CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Panthers quarterback Cam Newton suggested for the first time Wednesday that race may play a factor in why he's become a lightning rod for public criticism.
"I'm an African-American quarterback that scares people because they haven't seen nothing that they can compare me to," said the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton.
The No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft out of Auburn, Newton has his share of detractors who either don't like how he plays, his celebrations or his abundance of self-confidence.
Newton, a leading league MVP candidate putting up record-breaking numbers, said he learned a long time ago that he can't please everyone.
"People are going to judge, and have opinions on things I don't have control over," Newton said.
The stout and speedy Newton is beating teams with his arm and his legs, throwing for 35 touchdowns and running for 10 this season. He has helped lead the Panthers (17-1) to their first Super Bowl since 2003. Carolina plays the AFC champion Denver Broncos on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, California.
Newton acknowledged being leery of talking about how others may perceive him.
"I think it's a trick question," Newton said. "If I answer it truthfully it's going to be 'Aw, he's this or that.' But I will say it anyway.
"I don't think people have seen what I am or what I'm trying to do."
Newton said he hasn't changed, and has previously responded to his critics.
"I said that prior to me being in this situation," Newton said of being misunderstood. "But when I said it then it was like, 'Oh he is immature,' or, 'Oh he's young and this that and the third.' I felt a certain type of way then and I feel a certain type of way now — nothing has pretty much changed. They talk about maturity. They talk about skillset. ... The only thing that has changed (about me) is that we're winning now."
Panthers coach Ron Rivera doesn't believe Newton should have to fight perceptions about race.
"I think he has always strived to have that separation," Rivera said. "I don't think he wants to be known as an African-American quarterback; he wants to be known as a quarterback. I think that is what drives him, to be able to transcend those boundaries, which I think is great."
Rivera, who is Hispanic, said he has battled that notion to some degree himself.
"It really should be about your merits more than anything else," the coach said. "More about what you have accomplished, what you have done."
Rivera said some people may simply not like Newton because of his personality.
The All-Pro quarterback plays the game with open enthusiasm, pointing his arms forward after running for a first down, doing the "dab" in the end zone and pretending to rip open his shirt like Superman. He gets his teammates to pose for pictures on the sideline near the end of games when the outcome is no longer in doubt.
None of that bothers Rivera, who said Newton needs to remain true to himself.
"I think some people believe you should be stoic when you play this game," Rivera said. "But a lot of people disagree and think you should have fun. This is a kid's game. I know there is a lot of money involved, but at the end of the day it's about entertainment. If you aren't enjoying yourself, don't play the game —it's that simple."
Newton's teammates have their own theories about the anti-Newton uproar.
Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman said it may be because Newton wins in an "unconventional way," unlike a traditional NFL quarterback, and fans aren't used to that on Sundays.
"Some people can't accept that," Tillman said. "He is setting a precedent as far as for how quarterbacks are now — and how they may become. He's in a league of his own. He has created his own category for winning."
Tillman likens Newton, in some respects, to Tim Tebow.
"People would say, 'Oh Tebow is not a good quarterback,' but the guy won games and took his team to the playoffs," Tillman said. "All Tim Tebow did was say that he loved Jesus and he prayed all of the time — and people hated him for that."
Carolina defensive tackle Dwan Edwards senses the hatred of Newton stems from the QB's popularity.
"In sports, people want to root against people, whether it's LeBron (James), Kobe (Bryant) or (Michael) Jordan," Edwards said. "There are a lot of people who don't care for them and no matter what they do, it's 'Oh that's the wrong way. That's not what we're used to.'
"It's tough, because people are going to hate you regardless."