Last Friday I experienced the ugliest thing I’ve encountered in a long, long time. Most days I take a walk; once or twice a week I’ll extend that walk and stop in at a corner Stop&Rob convenience store. You know — a place where you can get gasoline, buy a snack, get a drink, and hit the road again. I stop there because they have fresh cookies every day.
I was standing in line to buy my cookie behind a guy wearing a Green Bay Packers stocking cap. He was maybe my age, maybe a bit younger, a little paunchier, buying a large bottled Starbucks frappuccino. I’m a friendly guy, usually, and I like to chat with strangers, so I made a comment about the Packers and the tough year they’d had. The guy seemed friendly enough, and since there was only one person working the counter at the Stop&Rob, the line was moving slowly and we had a moment to visit. He asked me who I liked in the Super Bowl.
I started to say “I’m not a big fan of Cam Newton, but I’ll be rooting for Carolina because they’re the more exciting team.”
Okay, a tangent. Cam Newton is, in my opinion, the most interesting, the most creative, the most watchable, and the most annoying quarterback in the National Football League. I enjoy watching him play football. But I don’t much like him. Why? Because he always seems to know where the cameras are. He likes the attention.
Nothing wrong with that, in itself. But quarterbacks, because of the nature of the game and that particular position, are always the center of attention. Always. And they should be. But because they’re always the center of attention, it’s my very personal opinion that they should deflect some of that attention to their teammates. And to be fair, Cam Newton does that — but usually after he’s soaked up his own share of attention.
I think it’s sort of childish. But that’s the thing about the guy. He plays football with all the reckless joy of a kid. He runs with the ball a lot. A LOT. When I first saw him playing, I assumed he did that because he thought he was the best runner on the team, or because he wanted the glory. Now I think he does that because he just likes to run with the ball. I think he does it at least in part because he’s having fun. It’s a tad selfish, I think, but kids are a tad selfish. And the fact is, he really IS a good runner. Hell, he’s good at everything. And he’s really good at having fun playing football. How can you NOT love that?
Look at this photo. There’s Cam Newton being chased by guys who are paid millions of dollars to knock the shit of their opponents. And given the chance, they’d cheerfully knock the shit out of Cam Newton. And he’s laughing. He knows that one solid tackle could end his career, but look at him. He’s actually having fun.
I sound like a fan, don’t I. But I’m not. Well, maybe I am. But I don’t think so. Doesn’t matter. What matters is I was going to tell this guy in the Packers stocking cap that I wasn’t a fan of Cam Newton, but that I’d be rooting for the Carolina Panthers because they’re so much fun to watch.
But I only got as far as “I’m not a fan of Cam Newton…” because that’s when the guy in the Packers stocking cap interrupted me and started in on a racist rant. “I hate that guy,” he said. “No white quarterback would blah blah blah and just because he’s black he thinks he can something something showboat thug and hip hop jive dancing blah blah respect for the game yadda yadda.”
The woman running the cash register stopped what she was doing and stared at the guy in the Packers stocking cap. The guy who was paying for his gas and a pack of cigarettes turned around and stared at the guy. And after I stop being stunned, I said “Dude, back up.” I’m not at all sure what I meant by that, but that’s what I said. “Dude, back up.” And the guy in the Packers stocking cap stopped talking, realizing everybody in the Stop&Rob was either staring at him, or very studiously NOT looking at him. He says — and maybe this was the most astonishing and horrifying part of the incident — he says, “I’m not a racist, but c’mon, you have to admit…”
I don’t know what the guy in the Packers stocking cap thought we had to admit, because he never finished the sentence. It was his turn at the register. He paid for his stuff and left, and nobody said a word until the door closed behind him — at which point the woman at the register said “Holy crap.”
That scene has replayed in my mind off and on since it happened. The guy in the Packers stocking cap assumed I must be a racist too. Why? Is “I’m not a fan of Cam Newton” some sort of code phrase? A shared password racists use to identify each other in public? I think of all the times I’ve said “I’m not a fan of Cam Newton” and wonder if racists out there heard that and thought “Ah, he’s one of our people.” I think of all the times I’ve said “I’m not a fan of Cam Newton, but…” and I wonder if people were hearing “I’m not a racist, but…”
And it occurs to me that Cam Newton must hear this shit all the time. He must hear people using code words saying “I don’t like you because you’re black.” Every day, he must hear the most horrible, hateful, ugly shit. And you know what’s astonishing about that?
He still goes out there and plays football with the reckless joy of a kid.
He’ll be out on the field this evening; he’ll be center stage at the Super Bowl, and he’ll soak up the attention. He’ll be smiling and laughing. He’ll probably get knocked around a bit, but that’s part of the game. Doesn’t matter. Cam Newton will be having fun.
That guy in the Packers stocking cap? He did me a favor. He made me a fan of Cam Newton.