One week after sustaining two fractures in his lower back in a two-car collision, Cam Newton was playing Santa Claus and shooting basketball with two-dozen middle-school children at Charlotte’s Cochrane Collegiate Academy on Tuesday afternoon.
He wasn’t getting great lift on his jumpers, and he didn’t aggressively box out for rebounds, but Newton wanted to give the kids an experience they wouldn’t forget.
His forehead glistening with sweat, Newton, 25, went back to his Crystal Red GMC Denali for another stop in his foundation’s Santa Cam Surprise Sleigh event aimed at giving back.
“Uhm,” Newton started in the backseat of the SUV after being asked how his back feels. “I mean, whatever happens, happens. I feel good. I feel great. I’m going to go throughout this week and see what happens.”
The Carolina Panthers’ franchise quarterback still is recovering from an accident less than two blocks from Bank of America Stadium that sent him to the hospital for a day and kept him out of last week’s game against the Buccaneers.
His status for Sunday’s game against the Browns is unclear. He demurs when asked about football or the accident, and he wants to talk only about the event of the day.
For more than four hours Tuesday, Newton made four stops across Charlotte to surprise teachers, students and homeless women and children with gift cards, presents and clothing – through the Cam Newton Foundation – valued at more than $31,000.
Newton still hasn’t gotten behind the wheel of a vehicle since his accident, a lunchtime collision. Two witnesses said a driver appeared to pull in front of Newton’s 1998 Dodge Ram truck, according to a police report. The impact sent Newton’s car flipping onto an overpass. Neither driver was charged in the accident.
Tuesday, Newton braces himself when he shakes hands, wondering if they’re going to pat him too hard on the back.
But he doesn’t need help getting in or out of the back seat. The stiff posture he had walking at the Panthers’ practice Friday had gone away by Tuesday. And though the few who knew of the surprise event thought it would have to be postponed after the accident, Newton had every intention of going on with it.
“Just depending on my body and how I felt,” Newton said. “I feel great, so I didn’t want this to hinder me.”
Newton’s first stop was West Mecklenburg High School, where more than 150 teachers had been brought into the auditorium for a reason unknown. In came Newton, with his father, Cecil, blaring the Jackson 5’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” with a handheld speaker.
Flanked by Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin and backup quarterback Joe Webb dressed as elves, and joined by a team of volunteers, Newton passed out $50 Belk gift cards to the teachers.
Newton leaned up against the auditorium stage when talking to the group of teachers, who were so excited at times that someone would yell “quiet please” to the teachers.
Tonya Benson, the school’s dean of instruction, was one of many who took a selfie with Newton.
“It’s already posted to Facebook,” Benson said.
The boys of Cochrane Academy’s basketball team tried to play it cool when Newton first showed his face in the gym. There were no cheers like the ones from the teachers earlier, or the yells and screams that would come at the next stop, at Billingsville Elementary, where Newton would hand out toys to children for their afterschool program.
The boys kept a straight face when Newton extended his hand for handshakes. They were quiet even after Newton presented them with an Under Armour (another one of his sponsors) bag full of new gear, including basketball shoes.
“I gave you basketball shoes because my dedication to a little pigskin got me in a position to give back to my community,” Newton told them. “You guys don’t have to resort to smoking, drinking and drug dealing. It may be in your face … I’m challenging you to not be like the others if they’re smoking, drinking, robbing. That’s not cool. At the end of the day you want to be motivated to do something great in your community.”
After a short speech, a young player asked Newton if he’d come to their game Thursday. Then came requests for pictures. Then came requests to play basketball.
“Who’s next?,” Newton would shout, and the boys of Cochrane, a school where 93 percent of his student body lives at or below the poverty line, would extend their hands into the air much faster than they had just 20 minutes before, when he arrived.
“This is the age where a lot of anger develops,” said interim Principal Dee Gardner. “It’s the hormonal years. They’re figuring out their peers and what kind of hope they have.
“This is a legend that came to them.”
Later, Gardner wondered aloud how she and the teachers will get through the school day Wednesday when the rest of the student body figures out what happened.
Looking for a hug
There was shouting and smiling and screaming at Newton’s final stop, but it was different.
At 6 p.m. and running on an early breakfast and two doughnuts he ate in the car, Newton arrived at the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope, a shelter for homeless women and children in Charlotte.
Newton gave each woman a $40 gift card to Walmart, and each child received an Under Armour toboggan hat. As Cecil Newton played Donny Hathaway’s version of “This Christmas,” there were fewer autograph requests FOR Newton compared to the previous stops, and more photo requests.
Some women held their child while taking a photo with Newton. Others asked him to hold their infant as they snapped a picture.
One woman just wanted a hug.
“It changed the energy level in here tonight,” said Deronda Metz, director of the center. “When I think about some of the challenges and what we’re facing here, a lot of these people are sleeping in here on the floor at night because we’re out of beds.
“And just to experience that joy, I think we’re going to have a good night. I think we’re going to have a good holiday season.”