CHARLOTTE – Shortly after noon on Dec. 9, 2014, a clear and sunny day, Cam Newton drove his matte black Dodge pick-up to Bank of America Stadium to watch game film on his day off, a mundane fragment of his Tuesday routine. He crossed West Hill Street while cruising on South Church Street, about a block from the stadium, and the mundane ceased.
A black Buick pulled in front of Newton, swerved and clipped the back of his truck. The Dodge jackknifed, rolled, skidded sideways and came to a stop on an overpass above I-277. Airbags burst open. Windows shattered. The roof caved in on the passenger’s side. Newton crawled out the sliding window and limped to the side of the road. “It looked to me like he was in shock,” said Josh Wrona, the driver of the car behind Newton. Later, when he saw photos, Newton would say he thought he should have died.
The images were surreal: The quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, one of the most famous athletes in the county, laying down on a Charlotte street next to shattered glass and an overturned truck. The events in the 13 months since the crash have made it even harder to fathom. Newton has become the most dominant force in the NFL, the presumptive league Most Valuable Player, even a powerful symbol of the changing perception of black quarterbacks in broader society. The Panthers have morphed from a languishing outfit to a team with consecutive division titles and on the brink of the Super Bowl.
Coincidence or not, the harrowing collision happened at the fulcrum for the Panthers’ turnaround and just as Newton’s game reached new heights.
As Newton and the Panthers prepare to host the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship on Sunday, the accident stays with him. Newton wears on his left wrist the yellow patient’s bracelet he received at the hospital, the words “FALL RISK” still legible in fading black marker.
“It’s a constant reminder,” Newton said. “It makes you put what’s really important in life first. Yeah, we’re playing for the NFC Championship and potentially, if everything goes as we plan it, playing in the Super Bowl. The truth of the matter is, if I’m not in my position using my position in a positive way, then shame on me.”
As Newton headed to the stadium to watch tape of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that December morning, the Panthers stood at 3-8-1, clinging to faint playoff hope. They won the remainder of their games and stole the dismal NFC South with a 7-8-1 record, and this season they went 15-1 in the regular season before adding a playoff victory last week. In total, playoffs included, Carolina has gone 20-2 since Newton’s accident.
“We’ve been a group that’s stayed the course and had just been chipping away,” Carolina center Ryan Kalil said. “That was kind of our thing all year long. Whether that was coincidence that everything started to work out our way, nothing really changed, honestly, that week. You talk about team and family, maybe that aspect, there’s a correlation. Something extra to bring the group even tighter.”
At first, the accident simply terrified the Panthers and the rest of the city. On the way home from the gym, Wrona had been driving behind Newton for several minutes, admiring the lifted Dodge truck – a 1998 model loaded with aftermarket upgrades – with no idea who the driver was. He watched the truck drive across West Hill and saw a sedan smash into him. The other car, Wrona said, seemed to come out of nowhere.
Wrona slammed his brakes. He had never seen anything like the accident – “violent” is the word that stuck in his head. He trembled. When he called 911, no words escaped his mouth. As he got out of his car, he saw a man climb out to the window. As he approached, he realized it was Cam Newton.
“As soon as I walked up, I was like holy [smokes],’” Wrona said. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
The driver of the Buick, a 46-year-old named Nestor Pellot Jr., walked over, still dazed, to check on Newton. Wrona, a pharmacist who had some training in emergency situations, suggested Pellot stay by his car and sit down.
Onlookers poured out of the YMCA from across the street and snapped pictures. The scenes spread rapidly on social media, including one of Newton lying on the side of overpass and, somehow, smiling.
“I was coming in here to watch tape,” Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson said. “Coach was like, ‘Get ready to go. You’re playing this week.’ It was scary. [The truck] was only fractions of the way from going over the [overpass]. That’s scary in itself.”
Emergency medical responders strapped Newton to a stretcher and transported him to Carolinas Medical Center. Doctors diagnosed him with two transverse fractures in his back, but Newton didn’t even suffer cuts or bruises. He stayed overnight and was released the following morning. A day later, he returned to the Panthers’ facility, gimpy and grateful.
“I remember everything,” Newton said at a press conference two days after the crash. “I was aware throughout the whole thing. I really couldn’t talk afterwards, because I was such in shock. I got myself out the truck, and I couldn’t stop smiling. In my book, one plus one always equals two. And I’m looking at this truck, and I’m looking at this accident, and I’m like, ‘Dude, one plus one ain’t equaling two.’ I’m looking at this truck like, ‘Somebody’s supposed to be dead.’”
His perspective shifted instantly. When asked about potentially playing that week, Newton replied, “Who cares?” He sat against Tampa Bay, and Anderson led Carolina to a win, anyway. Newton returned to the field the next week. He won his next four games, which catapulted the Panthers to a stunning division title and gave Newton the first playoff victory of his career.
“It reiterated the fact that a lot of us believe he’s an extremely tough individual,” Kalil said. “The fact that he got in a car wreck and he was able to play says a lot about his toughness.”
Some around Newton noticed a more joyful, appreciative outlook. Early in his career, Newton could be sullen and pouty to the point of dismaying teammates after losses. He had already started to grow out of those habits, and the crash accelerated his growth.
“I think somewhere along the lines, it did change who he is, the way he looks at things, his perspective on things,” Panthers Coach Ron Rivera said. “I think becoming a new father has as well. That’s a role I’ve noticed he’s embraced. He’s been really kind of neat to watch as far he’s concerned – just the whole maturity of it, having been through all these things.”
For Newton, always outwardly brash and confident, the crash affirmed his style of play. It provided another layer of defense against critics who viewed him as too ostentatious. It further encouraged him to be himself.
“When you see me play, you see a kid out there,” Newton said this week. “Some people call it immaturity. I could care less. I think with this accident, it made it even more, I really couldn’t care what a person thinks. When I see a child or see a kid, and they’re shining from ear to ear because they got a football, that’s what I care about.”
While Newton has thrived, the other half of the crash remains a mystery. Pellot has still not spoken publicly. In the days after, he shooed television trucks off his property. He did not return a message left at his home this week. When a reporter visited his Fort Mill, S.C., house one evening this week, a woman did not open the front door and said Pellot was not home.
“Put yourself in his position,” Wrona said. “Any time there’s a car accident, someone wants to assign blame. This is one of those circumstances, it’s an intersection where someone is not always to blame. The public wants to have someone to blame, whether Cam speeding or this guy running a stop sign. People are going to think he almost took out our $100 million quarterback. I would be in hiding if I were him, too.”
Though both witnesses in the incident report stated Pellot drove in front of Newton, he may have been a victim of circumstance. Police cited neither driver in the crash. The report stated Newton was traveling 35 miles per hour, and Pellot was doing 20. The perpetrator, if there was one, may have simply been the intersection of West Hill and South Church.
Between 2009 and 2014, Charlotte Department of Transportation spokeswoman Linda Durrett said, 27 angled crashes occurred at the intersection, an average of 5.4 per year. “If I was coming from the Buick’s position, I would have said, Cam came out of nowhere,” Wrona said. “Because you can’t see the cars crossing the street.”
After Newton’s crash, Charlotte made a tacit admission about the danger of the intersection. City engineers enlarged the stop sign on West Hill and added reflective stripping to it, repainted lines around the intersection and added a second sign on South Church warning of a coming intersection. In 2015, there was one angled crash.
“Yes, it was on the list to have a check-up and evaluation,” Durrett said. “I’m not sure they had come to the conclusion to do the all of these improvements until after the investigation after the crash.”
The intersection will buzz Sunday afternoon as fans flock to Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers will rally behind their quarterback. Newton will smile and play with joy, like a man who knows how lucky he is, like someone who knows to cherish the mundane.