One football at a time.
That’s how Cam Newton has created indelible memories for dozens of kids at Carolina Panthers games.
The Carolina quarterback started handing footballs to children in October 2011 after the Panthers scored a touchdown. Since then he has given away several dozen in what has become one of the most beloved traditions in team history.
But where did all those footballs go? Newton, for one, never had any idea how deep of an impression the footballs made upon the kids and families that received them.
For the past month, I have been working on reuniting some of the “Cam Football Kids” with the charismatic quarterback. That process culminated Monday, when Newton walked into a locker room at Bank of America Stadium filled with 15 of those rambunctious, happy children and charmed them all over again.
Well, all of them except one. But we’ll get to that.
The children huddled around Newton, telling him stories about sleeping with their footballs and taking them to school. One girl – 12-year-old Hannah Garthright of Charlotte – also had written him a letter.
“You gave me a football and I wanted to say thank you,” she wrote. “I have hearing aids and ADHD, and when I see the Panthers get a touchdown, it makes me think that I can do that too – only a little bit different, because I play basketball. You inspire me by letting me know that I can do anything. P.S. – I like your smile.”
Newton had the kids laughing immediately when they told him about the footballs that sometimes shared their pillows.
“You know what a football is made of?” he asked. “That’s an ol’ dead pig right there. You’re sleeping with a pig!”
But before we hear more from Newton and his holiday huddle with the kids, let’s back up a little. How did this tradition begin?
‘Give it to a little kid’
Newton made an enormous impact in 2011, his rookie year with the Panthers. He threw for more than 400 yards in each of his first two games and was such an effective runner that he would set an NFL record for quarterbacks with 14 rushing touchdowns.
He also came into the league with a ready-made, TV-friendly TD celebration. Newton would pretend he was Clark Kent turning into Superman and mime the gesture in which Kent rips off his dress shirt to reveal the “S” underneath.
But for the first six games of his NFL career, Newton didn’t hand out touchdown balls. The tradition actually started at the suggestion of Mike Shula, then the Panthers’ quarterbacks coach and now the offensive coordinator.
When Newton scored against Washington in a home game Oct. 23, 2011, he still had the ball he scored with in his hand as he began the “Superman” routine. Shula’s voice, as usual, was being piped directly into Newton’s helmet headset – that is a standard NFL routine to allow play calls to get to the quarterback more easily.
Recounted Newton shortly after the game: Shula “says when you celebrate, it’s not a celebration unless you give back. He says, ‘You do all that riffraff, whatever you do, but at the end you give that football to a little kid. You find a little kid.’
“So after I did whatever I did,” Newton continued, “I heard somebody (Shula) in my headset saying, ‘Give it to a little kid! Give it to a little kid!’ I looked and there was this kid just gleaming from ear to ear, so I gave it to him.”
Shula politely declined to be interviewed for this article. “That’s all Cam,” the coach said of the giveaways. “He has made that tradition his own.”
The first handoff went to 10-year-old Law Waddill of Raleigh. His reaction in the immediate aftermath would turn out to be typical of many of the “Cam Football Kids.”
“I was shaking and sweating,” Law said. “There were tears in my eyes. It was really weird. Here was this Heisman Trophy winner, giving me a ball that he scored with.”
Law and his 10-year-old cousin Nathan Guptill – who lives in Charlotte and was right behind Law when Newton handed up the ball – decided to share custody. They both came to the photo shoot Monday with Newton.
“So you were the first ones, huh?” Newton said, smiling, at Law and Nathan.
“If I had a wish list … ”
Since Newton began the tradition, the Panthers have scored slightly more than 100 touchdowns. No one keeps count, but I would estimate Newton has given away the ball on close to half of those.
The way it works: Newton always gives it away when he scores himself (he started off only doing the giveaway on his own touchdowns). And now he often gives it away, too, when another Carolina offensive player scores.
When he’s choosing a child, it takes about five seconds. He runs around, looks for big smiles and tries to spread the footballs into different corners of the stadium. Newton frequently picks a child in a Cam Newton jersey, but not always. The lucky kids usually turn out to be between ages 7 and 14.
Occasionally, other offensive players have chosen to either keep their own touchdown balls or give them away themselves, so not all home-game TD balls end up in the stands courtesy of the quarterback. Newton also doesn’t give the balls away on defensive touchdowns, so the “Sunday giveaway,” as he and other Panthers call it, is hit or miss.
On road games, sometimes Newton finds a friendly kid in a Panthers jersey nearby – Hannah Garthright got hers in Miami this year on a mother-daughter trip to the Panthers-Dolphins game. Sometimes he doesn’t.
The NFL doesn’t fine Newton for giving footballs away, according to a league spokesman. But all NFL players are fined $5,250 when they throw or punt a ball into the stands because of issues of crowd safety. That’s what Newton did on the winning touchdown in the New England game Nov. 18, when he excitedly threw the ball 16 rows into the stands, above where the T-shirt guns often reach. That was a $5,250 throw.
Normally, though, Newton tamps down his excitement enough to hand the ball to someone like Charlotte’s Jack Schoening, 11.
Schoening was out of town and couldn’t come to our photo shoot, but he got a ball from Newton on Oct. 20, 2013, four days before his birthday.
“If I had a wish list for things I wanted to accomplish in my life,” Jack said, “getting a ball from Cam would have been No. 1 on the list. It’s something I will remember for the rest of my life.”
The photo shoot
I found the kids for our photo shoot by mentioning I was looking for them several times in my stories for the Observer and online in my blog. We invited them to the newspaper and to Bank of America Stadium on Monday. All they were told was that we would be taking a group picture of the kids and that I would interview all of them.
Meanwhile, we quietly invited Newton, too. His visit on the day after the 17-13 win against New Orleans was a surprise to the kids until I told them a few minutes beforehand so we could start getting set up for the photo.
Although I had asked Newton only to stay for five minutes for a photo, he stayed for 30. Newton invited his own parents, and they came, too.
If you have ever seen Newton with children, you know he is fully in his element. He has a younger brother named Caylin, who is in the ninth grade and also plays football, which probably helps. Around kids, Newton is engaging, funny, self-deprecating and not the least bit intimidating.
Adults have not always accepted him as completely. Newton occasionally was a “bad teammate” by his own admission as a rookie, when he sometimes retreated into self-absorbed sulking under a Gatorade towel when things were going poorly. His coach, Ron Rivera, once jokingly referred to him as “Mr. Mopeyhead.” His exaggerated histrionics after first downs and touchdowns sometimes have been criticized by old-school football fans who would prefer no celebrations at all.
Some of Newton’s teammates talked to him early about the need to lead better when things were going badly, and he has taken that lesson to heart. This NFL season, his third, he was voted by his teammates as a captain for the first time.
As for kids – they inherently “get” Newton. And he gets them, too. That’s why his charity efforts concentrate on children.
Newton has done far more in the Charlotte area than give away a few footballs for kids. Through the School Pride partner school program, the Cam Newton Foundation has donated over $225,000 to six local middle schools over the past two years. The foundation also hosted a School Pride day at Memorial Stadium in 2013 attended by nearly 800 students and teachers, and will do another one this coming May. It hosts a seven-on-seven high school football tournament each summer in Charlotte and recently put on “Cam’s Thanksgiving Jam,” an event that provided food to more than 1,100 local needy families. And there’s much more.
On Monday – as with all child-centered events where Newton shows up – the kids sensed that this 24-year-old quarterback who pretends he’s an airplane before every game still has a lot of kid in him. They applauded when he came in, then chattered excitedly to him about holiday Twinkies, where he got his shoes and what they wanted for Christmas.
One child proclaimed to the quarterback that the Grinch wasn’t real. Another guessed Newton’s age to be 300.
‘Miss Virginia? I’m Cam’
Newton dazzled all of the parents and all of the kids – except one. The youngest child we could find who ever received a football from Newton was Virginia Brooks, who was 3 when she got it and is 4 now. She was standing in front of Newton in a Panthers cheerleader outfit for the photo. No matter how he tried to entice her, she wouldn’t turn around.
“Virginia?” he said. “Miss Virginia? I’m Cam. What’s your name?”
No dice. Virginia stayed staring straight ahead, her back to Newton.
“Miss Virginia is literally giving me a cold shoulder,” Newton said with a laugh.
Then it was time for all the kids to pose like Superman alongside Newton. He coached them on proper technique first.
“Listen now, this might be the only time you’d be able to scream,” Newton said. “Because when I do it, I scream, because a lot of excitement comes out. So on the count of three, we’re going to do it and we’re going to scream at the camera.”
A couple of the kids giggled.
“I don’t laugh when I do it now,” Newton said, putting on a fake stern face. “This ain’t no joke. This is the real deal. Superman! Right here! All right. You ready? Everybody ready? You ready, Miss Virginia? One. Two. Three!!!!”
The howl after “three” might have been heard in New Orleans. It sent Virginia scurrying out of the picture setup and into the arms of her mother.
Newton, who had gotten permission from Virginia’s parents to hold her in his lap if she would agree, instead found himself grasping at air as she bolted the scene.
Virginia would make a quick recovery, though. When I asked Virginia that day how she and her brother Turner had gotten a ball, she said:
“Cam scored a touchdown. He gave me and my brother the ball. We keep it in my brother’s room. And we have a dog named Sadie.”
As for Newton, he eventually had to go. He signed everyone’s touchdown ball first with a silver Sharpie. Then he rose up, with the children by this time following him around like the Pied Piper.
Virginia smiled at him. Hannah twirled her football. Miles Bolin kept doing the Superman pose. Sebastian Cortez asked for Newton to sign his football a second time, which the quarterback did.
Like he has done so many times already in the Carolinas, Newton had taken some of his free time and used it to positively affect a bunch of kids.
“Keep sleeping with those pigs,” Newton teased.
And then Cam Newton finally had to go to a meeting with his coaches as he tried to figure out how to get the team into the end zone more often and ultimately give away more of those footballs.
The quarterback walked back into the dark tunnels underneath the Panthers’ stadium, leaving behind a bright memory that 15 children will never forget.