AUBURN, Ala. – Auburn wasn't even looking for a quarterback when the Tigers happened upon Cam Newton at a little junior college in Texas.
Tigers assistant coach Curtis Luper made a recruiting trip to little Blinn College in Texas about a year ago looking at wide receiver Dexter Ransom, not a passer.
"We were not even going to take a quarterback," offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. "Coach Luper went down and said, 'You've got to take a look at this quarterback.' It just so happened one of our guys was leaving and it opened up a spot. I went down there and checked him out and started doing homework on film and checking out his background. It was probably within a month of signing day when we actually started recruiting him.
"I'd never even heard of him. I didn't even know who he was."
They didn't get Ransom; he signed with Arizona. What the Tigers did get was a meteoric rise to national prominence with the Heisman favorite, an SEC championship and a shot at the BCS title in Glendale, Ariz., against Oregon on Jan. 10.
Newton is one of four Heisman finalists, joining Oregon running back LaMichael James, Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
He's widely regarded as a decisive favorite after a season when neither Southeastern Conference defenses nor an NCAA investigation slowed him down. Newton is also a finalist for the Maxwell Award, which goes to college football's best player, and the Davey O'Brien Award for the top quarterback.
The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Newton played the final four games amid a barrage of reports that his father was involved in a pay-for-play scheme during his recruiting at Mississippi State, and even academic cheating during his stay at Florida.
The eligibility question, at least, was resolved in a flurry leading up to the SEC title game. The NCAA said Cecil Newton did indeed dangle his son's services for dollars at Mississippi State, but that neither Newton nor Auburn apparently knew about it.
Newton's eligibility was restored after a one-day suspension by Auburn, but the NCAA's ruling has been widely criticized as opening the door for abuse.
In conjunction with the ruling, Auburn announced Cecil Newton's access to university sports would be limited. Auburn hasn't released the specifics of those restrictions but TV cameras repeatedly showed Newton's mother, Jackie, without her husband in the stands at the SEC championship game in his hometown of Atlanta.
Auburn spokesman Kirk Sampson said Cecil Newton was invited to attend by the Heisman Trust and is expected to be there. His attorney did not respond to a phone message.
As polarizing as the pay-for-play scandal was off the field, Cam Newton's on the-field play has been just as mesmerizing.
Newton and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick joined Tim Tebow this season as the only Football Bowl Subdivision players to have 20 touchdowns both rushing and passing, accounting for 49 TDs.
He was the SEC's leading rusher with 1,409 yards — easily a league record for quarterbacks — and he also led the nation in pass efficiency, completing 67.1 percent of his passes for 2,589 yards. Newton passed for 28 touchdowns and was intercepted just six times while also catching a TD pass.
Newton has mostly deflected questions about the Heisman when he's allowed to speak to the media at all — which has been seldom since the allegations surfaced.
"I really don't like to talk about individual awards with me, because without that team, without the coaching staff having faith in me ... without those guys I wouldn't be where I am right now," he said after the SEC championship game. "I'm going to leave that up to the voters and we just wait and see what happens."
Newton did reflect on his improbable rise: "365 days ago from this date I was at Blinn College, winning a junior college national championship. It's a wonder what God can do in a person's life, in such quick fashion."
Coach Gene Chizik didn't declare his quarterback a shoo-in for the Heisman, but delivers high praise.
"I don't make these decisions, obviously, but the people that are if they look at the body of work, I don't know how he can't be considered very highly and possibly the winner of the Heisman," said Chizik, a former Texas defensive coordinator. "I don't make that call. In my 25 years of doing this, he is the best player I have been around and I have been around some great ones. A bunch of them are still playing."
Among those: Longhorns quarterback Vince Young.
Blinn coach Brad Franchione said only a handful of major colleges really recruited Newton, including Oklahoma, Arizona, Kansas State and North Carolina. He said it was common for schools to become interested while scouting other players.
"I knew that Cam was a special football player," Franchione said. "Obviously we accomplished something special with him as our quarterback. I was amazed that more people didn't see it in the recruiting process."
But he recalls "a happy-go-lucky kid" who drove both players and coaches to do better.
"He's definitely a catalyst for success in a football program," Franchione said. "It's a totally encompassing aspect that he brings to a football program."
Newton is beloved by Auburn fans for his play, of course, and for his postgame celebrations and frequent smiles.
He also has unwavering support from a group of youngsters at Wrights Mill Road Elementary School in Auburn. Newton started meeting with four boys — three fifth-graders and a fourth-grader — before his celebrity had really stretched beyond state lines.
They treated him to a celebration on Monday — hours before he was named a Heisman finalist — with Jackie Newton, his grandmother and a cousin attending.
"We had 430 children in the cafeteria waiting to surprise him," school principal Lynda Tremaine said. They serenaded him with their "12 Days of Auburn Christmas", starting "One Auburn victory, two touchdowns, three Heisman trophies..." And there the youngsters struck a Heisman pose, Tremaine said.
Since Newton has said he was a boyhood fan of Dr. Seuss, "Cam I Am" was a natural. So were the lyrics "We like his smile, we like his style."
They also like his impact on the four boys who have had to show Newton their work folders every week.
"Without a doubt, it's been a gamechanger for them," Tremaine said. "Their behavior, their academics and their attitude toward school and schoolwork has improved, because they know they've got Cam who's going to hold them accountable. They have risen to the occasion."
As did Newton for the Tigers.
He hasn't addressed the possibility of leaving school early to enter the NFL draft, where he's now projected as a likely first-round pick. Then again, there's always teaching.
"We just adore him and we're just very proud of him," Tremaine said. "I told him I'd love for him to change his major and go into elementary education so I could hire him. He just gave me that big grin."