Saturday, October 15, 2005

For the Newton twins, football is the easy part of life

By Michael Stephens

Sports Information Assistant

MARSHALL, Texas – It’s been a long journey to the top of the depth chart for East Texas Baptist University seniors Matt and Mark Newton – and football has been the easy part.

Playing football has been the easy part in the lives of ETBU’s starting cornerbacks, also twin brothers, who have been together all their lives – literally. Living through the split of their parents. Living through moving to eight different cities before they settled in Cleveland Texas, at Tarkington High School. Moving to three different schools in one year during the eighth grade.

The transition was always made easy however, because according to the twins they never had to worry about what other people thought.

“You always had a friend,” they both say.

Brothers and friends is what they will always be, due to the fact that they learned to be responsible and grow up fast by relying on each other to learn how to cook full course meals for themselves and the parent that they happened to be living with at a given point in time.

Playing football seemed to be the easy part in the lives of the Newtons, who indeed have an older brother, Billy Lynn Newton III, who was placed in prison, and an older sister, Michelle Newton, who passed away.

Yes, football was the easy part for Mark and Matt Newton who, through the adversity, stayed together and leaned on each other through a high school career which culminated in numerous postseason honors for both of the twins. Both were named All-Deep East Texas, Scholar-Athlete, All-District, and Academic All-District; also, Matt was named Offensive Player of the Year, while Mark notched Defensive Player of the Year at Tarkington.

Once that high school career ended, the brothers hit the road again, to Marshall, Texas, to join a new NCAA Division III football program at East Texas Baptist University. Mark came into the Tiger fold as a running back, but was soon moved to receiver along with his brother. Neither of the two had any experience at the position at all, which called for problems with timing on the field, and unsure playing time as well. Even so, all they knew for sure was that they had each other for backup and support.

Suddenly football was no longer the easy part for the twins, who standing at 5-9, were not only looking up in size to a trio of receivers that would eventually become the top three pass catchers in ETBU history, they were also looking up from the bottom of the depth chart.

In the first three years of the Newton twins’ run at ETBU, they found themselves more worried about their problems on the field than ever before. Then the inevitable happened: one twin (Mark) moved to defensive back and began to travel to away games with the team, leaving Matt behind on campus at ETBU.

The first sign of separation was a hard pill to swallow for Matt, who was still paying his dues on offense.

“My character really got tested,” says Matt. “My twin was traveling, and I was left at home listening to his games on the radio.”

Mark would eventually work his way up to the top two players on the depth chart, but as soon as it seemed like things were looking positive he would see Matt on the attack team, running plays to prepare the starting defense for what they were going to see on game day.

“I felt sorry for him, seeing him run cut drills to get me prepared for games at defensive back,” says Mark, who obviously had a soft spot for the twin that he spent all his life with, through the good and the bad.

Even so, things were not all peaches and cream for Mark. Athough he traveled, he saw only action on special teams, sprinkled with limited action on defense. Both twins struggled through the hard times, but inevitably one twin got his first chance at glory when Mark got an interception at Austin College during a 33-0 Tiger blowout win in 2003.

“I felt like I was on cloud nine,” Mark says, remembering his first collegiate interception.

Cloud nine was great for Mark, but for Matt, things stayed the same. Mark kept his brother’s head up by telling him daily that he was doing fine, but what mattered was what the coaching staff thought.

“Everybody but the coaches seemed to think I was doing good,” Matt says now.

When Matt needed help the most in his football career, however, help came in the form of the person that has always been there: his brother. During a game in their junior season, in 2004, Mark was starting at cornerback against Hardin-Simmons, playing on every special team including playing as the kickoff returner.

An exhausted Mark, who had returned numerous kicks in the game, came to the coaches, told them how he felt, and with no hesitation suggested that his brother get a shot at returning kicks for the Tigers. Matt got his shot the next week, and ran with it by posting a 39-yard return at Louisiana College.

That was a microcosm of the support that both young men had for each other throughout their lives. That being the second-to-last game of the season would be the last regular season game that they both did not see playing time.

During this past spring Matt got the chance to switch to defensive back and work on the same side of the ball as his brother, reuniting them on the football field. As this season began, Mark was penciled in at one starting corner, and it only took a couple of practices for Matt to be inserted into the other slot. Even then, the brothers still had to show that they were looking out for one another when Matt did not even know he was starting.

“He had to tell me to look at the depth board,” Matt says. “I didn’t want to look stupid running in there with the starters when I wasn’t supposed to.”

Now that the twins start together, they both have an appreciation for the things that they have gone through as brothers not only on the football field, but off as well.

“We just know to go out there and have fun,” Matt says. “Whatever could have or would have gone wrong already has.”

The move has paid off for the Tiger defense. Through the first five games, Matt ranks in the top five in the nation in interceptions (5) and passes defensed (12), while Mark has one interception and is the team’s sixth-leading tackler, with 24.

Matt’s interception total is just one away from tying ETBU’s single-season mark of six, and he’s already just four away from tying the career mark for interceptions. Not bad for a guy who was running scout team at wide receiver a year ago.

Mark could seem a little overshadowed by his brother’s recent success, but true to the supporting form that the Newton twins now have as second nature, he could only sum up his feelings in a few words.

“It’s awesome -- all he needed was a chance,” Mark says.

“I am just happy I am able to compete, and have fun with my friends,” Matt adds.

Yes, seems like football is once again the easy part.