The closest Cam Newton ever got to a celebrity before he went to college as a highly touted recruit was at his private elementary school in the mid-1990s.
Atlanta Braves outfielder and three-time All-Star David Justice came to Solid Rock Academy, where Newton was a student, and did little more than a quick cameo.
“It was like, ‘All right he’s here, say hey Mr. Justice,’ and then he moved on to the next classroom,” Newton recalled.
Now that he’s unquestionably Charlotte’s megastar athlete, he doesn’t want that to be the case for the kids in this city. On Tuesday, he held his second annual Santa Cam Surprise Sleigh, making stops across the city and greeting children and fans for five hours.
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Dressed in a red sweater with a black Santa Claus doing the dab, Newton began the afternoon at Metro School, which serves mentally and physically handicap children.
He, along with fellow Panthers quarterbacks Joe Webb and Derek Anderson, passed out cookies and other desserts to the children before Newton presented the 250-some teachers and staff there with $50 Belk gift cards.
Sy Bannister has been an assistant at the school for two years, and she’s seen Newton at the school a handful of times. The children may not be able to express their excitement, but she sees the moods and attitudes change when the starting quarterback comes around.
“The kids love it all,” Bannister said. “There’s not a lot of verbal (communication) around here, but when he comes around, Cam is the man.”
Perhaps the reaction in town would be the same for anyone playing quarterback at an MVP level on a 13-0 team. But there’s something about Newton that connects with children.
There are the football giveaways, of course. And he has long said he wants to play the game with a child-like spirit.
The dabbin’ and the dancing, the picture posing and the pumping up of the crowd all are part of Newton wanting to not only live in this moment, but have everyone along for the ride.
“This doesn’t happen often. It really doesn’t,” Newton said in the car between stops. “As long as we have the opportunity to set history, I would regret setting history and not being able to create lasting impressions or memories.
“I think I’m making it the time of my life because every day I get another opportunity.”
All part of the plan
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The second stop on the tour brought Newton and his elves to Dick’s Sporting Goods at SouthPark Mall. Twenty-five underserved elementary schoolers were gathered in the back of the store to hear a speech from a store manager when they were surprised by Newton, who gave each one a $200 gift card and helped them pick out Christmas gifts.
He gives them 10 minutes to shop and says if they don’t get it done in that time, the cards will lose $195 of their value. When he notices his joke has produced some worried faces, he promises them an extra 10 minutes.
During a Q&A time, Isaiah – a fifth-grader with a bleached fohawk, a style made popular by Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. – had a question.
“What you got, little Odell?” Newton asked.
“Y’all not gonna lose, are you?” Isaiah asked.
“That’s the plan,” Newton said.
Accessible to fans
There’s nothing in Newton or any other player’s contract that states they have to do these events. Few would expect the quarterback of an undefeated team to feed 900 kids on a short week before a Thanksgiving game against Dallas, or make a long night longer by hosting kids on the field after a 38-0 victory over Atlanta, or do all he did Tuesday, his day off.
But he got his treatment and film study in on Monday and was able to put aside enough time to focus on Tuesday’s events when they came.
“It’s one of the things we talked about in the offseason actually,” Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “Just to make sure that the season, we’re locked in. If there’s anything that goes on, it’s got to be … can’t take any time or effort away from winning games each week, and he’s very mindful of that.”
Last week, on his way back from the stadium on the one-year anniversary of his car accident, Newton was stopped on the sidewalk by a young man who wanted to take a picture.
The kid told Newton he had actually received one of the Sunday Giveaway touchdown footballs. Newton couldn’t believe it, and the kid pulled out his phone and showed Newton the picture of the moment at a Panthers home game.
“One thing I respected about Muhammad Ali – and I have the utmost respect for him – is any time you see documentaries about him or reading about him, he would always be accessible to his fans,” Newton said. “He would just be so personable to his fans. And that’s what I want people to say about me.”
A weight is lifted
Newton made it to Harding University High for his third stop, and this time he was joined by two of the most well-known names in show business. Rapper/actor Ice Cube and actor/comedian Kevin Hart were in town promoting their new movie, “Ride Along 2,” and their schedules matched up.
Newton surprised student-athletes working out in the weight room by showing up with Under Armour gear. Then he introduced Ice Cube and Hart and the noise got even louder.
Ice Cube, a former gangster rapper whose image has softened since the early ’90s, let Hart take center stage. The students and Newton dared the 5-foot-4 Hart to bench press 225 pounds.
Hart took them up on it, benched the weight three times and then dabbed.
“Your dreams are only as small as your mindset allows you to be,” Hart told the high schoolers. “You got a vision, you keep that vision. You stay true to your vision. You’re looking at three men who were determined to get to where they got, man. You don’t get there by being a person that quits and gives up. You don’t do that.
“Understand this man is taking this out of his time. We’re following his lead. It’s his city. I love the fact that he’s devoting his time to coming back and inspiring young people like yourself. Don’t take that for granted.”
Actor/comedian Kevin Hart agreed to bench press 225 lbs. during Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's Santa Cam's Surprise Sleigh event at the Harding University High School weight room on Tuesday. Jeff Sinerjsiner@charlotteobserver.com
Finally, a Riot
The night ended around 6:30 p.m. at Dilworth Neighborhood Grille. Nearly 130 Panthers fans gathered downstairs for what they thought was a thank you from Zack Luttrell, the founder of Carolina’s unofficial fan group, Roaring Riot.
In, of course, walks Newton. He says a few words and thanks everyone for their support. Most everyone in turn wants to see Newton or take a picture with him.
Newton spots Braylon Beam, the 6-year-old boy from Denver who has battled cancer and has been Carolina’s honorary coach several times this year.
“What are you doing here?” Newton asked Beam after they did their usual chest bump. “I heard it’s an 18-and-up-party!”
Like usual, Newton looked after the kids first.