By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Cam Newton was selected by the Carolina Panthers as the number one pick in the annual NFL Draft Thursday, as America's most popular sport enjoyed a brief return to normality after months of bitter squabbling.
Fans at New York City's Radio City Hall booed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell when he initially walked on to the stage to announce the first pick, chanting "We Want Football, We Want Football" as he reached for the microphone.
"I agree with you," Goodell pleaded before revealing the number one pick, instantly thrusting Newton into the national sporting spotlight with the chance to earn a fortune if he can emulate the likes of Troy Aikmen and Peyton Manning.
"Man, am I happy," said Newton, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound (113 kilograms) quarterback from Auburn University.
"I'm glad for it to be over. There's been some sleepless nights."
The Panthers, who were given the first pick because they finished with the NFL's worst record last season (2-14), were always expected to choose Newton, who won the 2010 Heisman Trophy as the outstanding player in college football.
The 21-year-old helped the Auburn Tigers compile a perfect 14-0 record, culminating with a win in the BCS National Championship game in January, while throwing 30 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
Von Miller, an outside linebacker from Texas A&M who is one of the plaintiffs in the antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, was selected as the second pick by the Denver Broncos and instinctively wrapped his arms around Goodell and hugged the commissioner when his name was called out.
So too did Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who was chosen third by the Buffalo Bills as the labor dispute was briefly forgotten.
"I don't know what the NFL and NFLPA, the Players Association, what they have going on," Dareus said.
The on-stage embraces provided some sweet relief to the strained public relations between the teams and players over the past few months and put the focus back on the sport.
"It's like Christmas and opening the presents," Bills general manager Buddy Nix gushed.
The Cincinnati Bengals snapped up wide receiver A.J. Green of Georgia with the fourth choice, and the Arizona Cardinals followed by making defensive back Patrick Peterson of Louisiana State University the fifth pick.
Keen to find the missing piece in a drive for the Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons (13-3 last season) traded the 27th pick of the first round, their second and fourth-round picks, and first and fourth-round spots in 2012 to Cleveland for the sixth pick that they used for receiver Julio Jones of Alabama.
Of the 32 first round picks decided on the first of three days of the draft, 12 were defensive linesman.
The top dozen picks featured four quarterbacks, including Newton. The Tennessee Titans chose the University of Washington's Jake Locker as the eighth pick, the Jacksonville Jaguars traded with Washington to move up to the 10th pick to take Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, and the Minnesota Vikings landed Christian Ponder of Florida State with the 12th selection.
Newton's achievements on the college gridiron were mixed with a major controversy over his eligibility after it was revealed that his father Cecil Newton, who played two seasons for the Dallas Cowboys as a safety, had tried to solicit payments from another university for his son's services, in violation of the strict amateur rules for college players.
Newton was briefly declared ineligible to play but later reinstated after no evidence was found proving he had any knowledge of his father's activities.
The strong-armed, hard-running quarterback said he could hardly wait to take on his next challenge, in the NFL.
"I'm ready to get this show on the road right now," Newton said. "I wouldn't say I have more to prove to people; I have more to prove to myself."
The second and third rounds of the draft will be held Friday, with rounds four through seven Saturday.
(Editing by Julian Linden)