NEW YORK – Cam Newton thanked his mother, then his father. And then he paused to compose himself.
Cecil Newton was back in Georgia, though his son put him squarely in the room where the Auburn quarterback accepted college football's biggest award Saturday night — the Heisman Trophy.
"Thank you for all you did for me," he told his parents, adding. "To my father, I love you so much."
There was no doubt Newton would win the Heisman. Whether he gets to keep it is still uncertain.
Newton brushed off an investigation that determined his father violated NCAA rules as he did so many tacklers this season and captured the Heisman in a landslide vote.
That didn't mean it all wasn't tinged with sadness because his father was not there.
"I'd be sitting up here lying to you if I didn't say it hurt," Newton said during the ESPN telecast before the winner was announced. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I love my father. He gave me words of encouragement before I came up here. I know he's with me in spirit."
The third player from Auburn to win the Heisman, Newton received 729 first-place votes and outpointed runner-up Andrew Luck of Stanford by 1,184 points.
"Honestly, it's a dream come true for me, something every child has a dream (about) that plays the sport of football, and I'm living testimony that anything is possible," Newton said.
Oregon running back LaMichael James was third, followed by Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, the other finalist.
Newton didn't look a bit surprised when his name was announced inside the Best Buy Theater in Times Square. A wide smile spread across his face and he dropped his head.
After exchanging hugs and handshakes with the other finalists, he and his mother, Jackie, shared a long embrace.
"When I reached my mother I really didn't want to let go," Newton said. "It's been hard for me, but it's been extremely hard for her just to see how much her son has been through and I just wanted to hug her the whole night to make her feel at ease."
When he reached the podium, he had to steady himself.
"Oh my God," he whispered as he reached into his inside jacket packet to pull out his speech.
On the field and off, Newton has been the story of the college football season. He's carried the top-ranked Tigers to the BCS national championship game against No. 2 Oregon, running and passing over opponents who looked helpless trying to stop him. But his story is stained: Last month the NCAA determined his father tried to peddle him to Mississippi State for cash.
However, the NCAA cleared him to play before the Southeastern Conference title game because it found no evidence that he or Auburn knew about Cecil Newton's pay-for-play scheme. It also suggested that it was still investigating, as were the FBI and the Mississippi secretary of state's office. Cam Newton has denied any wrongdoing.
Still, it invites speculation that the newest Heisman winner could perhaps be heading down the same path as Reggie Bush, who returned his trophy three months ago after the NCAA ruled that he and his family received cash and gifts while he was at Southern California.
Asked about the possibility during his news conference, Newton said firmly: "Two letters for you my friend — No."
To be eligible for the Heisman, a player must be in good standing with the NCAA. And for most of November, that was unclear following claims by a Mississippi State booster who said Newton's father tried to get the Bulldogs to pay $180,000 for his son to play for them.
The NCAA didn't punish Cam Newton but did say Cecil Newton's access to Auburn athletics would have to be limited.
So Cecil Newton stayed home. In a statement released by his lawyer earlier in the week, he said his presence could "rob Cam and the event of a sacred moment."
All the uncertainty didn't keep voters from making Newton an overwhelming choice — he received the sixth most first-place votes and the third highest percentage of first-place votes. Though 105 voters among the 886 who returned ballots chose not to list him among their three selections.
"Obviously, like most people, I have my suspicions, but I don't think it's my position to pretend to know what is happening with the NCAA investigation," said voter Stewart Mandel of SI.com.
It was impossible to argue against Newton's performance.
Blending a linebacker's body with a tailback's speed and quickness, the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder from Georgia has guided Auburn to a perfect season. His numbers are off the charts: an SEC-best 1,409 yards rushing with 21 touchdowns, and 2,589 yards passing and 28 TD passes. He's the first SEC player to run for at least 1,000 yards and pass for at least 2,000 in the same season.
Early in the season, Auburn shredded defenses with Newton on the ground. Working out of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's spread attack, he ran for at least 176 yards in four straight SEC games. Not even Bo Jackson, the last Auburn player to win the Heisman, did that.
As the season wore on and opponents focused on stopping Newton from running wild, he started beating them with his arm.
Newton threw 15 touchdown passes and only one interception in the final five games, saving maybe his best performance for last. In a 56-17 victory over South Carolina in the SEC title game, Newton passed for 335 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 73 yards and two scores.
By mid-October, Newton was the clear Heisman front-runner and, ultimately, not even the scandal could slow his Heisman run.
But even before Newton became a star at Auburn, he made news for the wrong reasons.
Newton attended Florida out of high school and in 2007, as a freshman, served as Tim Tebow's backup.
The next season he was arrested for having a stolen laptop, which he says he bought. The charges were dropped when he completed a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders.
He decided to transfer out of Florida in January 2009, the day after Tebow announced he would return for his senior season.
Newton has said he left because he wanted to play, but during the stream of scandalous news about him last month there also were media reports that he was facing possible discipline at Florida for academic cheating.
He spent the 2009 season at Blinn College, a two-year school in Texas, and helped it win a JUCO national championship.
When it came time to return to major college football, Newton picked Auburn over Mississippi State and coach Dan Mullen, his former position coach with the Gators. Newton has said he let his father make the decision and Cecil Newton picked Auburn because it was closer to home.
This could very well be Newton's first and last season at Auburn. He's projected as a high to middle first-round NFL draft pick.
If he is one and done, Newton's lone season as a starter could go down as one of the greatest in college football history if he also adds a national championship trophy to Auburn's display case — the Tigers' first since 1957.