On the morning of July 26, just hours before the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s media day in Norfolk, Virginia, Howard University quarterback Caylin Newton found himself surrounded, fielding questions from conference opponents who, at the moment, felt more like brothers.
All of the players were standouts who, like Newton, played at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and who, also like Newton, were about to open their seasons against bigger, better-funded Football Bowl Subdivision schools that have historically paid HBCUs lots of money to come to their massive stadiums in Week 1 and get beat up.
So understand, when Howard, a middling football school that hasn’t won a conference championship in 15 years and had gone 2-9 the season before, shocked the nation with a 43-40 win at UNLV last September for the biggest point-spread upset (45 points) in college football history, no one was more surprised than players at other HBCUs, many of whom were used to mauling Howard the same way they took it from big state schools at the start of every season.
Newton said one amazed lineman from an opposing team told him, “Man, I was like, ‘How in the world did Howard beat UNLV?’ ”
A good place to start is Newton, who keyed the upset with a three-touchdown, 330-yard performance in his first start as a true freshman that no one — not even the people who knew of him because of his famous older brother, Carolina Panthers star Cam Newton — saw coming. Except Caylin, of course, and his pastor father, Cecil, who pushed Caylin to commit to Howard on a day — Jan. 5, 2017 — when the Bison didn’t have a head coach, hadn’t had a winning season since 2012 and didn’t even have a scholarship immediately ready for him, all because of a vision that came to him.
“We’re going to D.C.,” Cecil told Caylin, who learned to trust his father’s instincts. “It’s something bigger there than football.”
The start of something special
Days after Caylin announced on Twitter that he was going to Howard, a big piece of the Bison’s revival fell into place as Mike London, the ACC coach of the year at Virginia in 2011, was hired as head coach.
London is an optimistic sort, the type of man needed at an HBCU, where there is no shortage of coaching challenges as resources are significantly lacking compared to the big schools, where wealthy donors regularly pledge the type of money that fund on-field improvement. HBCUs, meanwhile, rely heavily on federal funding to simply continue operations, let alone improve athletic facilities.
Yet, London promptly got more investment from the administration when he was hired — like an upgraded locker room and more support staff, for instance — and a key piece at quarterback in Newton, even though he didn’t know it yet, even after an ensuing conversation with Cecil.
“I’m not going to be one of those parents who are calling and asking why he’s not playing,” Cecil told London. “Matter of fact, he could be a safety, he could be a quarterback. You put him wherever you need to put him. I just wanted to let you know you have my support.”
After that, London was pumped. He landed a kid who had a productive high school career, with a superstar brother, and he didn’t even have to recruit. What’s more, the family seemed so close, as Cam himself made it clear to London early that he never wanted to be a distraction or make Caylin feel burdened by being his sibling.
“The times Cam has come around, he’s put a hoodie on over his head, and he’ll sit in the car while we’re practicing or he’ll be off somewhere because he doesn’t want his presence to diminish anything that’s going on,” London said.
But the comparisons between the two are natural, if only because Caylin looks a little like Cam, especially in the face, and he sounds like him. While Cam is a physical marvel — a 6-foot-6, 250-pound block of granite — Caylin is a lithe 180-pounder, albeit one with plus athleticism, a nice arm and a strong feel for the game.
As a senior at Grady High School in Atlanta in 2016, Caylin completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,322 yards, 33 touchdowns and eight interceptions to go with 1,036 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. But his height — or lack of it — was his biggest detriment in the eyes of recruiters.
Newton generated little college interest
Although some short quarterbacks have earned FBS scholarships in the past, 6-feet even is about the floor for quarterbacks on that level, where triggermen have to see downfield behind oak trees disguised as offensive linemen. Newton is generously listed at 5-11, and he’s bow-legged, too.
“I told him if he straightened his legs out he’d be 6-1,” London recalled with a laugh.
As such, Newton says he didn’t have any full rides coming out of high school, and he had only partials from a trio of HBCUs — Hampton, Southern and Savannah State.
“I didn’t have a full ride anywhere — not D2, not D3 — and I basically walked on at Howard,” Newton said. “But Pops was like, ‘We’re gonna do this.’ ”
So Cecil paid for Caylin’s first semester on campus as an early enrollee in the spring of 2017, and Caylin promptly beat both returning quarterbacks for the starting job, all while showing a natural comfort with offensive coordinator Brennan Marion’s fast-paced, hurry-up offense with plenty of run-pass options. He earned a full ride within months.
Once Caylin turned his attention to the season opener against the Runnin’ Rebels, he remembers growing more confident in his team’s ability to spring the upset.
“They didn’t have film of our new offense, and at the end of the day, they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into,” Newton said. “We did.”
A purpose realized
After the Bison went into UNLV and won the game, neither Newton or London could believe the outpouring of love they received from alumni and friends. The Rev. Jesse Jackson even popped in for a surprise visit with the team.
“I can’t even describe the pride I felt … that win, and the things that occurred after that, was life-changing,” London said.
That certainly was the case for Newton, whose Twitter follower count exploded after the win. He’d never gotten so many messages and emails, and that’s when Caylin realized his purpose for being at Howard, the one Cecil didn’t know at the time of his commitment but had faith would eventually become clear if they just obeyed his gut feeling.
“I want to be able to say I’ve changed all of HBCU football,” Newton said, when asked what he wants his legacy at Howard to be. “Guys should never put their head down if they commit to Howard or if they have an offer from Morehouse, or think those places aren’t as good as Georgia Tech. It’s bigger than what people see it as.”
When asked to elaborate, Newton noted that for one, he immensely enjoys the sense of culture and shared struggle that is common among teammates and fellow students at Howard and other HBCUs, the overwhelming majority of which understand the challenges of growing up black in America.
“No offense to these other [state] universities, but they play their three to four years, and they get out, they get that money and everything is a business,” Newton said. “Here, it’s a family. And I can be one of the pioneers [here], much like Antoine Bethea, Jay Walker or Pep Hamilton.”
Sure, he’d like to play in the NFL, too. But if the latter doesn’t happen, he’ll be OK. He knows football isn’t promised, and he’s pumped about all the business connections he’ll make at Howard. Besides, all that is the furthest thing from his mind right now. At the moment, he’s solely focused on being the best leader and player he can be, which is good, since the Bison open their season on the road Saturday against another FBS opponent, the Ohio Bobcats.
More work to be done
The Bobcats are tough — they went 9-4 a year ago — and while the Bison faced another school from Ohio’s conference (Kent State) a year ago and lost 38-31, Ohio clobbered Kent State 48-3.
So if Howard plans another upset, Newton will again have to take a starring role. As a freshman, he completed 50 percent of his passes for 2,432 yards, 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while rushing 166 times for 937 yards and 12 touchdowns. His coaches expect more this year after finishing 7-4 in 2017.
“We’re hoping he’ll be a better quarterback, because we’re going to give him more responsibility because he understands the offense better,” said London, who will ask Newton to signal audibles and make pre-play adjustments and checks.
No matter what happens Saturday against Ohio, it won’t erase what the Bison did last year against UNLV. All weekend, several HBCUs will be outgunned and outmanned, but they’ll all go into those games believing they can win, largely because Howard did it.
This is part of Newton’s legacy, as the true freshman who helped Howard’s football team make history. The players he met at the MEAC’s media day may be opponents later on in the season, but in Newton’s mind, as HBCU football player, they’re all in the same boat this weekend as they try to defeat Goliath.
As such, Newton did what he could to inspire his fellow comrades to go out there this weekend and, gasp, pull a Howard.
“It’s possible,” Newton urged them. “Don’t ever go in a game and say, we’re supposed to lose. [I stressed] to them you have to speak it into existence. That’s your time to shine.”
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