CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It took nine months, but Cam Newton has rediscovered his joy.

The last time Newton spoke from the podium inside the Carolina Panthers’ press conference room, it was a bitter Monday night after an equally bitter loss to the New Orleans Saints. Newton’s shoulder, so obviously in pain for months, wasn’t tenable anymore. Maybe he knew then what was coming next — that the team would sit him the final two games of 2018 — and maybe he didn’t.

“It doesn’t matter how much you push,” Newton said after that Monday night loss. “Ice, anti-inflammatories you take. … I mean, trust me, I did it. Acupuncture. Massages. It’s just not been a time that (a) night has gone by without me getting some type of work done on my arm.”

Now, five days before the start of Newton’s ninth NFL season, that sadness couldn’t seem more of a distant memory.

“I feel like a rookie again,” he said Wednesday. “I’m having fun, feeling good. And the thrill is still there, man.”

That may not seem like much on the surface, but Newton’s joy runs deep — and it had been in peril the last two weeks as the season drew near.

In the quarterback’s lone preseason appearance against the New England Patriots two weeks ago, Newton sprained his left foot and exited early. After leaving the stadium in an air cast, he returned to practice the following week and has been a full participant both Monday and Wednesday. Newton didn’t show up on the team’s initial injury report Wednesday, confirming coach Ron Rivera’s confidence from last week that there was “no doubt” Newton would play Week 1 against the Los Angeles Rams.

“What did I say? I really feel good about what he’s done,” Rivera said Wednesday. “I love the work he’s put into it. He’s done a great job, and we’ll see how it all plays out on Sunday.”

Rivera said that with a smile. And Newton, for the majority of his time with reporters, had one, too. He joked about Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel and DJ Moore excluding him from their group, the Cat Pack. He spoke about missing center Ryan Kalil, but that “life goes on.” He even gave new “swole kicker” Joey Slye a shoutout comparing him to Charlie Tweeder, the old Varsity Blues character.

How’s that for joy?

Part of that newfound bliss stems from just feeling better, Newton explained. Aside from an athroscopic shoulder procedure in January to ease last year’s stiffness and tightness, Newton made the decision to go vegan earlier this year. He elaborated Wednesday that the benefits of not eating inflammatory foods means his body is able to recover faster, something even more paramount now that he’s 30.

“I’ve been vegan all year, and I don’t think I’m going back,” Newton said. “Obviously, the human body cures itself, but you want to put things in your body that helps expedite that whole process.”

And while Newton can do that to help himself, the situation he finds around him is another reason worth getting excited.

Moore and Samuel have taken noticeable leaps this summer and seem poised to take over as the team’s receiving tandem of the future. Running back Christian McCaffrey is still getting bulkier, not that he wasn’t already one of the league’s most versatile running backs. Greg Olsen is back and not stuck on the sidelines with a broken foot. And the team revamped its offensive line, too, re-signing Daryl Williams and bringing in veteran Matt Paradis to replace the temporarily-retired Kalil.

Those moves, independently, are one thing. But as they relate to Newton, who has endured more than 1,000 hits in eight grueling seasons, they should put him in the best possible position to succeed.

A quarterback’s going to be happy anytime talent is stacked around him. Especially if that enables this offense to play to its strengths on a game-by-game basis.

“We want to get back to playing Carolina Panther football, and that’s staying on rhythm,” Newton explained. “It’s not necessarily a run-and-gun offense. It’s not necessarily controlling the clock. It’s not necessarily taking shots down the field.

“All that is well and good, but we want to get back to doing the things that we want to do, when we want to do them, and on the terms that we do them at.”

If the Panthers can achieve that, Newton’s joy will multiply — rapidly. There’s no guarantee it will, of course. His shoulder may deteriorate over the course of this season, just as it did last year. The offensive line, talented as it is individually, may struggle to play as a unit. Question marks in the secondary and kicking game may prove to be warranted, and those struggles can quickly drive any season into a tailspin.

But before Week 1, optimism springs eternal. Newton acknowledged as much himself, saying that for every team thinking it has a Super Bowl trajectory, “holla at me around Week 4, Week 5, you know what I’m saying?”

Keep that in mind. Will Newton’s joy be short-lived, or is he back for real this time?

As is typical for him, Newton doesn’t want to keep that happiness bottled up. It’s clear during every Sunday giveaway, every on-field shenanigan, every touchdown celebration that he wants to share his joy with everyone else inside Bank of America Stadium.

“I want every time a person sees me play, talk, whatever, have a moment to reach the masses, I want them to see the joy,” he said. “As if it’s Day 1.

“Because that’s how I feel.”

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©2019 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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