The reaction Cam Newton gets walking into a middle school in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon is a little like what you’d expect from thousands of teenage fans at a rock concert.
The Carolina Panthers quarterback likes the element of surprise every year for his Santa Cam’s Surprise Sleigh. This year’s afternoon-long trip had Newton, clad in a Santa hat and red flannel, making four stops around Charlotte, giving thousands of dollars in gift cards to families in need, dancing, eating and taking lots of selfies.
“Charlotte is an unbelievable community,” Newton said before kicking off the day at Sedgefield Middle School. “This is my way of showing my appreciation.”
The fourth annual holiday event came amid the uncertainty and turmoil of the recent bombshell news that Panthers owner Jerry Richardson will put the Panthers up for sale, as well as the mounting pressure to make the playoffs.
Newton did not answer questions about the Panthers’ ownership. He said, however, that the team is just focused on winning.
“For us to stay focused is something we’re going to need more than anything. It’s an all-hands-on-deck (affair), including the practice squad, guys on the roster as well as coaches and upper management,” Newton said.
Newton’s holiday event is normally a family affair: This year he had his mom, Jackie, and stepdaughter, Shakira, in tow. Through his foundation, Newton gave away over $100,000 in cash, food, gifts and more to families in need.
In the past, Newton has ended his day with a shopping trip to Dick’s in SouthPark, where he’d treat dozens of kids to a shopping spree. This year, the event’s last stop of the day was at Thomasboro Academy, the first school Newton worked with when he became a Panther.
The day’s first stop was at Sedgefield Middle, where the 28-year-old quarterback jumped on the school intercom with a “breaking news” update announcing his arrival. Newton visited three classrooms and surprised about 105 members of the school staff – from teachers to custodians to bus drivers – with $150 Visa gift cards.
Asked by one kid in an art class what it’s like being quarterback for the Panthers, Newton responded: “It has its perks, but it comes with a lot of responsibility. A lot of people want to be famous, but I caution them: It doesn’t come with an ‘off’ switch.”
Sedgefield, Newton’s foundation said, was selected because of its recent high marks in a number of areas, including academic and behavioral.
Newton’s second stop was at the Second Harvest Food Bank in north Charlotte, which provides meals to homebound adults.
“I didn’t know he was so tall and handsome!” gushed Ella Digsby, one of the 200 seniors bused in for the occasion. Newton’s foundation donated $25,000 in cash, as well as Panthers fleece blankets, to the food bank.
Newton meandered by nearly every table in the room, taking selfies and signing autographs as a DJ in the front of the room blasted oldies. One fan named Barbara Benfield greeted Newton with a kiss on his cheek.
Before leaving, Newton remarked that he’d “never seen so many flip phones before.”
The third stop was Devonshire Elementary, where Newton and his entourage of “elves” passed out canned soup, fresh produce, cereal and more at the school’s mobile pantry, a program that provides food to families in need.
Newton’s final stop was at Thomasboro Academy for a cooking demonstration with a Food Lion chef. The two cooked dinner – sweet and spicy chicken, peppermint bark and zucchini pizza bites – for 25 families in need, and gave each family a $500 Food Lion gift card.
“You have people all over who may not have the ability to come to the games on Sunday. We just try to make them smile wherever they may be,” Newton said at the end of the day.