FARRAGUT, Tenn. — Nico Iamaleava hoisted a glass football trophy on Sunday morning, fresh off leading his team to a national Pylon 7-on-7 Tournament title in west Knoxville.
He was all smiles after the win, celebrating with teammates, family members and coaches before heading to the Tennessee facility to wrap up a jam-packed, four-night, three-day weekend.
In a 72-hour period, he signed autographs and took photos with fans, threw and caught passes in the tournament, ate ice cream and watched baseball, and checked out the Vols’ final spring scrimmage — all while recruiting potential teammates.
So yes, this visit — Iamaleava’s third to Knoxville, first since committing to Tennessee — was quite busy.
“It’s always great to come back home,” Iamaleava said on the field. “I just look forward to coming back more and more until I’m official. I love Knoxville.”
Still, after all of that, there was one important person — one crucial interaction — left for Iamaleava in the Scruffy City this weekend.
And, oddly enough, the entire meeting occurred because of the same instinct that has molded Iamaleava into such a coveted quarterback: timing.
Getting Deeper with Cam
“You got the swag!” said Cam Newton when Iamaleava strolled up, the Vols’ 5-star California commitment having hustled from the other side of the field at an uncle’s insistence.
Then again, Newton — who sported a red throwback St. Louis Cardinals jacket over a navy hoodie with Terminator sunglasses — held plenty of his own swagger to match Iamaleava’s Polynesian-themed sweatpants and darkened shades.
Newton was at Farragut to coach the 15U edition of his own 7-on-7 group, a squad dressed in black shirts with a C1N logo on the front and “BLESS THE BABIES” stacked on the back, and he had just come back through the gate to coach more ball when he saw Iamaleava waiting.
After introductions, Newton informed Iamaleava that, if Nico weren’t based out of the West Coast, he would have gladly placed the quarterback on his own 18U squad.
Then, in a moment that interlocked two vastly different eras of college football, the quarterbacks embraced before making small talk about mutual contacts.
Soon enough, though, Newton got down to business.
Because Newton — the same one who went through a laptop theft at Florida, a junior college stint in Texas, a career revival at Auburn (complete with a national championship and Heisman Trophy) and Superman comparisons in the NFL — had been through it all.
And now, he is on the other side. Yes, a free agent since his Carolina Panthers career may have ended in January, but still free from the financial burden and legal issues that can force so many greats into a “What if?” season of life.
So on Sunday, when a sudden meeting presented a precious chance to impart some advice to one of the highest-rated quarterback recruits in the transformative era of Name, Image and Likeness?
Well, Newton was ready to drop some knowledge.
“I’m going to hold you accountable,” Newton said.
“Yes sir,” responded Iamaleava, whose eyes remained locked on Newton throughout the discussion.
“Be ‘cause you can’t play this game, that your a** just sorry as f**k,” Newton said. “Right?”
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Translation: let the reason your career ends be because you aren’t as good as you used to be or that you can’t play anymore, but don’t let it end because of anything else.
Iamaleava nodded to show that he understood.
“Don’t let (your career ending) be because you’re smoking weed, don’t let it be because you slapped your girl, don’t let it be because of a DUI,” Newton continued.
“That’s inexcusable. That’s unforced errors. So I’m going to say it again: let it be, when it’s all said and done and you get Pops’ age, when you get my age and when you can no longer play this game…”
Newton trailed off for a moment, then bounced back as if shedding a would-be tackler: “There’s more kids that have stories of, ‘Man, I used to be a 5-star.’”
He went on to add the importance of not making split-second decisions — such as stealing or partying — and how many players’ potential careers had melted simply because they put themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“‘I could have gone anywhere,’” Newton mimicked as an example. “‘But man, me and my partner, I ain’t even do nothing, I was just in the car, they robbed the store, and boom, got popped.’”
“Stupid idea,” summarized Newton once the example was done. “You know what I’m saying?”
Again, Iamaleava nodded to confirm he got it.
Still Newton talked, rolling and advising until he bumped into the aspect of college life that will affect Iamaleava the most: finances.
Iamaleava is built for the NIL era, with an affable personality and specific style to match.
And Newton wanted to make sure he’s prepared for the deals, the money, the fame that — while already huge — will only increase once he’s actually enrolled.
“Start being a millionaire mentally,” said Newton, who added that he took on that mindset at 18 before actually making that amount when he was drafted. “I can say I’m straight for the rest of my life because I used the game of football. I didn’t let peer pressure distract me.”
And after college, if Iamaleava ‘uses football’ as Newton did by going to the NFL?
“Everything gets better,” said Newton. “The money, the cars, the clothes.”
And the contract money? “That’s generational wealth,” Newton explained.
In summation, Newton encouraged Iamaleava to “do right by yourself, bro.”
Echoes over Everything
As Iamaleava walked up the stairs afterward, he followed a teammate who cradled a trophy which had been awarded less than an hour earlier.
But when he walked up the hill toward the parking lot on Sunday, Iamaleava took something far deeper than a 7-on-7 prize.
He also carried lifelong advice, given from one of the best to ever play SEC football, that will echo long after a Tennessee journey that is only just beginning.