Kansas prep star Newell makes it rain -- in the memory of his mom
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Grandma was quiet. So quiet he could hear each individual raindrop dance across the shingles above.
"Peyton," Judy Newell said, softly, her face as grey and grave as the October skies above. "There are going to be bad days and there are going to be good days. There are going to be sunny days and rainy days.
"Fortunately, there going to be a lot more sunny days in your life. But today is a sad day."
Then she told him: Mom was gone.
After a four-year battle, breast cancer won. The way breast cancer often does.
Grandma held him tight. Peyton Newell was 5. When you're 5, sitting on the porch, told your mother is dead, the world goes way past upside down, way past unfair. It just stops.
There's only you and the silence. You, the silence, and the rain.
Always the rain.
"I think it was one of those things my dad couldn't do," Peyton says now.
When Missy Newell was named homecoming queen, it was raining. When she died, it was raining.
To this day, that rain is the reminder, the constant, the trigger. The images come flashing back -- some scattered, some painful.
He remembers the sickness. He remembers the treatments. He remembers being obsessed with the ice cream at the hospital. He remembers playing tic-tac-toe. He remembers crawling up into the bed and clinging to her failing frame.
He remembers seeing her in the casket.
"She was wearing a black turtleneck sweatshirt, like a sweater," Peyton says quietly.
But most of all, he remembers the rain. How could he ever forget?
Earlier this week, Frank Newell had phoned up his son in a minor panic. Someone had told him that there was a rumor going around that Peyton, 17, had been in a terrible motorcycle accident, that he'd broken both legs.
Neither of which were true, of course. Still, it never hurts to check. Also ...
"He called and said how much he loved me," Peyton says. "With me being in the situation of being a higher-profile person around here, people are going to do this stuff."
In Hiawatha, a sleepy northeastern Kansas town of 3,100 or so, 41 miles west of St. Joseph, Mo., the 6-foot-3 Newell one of the biggest names around, literally and figuratively. Ranked the No. 2 prospect in the state by Scout.com, the 280-pound lineman has received offers from at least 34 FBS programs over the past four years.
The letters take up about 10 giant bins now, by last count. The first missive was, ironically, from Charlie Weis, back when he was at Notre Dame, after Peyton played in the 2010 U.S. Army /Eastbay Youth All-American Bowl as an eighth-grader. Dear Peyton ...
The first formal offer was from TCU coach (and Kansas native) Gary Patterson, a man who knows a good thing when he sees it: The teen runs a 4.8 40-yard dash, benches in the high 390s and squats in the 690s; he's been a team captain since his sophomore year.
"Just not on his playing ability, just the way he treats people," Hiawatha coach Chris Diller says. "He gets on kids, but he (gets on) them in a way where they can correct it and move on. It's like having another coach out there. He's really mature for his age."
The highlight reel runs longer than the memory, but Diller offers up this favorite: Toward the final weeks of Peyton's sophomore season, he was playing defensive end, and the quarterback elected to run an option pitch to his side.
"He took the quarterback's hit," Diller says. "Then he got back up and still made a 2-yard loss tackle on the pitch man. That was kind of a special play, kind of an ‘a-ha' moment for me, that this kid really is the real deal."
The wheels are legit; the motor, constant. Peyton says his top four schools are Nebraska, South Carolina, Kansas and Kansas State, in no particular order. There's a 1:30 p.m. news conference on August 30 scheduled to announce his decision and Newell insists he can make a case, right now, for any of the four. The Gamecocks' Columbia campus, despite the distance, felt "like home." His father and mother met in as students in Lawrence, where his father also walked on to the KU football team.
"A lot of my family went there," Peyton says of the Jayhawks. "And I think if my mom was here, that's where she would want me to go. So I definitely have that in my mind."
But, at the backstretch, he maintains that it's still an even race. With one caveat: Newell wants a school with a line on a strong post-graduate business program. He wants to make sure all the bases are covered, football or no football.
As long as he's been handed report cards, academics have always been a part of the package. If Peyton scored a 90 or lower on an exam, Dad wouldn't hesitate to put the hammer down.
"The punishment was no screens for a week -- TV, cellphone, IPod, computer -- pretty much everything we use," Peyton says with a laugh. "So, that got a hold of me. So, yeah, through the years, I got one B+, that was my first semester (of) freshman English. Otherwise, it's been all 'A's ever since."
Newell is the latest in a long line of warrior-poets: Dad is 6-5; His grandfather is former pro-wrestling stalwart Billy Howard, an AWA icon of the ‘70s and ‘80s, always on the move. Frank figures that they lived "13-14 different places" by the time he was 12 years old. Grandpa used to rub elbow pads with the likes of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, and half the stories are even printable. ("They were in Kansas City and they went to a bar, and in one sitting, (Andre) had 180 bottles of beer, and was fine," Peyton cracks.)
Before he was a big deal, Peyton was just ... well, big. When he was 4 years old, he played soccer with 6-year-olds. In eighth grade, he'd already shot past the 6-foot mark. When he wasn't clinging to one of his dad's legs, he was making a point to follow closely in his footsteps.
His mom taught him that life wasn't fair. His father taught him that football wasn't, either.
"With tragedy ... there's always some thing that comes out of it that's the shining light," Frank says. "And it's that he and I were so close, and both had that in common."
In adolescence, the big lug found a way to dabble in everything from soccer to hoops -- "My sophomore and freshman years, I got strong, and that messed up my shot," Peyton says -- while maintaining a 3.96 GPA.
He's even dipped a big toe into school dramas, although it's at his grandmother's behest. It won't go on his IMDb profile, but Peyton recently dressed up as a Christmas elf for a presentation at a local elementary school. You can only imagine what was going through the mind of bunch of first-graders once they got a gander at a 6-3, 280-pound elf.
"We had to sing songs for them and pretty much embarrass ourselves," Peyton recalls, chuckling.
Frank can still see her in him, sometimes, the kid that went from little boy to a beast in the blink of an eye. A grin. A glance. That motor.
"Some of his mannerisms, the way he smiles," Dad says. "She was tough. I've grown up around a lot of tough people; from a mental perspective, she was the toughest person I've ever met. To handle what she handled ... that strength is unbelievable. But what I see in him is her tenacity, her drive, and her spirituality."
Rather than test his faith, his mother's passing reinforced it. About a year ago, Peyton got a tattoo along his upper back, a ribbon with angel's wings that reads:
MOM: Never forgotten
"Different tattoos down the road, I'd regret," Peyton says. "But not something like this."
There are other tributes, too: The Missy Newell Memorial 5K is a Hiawatha tradition, held the first Saturday of every October to raise money locally for cancer awareness. The family was instrumental helping to launch "Missy's Boutique" at KU Cancer Center, a place where women in treatment could purchase wigs, hats, makeup and other sundries.
"I always tell people, ‘He's got a 3.96 (GPA), he's community-oriented, and oh, by the way, he's a hell of a football player,'" Frank says. "So I've been fortunate."
On several levels. Frank eventually remarried, to Stacie, and she's been every bit the rock Peyton could ask for in a stepmom. He has a half-brother Bradyn, now 6; Hiawatha teammate Denzel Chilcoat, has lived in the family home for the last year-and-a-half before shipping out for Washburn (Kan.) College.
For 12 years, Missy has been gone. And in some ways, it's like she never left.
Sometimes, the night before a game, Peyton visits her gravesite. Just to check in. Just to talk.
"There are times, in games there at his school, that he feels her presence," Frank says. "That there's no doubt in his mind that she's there."
And sometimes, every now and again, the angel's wings reach out. She was there when Peyton lined up for a game against Riverside last October 19, 11 years to the day of her passing. As if on cue, rain started to trickle, then fall.
The images flashed back again. By the end of the night, Newell had recorded two more sacks, had added a half-dozen more ‘a-ha' moments to the reel. As he walked off the field, Peyton even managed a smile. Then he wept, his tears joining hers.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com