The cost to attend Cam Newton’s inaugural celebrity kickball tournament on Friday was originally $5, but on second thought the Panthers’ franchise quarterback decided to make it free to the public.
Initially there would be 1,000 tickets, and his foundation eventually opened it up for 2,500 people.
And over the course of the seven-hour event Friday, Newton regularly signed hats, shirts and jerseys for kids or took selfies with the fans at BB&T Ballpark in Uptown Charlotte. Seemingly the only people he didn’t sign for were the autograph hounds with their glossy prints or old Sports Illustrated pictures.
This weekend wasn’t about them. For Newton it was about the kids, and it was about showing people that Charlotte is his new home. He’s said it for the better part of the past four years, but his recent contract extension has made it a reality.
“You have some security,” said former Panthers and current Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr., who played 13 seasons in Carolina, at Newton’s kickball event. “You look forward to it, and until you get that second contract you always wonder. Now you get it and you start establishing things and start to do things that are based on longevity and future.”
Newton’s foundation held its kickball event Friday as well as its second annual charity gala on Saturday in Plaza Midwood. Proceeds went back to the foundation, which works with Carolinas Healthcare System and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Newton has made it a point to get involved with the Charlotte community since the Panthers drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011, but now he has an opportunity to do more. Almost two weeks ago, the Panthers signed Newton to a five-year contract extension worth $103.8 million that runs through 2020.
In talking with those close to Newton as well as former and current players who have received long-term deals, the consensus is Newton will be able to deepen his roots in the city while still having to work just as hard on and off the field.
With Charlotte’s relative youth in professional sports, the city has never had an active superstar play for one of its teams long-term. Newton has a chance to be the first with his new deal.
“The community has accepted me for who I am and what I do,” said Newton, who grew up just outside of Atlanta. “This is my second home, and I love being here.”
Plans off the field
Newton commonly says “to whom much is given, much is required.” His father, Cecil, is a pastor, and he believes Newton has heard the take on Luke 12:48 in his home since he was at least 8 years old.
Newton feels that requirement. It was clear in his earlier seasons when teammates and coaches said he was “pressing too much.” And it seems even clearer away from Bank of America Stadium.
On Friday, Newton met with Jonathan Gouch, a 15-year-old OrthoCarolina patient who has undergone four recent surgeries. He spent time in a suite with Gouch, who wore a Superman-like outfit to meet the player who calls himself Superman.
And when Gouch’s little sister, Elizabeth, asked Newton to draw her a picture, he took her coloring book and drew an upper-body with a ‘C 1’ jersey and his tongue sticking out.
According to a source close to Newton, he plans to be an executive producer for a show that could air on Nickelodeon. The unscripted show would help adolescents find their dreams, from an aspiring Cirque du Soleil performer to a meteorologist.
Former NFL receiver Randy Moss said Friday Newton’s extension is about more than money, though it did make Newton’s family “very, very, very secure.”
Moss, a future Hall of Famer, is from West Virginia and spent his first seven years in Minnesota with the Vikings. Moss said the feelings between the player and organization need to mirror those of the player and the city.
“You have to have a city backing you,” Moss said at the foundation’s kickball event. “Minnesota was good to me. There are 32 teams in the NFL and I can honestly say every team does not have a good city. I think Charlotte is a great city. Minnesota was great to me and I feel kind of the same vibe here.
“I did a preseason (broadcast) game with Fox here last year and just by being in the stadium looking at the fans, the kids, the players, the coaching staff, I think there are some great things going on in Carolina and I think it starts with Cam Newton.”
Need to produce
With the extension and $60 million guaranteed in the next three years, conventional wisdom would indicate things would get easier for Newton, who had to prove his worth as an NFL franchise quarterback for four years.
The contract – which Newton’s agents told the Panthers wouldn’t be less than Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, who also has one playoff win on his résumé –is done. Newton just signed a five-year extension with his apparel endorser Under Armour, according to two sources, though financially details were not disclosed.
But Newton’s not a made man just yet.
“It’s a business, and the extension is good at least for the first three years,” said Eddie George, a former Tennessee Titans running back who spent eight years in that organization, at the kickball event. “You still have to produce, be healthy and win. That being said, things could look drastically different if you don’t accomplish all of those things. You could find yourself somewhere else working.
“He still has work to do. And at least for the next three years he’s going to be here. They made a commitment and said we believe in you. You want to see that type of commitment from an organization.”
Newton has delivered consecutive division crowns for the first time in NFC South history. He went to two Pro Bowls in his first three years, and playing through an injury-riddled fourth season only solidified general manager Dave Gettleman’s decision to extend Newton.
But he’s not without his faults. Newton has a losing record in his career (30-31-1) and still has mechanical and decision-making issues. Regularly his passes sail high or he trusts his arm strength to compensate for a late pass.
He’s yet to win over all the fans in Charlotte and remains a polarizing figure. Producers at local sports talk radio stations have said they receive more calls after a poor game from Newton than after a good game.
In a recent radio interview, Newton said he’d like to his completion percentage in 2015 to be between 65 to 70 percent. His completion percentage for his career is 59.5 percent, and an improvement to 65 percent would take him from 29th last year to inside the top 10 in the NFL.
The Panthers believe Newton will improve in those areas, and it even led Gettleman and Panthers coach Ron Rivera to say they believe the quarterback can take them to the “promised land.”
Newton’s maturation has been noticed by the front office, coaches and players. He’s frequently one of the last players to leave the practice field and regularly throws after practice with his receivers. Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen said last week that it’s no coincidence the best four years of his eight-year career have come with Newton as his quarterback.
“I’m humbled by the mere fact that an organization is going to hitch their wagon to your son and his performance,” Cecil Newton, Cam’s father, said Friday. “But the good thing is Cam is prepared for this. He’s built for this. He’s been through a strong measure of adversity and he came out on the positive side of adversity. So he’s battle-tested.
“I think he’ll be the type of leader that can accept winning and success gracefully, and a guy who will humbly address not winning and still be committed to going the extra mile.”
To whom much is given, much is required. Newton’s play called for more money, and more money called for more community involvement. But the winning must continue, Smith said.
“I think winning helps everything,” Smith said. “Everybody wants to be associated with winning and he’s helping them win. That’s an easy fit. Winning solves a lot of problems. You can’t be a pillar in the community and not be winning. People don’t want to know how great you are in the community but you’re not taking care of your first job. So winning breeds success on every level.”
Setting the stage
Those around Newton says nothing has changed about him since becoming the 100 million dollar man, and no one expects anything to change.
His family will still stay at the Hyatt House when they come to visit. His pescatarian diet will continue, and his refrigerator will still be stocked with hummus, fruit and seafood. And he’ll still have a passion for kids.
“With or without the extension this was going to happen this year,” Newton said of the kickball tournament, which he decided on so that both men and women could play and compete in. “I really appreciate everyone coming out and showing the support. This doesn’t happen by happenstance, nor does it happen overnight.”
George sees what Newton is doing in Charlotte. A Philadelphia native, George now lives in Nashville after his decade-plus with the organization and retirement in 2004.
He’s recognized every day there, he says, and he jokingly wouldn’t rule out a run for public office. Newton could have a similar future, or more, in Charlotte.
“He’s planting his roots and planting the seeds for what he wants to do after football in Charlotte,” George said. “In the next 10-15 years, whether Cam plays or not, he could probably run for mayor or governor if he wins a championship and does what’s right, giving back to the community. He’s laying the groundwork for a very prosperous future.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9