le'Ron McClain | Glen Perkins | Jeff Halpern | Jay Feely