DENVER (AP) - In 2011, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos were picking through the rubble of seasons gone horribly wrong - and a draft board that was unusually loaded with talent at the top.
The Panthers picked Cam Newton with the first overall pick and the Broncos chose Von Miller with the second selection.
Five years later, they’ll meet in the first matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the Super Bowl.
“I’m a fan of his,” Newton said.
“I’m his biggest fan,” said Miller.
While studying film of the top outside linebacker in the league, Newton said he’s “trying to find any and every way to alleviate him being a pain” come kickoff.
Miller said he’s doing the same thing with the league’s best QB.
Super Bowl 50 could very well hinge on which All-Pro prevails.
No matter who wins, it’ll be a tale of both triumph and redemption.
Newton suggested for the first time Wednesday that race may play a factor in why he’s become a lightning rod for public criticism, and Miller, who’s also black, said he can’t fathom why anybody would criticize Newton.
“I mean, for what, dancing after making big plays?” Miller asked. “I do the same thing.”
Indeed, they both play the game with childlike cheerfulness, dancing or dabbing to celebrate their success.
Each is a kid at heart, taking his role as loquacious locker room cut-up as seriously as he does his rank as team captain.
“I don’t think there’s ever been another quarterback that plays the game the way he does, and especially the way his personality is on the field,” Miller said. “I’m just a big fan of everything he has going for him. He’s a huge role model.”
They’re even similar in build - Miller is 6-3, Newton 6-5, and both pack a lean 245 pounds.
Newton signed a five-year, $103.8 million contract last offseason, and Miller is in line for a megadeal this offseason.
“If he played defense he probably would have gotten $220 million,” Miller said of Newton. “Because he can probably rush the passer and drop back and play safety and all that other stuff, too.”
Their passion for the game helped both Miller and Newton navigate a minefield of bumps, lumps and slumps on their spunky soar to superstardom.
Miller overcame a drug suspension to start the 2013 season and an ill-conceived plan to add 25 pounds, which he now believes led him to tear his right ACL at the end of that season.
Re-establishing himself as one of the league’s premiere pass-rushers, he’s had 25 sacks over the past two seasons.
Newton overcame a horrific-looking automobile accident in 2014 that left him with two fractures in his lower back and imperiled his status as the league’s dominant dual-threat quarterback.
They’ve met just once on the football field, in 2012, when Miller had six tackles, five for a loss and one sack in Denver’s 36-14 win. Newton completed 21 of 36 passes for two TDs, but threw two interceptions and was sacked seven times.
Miller would later say he didn’t remember a thing about John Fox’s return to North Carolina that day because it was “such a big deal for me going against Cam.”
Unlike Miller, Newton has stayed clear of trouble since joining the NFL.
He set a rookie record for yards passing in a season while earning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year - Miller won AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. No player has more combined yards from scrimmage (21,470) and touchdowns (171) than Newton in his first five seasons in the league.
Newton may be a leading MVP candidate, but his journey to the top has had its share of speed bumps and wrong turns.
Newton originally enrolled at Florida, but would leave after accusations that he stole a laptop. He transferred to Blinn Junior College, which he guided to a national championship.
After he transferred to Auburn, the NCAA suspended Newton briefly in 2010 while investigating whether his father Cecil had requested $180,000 on his son’s behalf from someone acting as agent - in return for Cam enrolling at Mississippi State.
However, the NCAA overturned the suspension and Newton went on to lead to the Tigers a national championship and the Heisman Trophy in his only season for the Tigers.
“We all make mistakes. By yet, it’s all about how you rebound from that mistake instead of just giving up,” Newton said.
Miller, who no longer carries all those extra pounds, agrees with the Panthers quarterback.
The league changed its drug policy in 2014. Instead of perpetually being one strike - even a missed urine test - away from a lifetime ban from the NFL, Miller was discharged from the league’s drug program last summer after staying clean for two years.
So, the anvil turned into a carrot.
The man Broncos general manager John Elway calls “the best football player on the planet” is one win shy of winning a world championship.
Miller long ago accepted Newton getting to hug the commissioner first on draft night.
What he wants now is to beat Newton to the stage to shake Roger Goodell’s hand while accepting the Lombardi Trophy.
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed contributed.
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