Recruit Newell finds motivation in memory of his mother

2013-07-04T23:30:00Z 2013-08-30T17:53:13Z Recruit Newell finds motivation in memory of his motherBy BRIAN CHRISTOPHERSON / Lincoln Journal Star

Let it rain. He welcomes it.

As Peyton Newell thinks about it, some of his best football games have come on rainy days.

There was that rainy day his freshman year when he had four sacks. And there was that rainy day last fall when he spent the night living in the opponent’s backfield, piling up three more sacks and eight tackles for loss.

“It seems like the most important days in my life so far have been on rainy days,” says Newell, the highly sought-after defensive end recruit from Hiawatha, Kan., who has the Huskers on his short list.

When it rains, he shines.

When it rains, he thinks more than ever about Mom.

He was just 5 when she died. He barely knew her, but still she occupies a significant part of his thoughts.

“She’s a main part of me,” he says. “She’s definitely most of my motivation.”

Missy Newell was diagnosed with breast cancer just before his first birthday. She fought it for almost five years.

Newell still remembers sitting with his grandmother on the porch on the toughest day, the last day -- Oct. 19, 2001.

“There are some days that are happy, and also a few sad days in your life,” his grandmother told him. “But most of these days are happy. This will be one of the few sad days.”

Because he was so young, his memories of his mother are few, though he can recall crawling up into her hospital bed. They played tic-tack-toe.

As he’s grown, he gathered whatever memories of her that people could paint for him. They’d tell him how hard she worked, the kind way she treated people, how she made them feel special.

“That means a lot to me to know,” Newell says. “Even though I didn’t know her, I can still carry on her legacy through me.”

When it rains, he takes it as a sign from her. It comforts him.

And his grandma was right, too. There are so many happy days.

Some of the best may yet be ahead for Newell, whose size, agility and constant harassment of those toting a football has made the 6-foot-2, 280-pound recruit a target of college coaches since he was in the eighth grade.

His strength certainly isn’t in debate. Newell says he can squat 700 pounds, bench 400, hang clean 345, run the 40 in 4.8 seconds, and jump 33 inches.

He comes from a family of strong men. Peyton’s grandpa Billy Howard was a WWE wrestler who used to train Hulk Hogan and wrestle with Andre the Giant. And his father, Frank, once benched 225 pounds 38 times during a workout in the family basement. Dad was 40 at the time.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever do that,” says the recruit, though that doesn’t mean he won’t hotly pursue his father's feat. He wakes up every morning at 5:30 for weightlifting and conditioning.

The payoff for setting that alarm clock early is clear in the numbers. His SPARQ rating (a test of Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction and Quickness) of 98.85 is the highest of any defensive lineman in the country, according to ESPN's recruiting page.

All this has made Newell a prospect of great import to Husker coaches, who have stressed the need to win the battles of top players within the 500-mile radius of Lincoln.

Yes, Newell grew up a Jayhawk fan. How could he not, considering 23 family members — by his count — have gone to school at Kansas? His father was a walk-on football player for KU.

But Lincoln’s campus is only about 120 miles from home, and Newell has visited it several times, including the past two summers for Big Red Weekend.

And this past Saturday, Nebraska was one of the final four schools when Newell dwindled his list. The other schools still in contention are South Carolina, Kansas and Kansas State.

He will make his college announcement during an afternoon ceremony at his high school Aug. 30, a week before his team’s season opener.

It was important to Newell to pick a day when people around the town could be there to help celebrate with him. After all, they were the ones there to support him through the recruiting process and, just as importantly, lend a helping hand when his mother died.

“I feel like I owe it to them to make a name for Hiawatha,” Newell says.

It is a relatively small town of less than 4,000 people. A close-knit town. The same town that his mom grew up in.

“She was kind of like the community princess,” Newell says. “Everyone knew her.”

And when she was gone, people in that community were ready to help however they might. He can remember people bringing meals to the house after her death to help them out.

It’s those same people who turn out annually for the Missy Newell Memorial 5K race, which happens the first Saturday every October. The event raises money for scholarships in her name, and also helps cancer patients with their bills.

Then there was a fashion show in May that raised another $250,000 for the cause.

In addition, Peyton’s family is involved with a boutique store at the University of Kansas Cancer Center. Named “Missys’ Boutique” after his mom and another woman of a like name who passed away from cancer about the same time, the shop offers a place where cancer patients can be fitted for wigs and hats, and purchase jewelry and various skin care products.

“It’s a good thing knowing how unselfish my mom was … she’d rather be like this where she could leave a legacy and help hundreds of people a day in her name,” Newell says.

While carrying his mother’s memory, Newell credits the encouragement of the rest of his family as being critical during the recruiting process. Along with his dad, he's had the support of his stepmother Stacie, young stepbrother Bradyn, and teammate Denzel Chilcoat, a friend who has become like a brother and lived in the Newell house for the last year-and-a-half.

They will be there wearing smiles when he makes his school known Aug. 30.

And with all the joy and relief of that day, there will be thoughts of his mom.

“I know that she’ll be there," he says.

Just like he was sure she was there on a Friday this past fall. It was Oct. 19. Eleven years after that sad day on the porch with grandma, he put on the pads and played a football game.

He did as he does. Caused havoc. Sniffed out the ball. Picked up two more sacks.

It rained that night.

Reach Brian Christopherson at or 402-473-7439. You can follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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