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Top pick Newton still aims high after overcoming bumpy road

By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It was hardly surprising after the turbulent year that he has endured that Cam Newton would be greeted by both cheers and jeers when he was named on Thursday as the NFL's first pick in the annual draft.

The 21-year-old quarterback from Auburn University may well have been the outstanding College player last year but he remains a controversial figure that has traveled a bumpy road to the top.

His ability as a player is unquestioned and it was no surprise that the Carolina Panthers unhesitatingly opted for him as the number one choice, an honor that is sure to net him a fortune whole exposing him to life in the spotlight with a struggling team.

"It's a great responsibility and I'm willing to take that," Newton said about leading the offense of the Panthers, who finished an NFL worst 2-14 last season.

Newton started his college football career at Florida but after being found with a stolen laptop and dogged by rumors of academic cheating he transferred to a junior college.

That process led to another crisis for Newton.

In the midst of Auburn's brilliant 2010 gridiron campaign that featured the strong arm and bruising running of Newton, a major controversy arose over his eligibility.

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 strict amateur rules.

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.

In the end, the strapping 6-foot-5, 250-pound (113 kilograms) quarterback rose to new heights. He threw 30 touchdown passes and was intercepted just seven times.

He was a runaway winner of the Heisman Trophy, as the best player in college, and showed his ability to overcome criticism when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced at Radio City Hall on Thursday that he was the number one pick.

"Man, am I happy. I'm glad for it to be over. There's been some sleepless nights," he said.

"Oh, man, I'm relieved. What I really want to do, I can't do it. I just want to scream."

Newton was asked if his selection made all his travails worthwhile.

"To some degree it does. But at the same time, when I wake up in the morning, it's another goal or a task at hand that I need to tackle. You know, it's transforming an organization that was worst and try to progress to be the first."

Others before him have been paid richly to take on that challenge. Last year, quarterback Sam Bradford signed a six-year, $78 million deal with the St Louis Rams.

With uncertainty surrounding the NFL labor situation it is not clear whether Newton can expect the same sort of deal.

"I'm really not focused on endorsements and money," he said.

"That's something that's going to take care of itself. The one thing I'm focused on, my number one priority, is getting in this organization and make steps as far as me becoming a better player."

Newton has heard criticisms that he could have trouble adjusting to the more complex NFL game, but he is eager to prove skeptics wrong.

"I've learned a lot. I've learned that you guys have a job to do in critiquing each athlete to the core, but at the same time I have embraced this process...

"I'm not trying to prove nothing to no-one that I'm not trying to prove to myself, and I understand that I'm my biggest critic."

(Editing by Julian Linden)