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Game day is like Christmas for kids who get TD footballs from Cam Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A football sits under the Christmas tree at Michael Arellano's home.

Nothing else.

Just a football.

It's not wrapped. It's not even new.

But it might be the best present Michael will get this year, maybe ever, and it wasn't even for Christmas.

Michael, 11, got the football from Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton after Newton threw a touchdown pass in a Nov. 22 victory over the Washington Redskins.

"I wanted to cry," Michael said in a recent visit to Bank of America Stadium to share his experience. "Cam, he's my hero."

Newton began giving away footballs after touchdowns on Oct. 23, 2011, in another game against Washington. It was part of a challenge from Mike Shula, then the Panthers' quarterbacks coach, to go beyond Newton's trademark "Superman" celebration.

Shula, now in his third season as offensive coordinator, politely declined to comment on why he felt it was so important for Newton to give away footballs, saying his quarterback and the rest of the team have made that their own thing.

Four years ago, it was Shula who told Newton over the helmet headset, typically used to relay plays, to give the ball to a kid after Newton scored on a 16-yard, third-quarter run against Washington.

Newton did.

"And it just took a life of its own," Newton said recently. "Now you see kids rushing down [the stands to get a football]. ... As a matter of fact, when we get closer in the red zone, we can see more kids moving down.

"That's the sight to see right there."

Newton calls this his "Sunday giveaway" program.

There's no official count on how many footballs Newton has given away, but he has 155 career touchdowns, 115 passing and 40 rushing.

The program has been in full swing during Carolina's 14-0 start, with Newton responsible for a career-high 40 touchdowns, 33 passing and seven rushing. That ranks first in the NFL, ahead of New England's Tom Brady, who has 38.

Newton's teammates have gotten into the act. Porter Waleski, a 7-year-old from Charlotte, got a football from wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. after a touchdown catch against Atlanta two weeks ago.

Her grandfather, Rusty Porter, was just as thrilled as she was.

"It's like they're sharing their triumphs with us," he said. "If you give it to the kid, that's like giving it to all of us. It's a beautiful thing."

Jaden Battle, an 11-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, got a football from Newton during a preseason game against New England. He might have summed up best what the program means to kids.

"It feels like I won the lottery," he said. "There's not a chance that you get a ball from Cam."

Contrary to some social media reports, Newton doesn't have to pay a fine to the NFL for the footballs he gives away.

This also isn't a contrived act or gimmick. The Panthers, as well as the head of Newton's foundation, have said that neither Newton nor anybody from the organization gives tickets to potential candidates to ensure they're sitting next to the wall in the lower bowl.

Whoever gets a ball is totally random.

Colin Toler, a 6-year-old from Danville, Virginia, is a perfect example. He was sitting near the corner entrance of the lower bowl of the stadium when Newton scored a second-quarter touchdown in a Nov. 8 game against Green Bay.

Packers defensive end Julius Peppers snatched the ball from Newton after the touchdown and tossed it toward the sideline, forcing Newton to chase after the ball. That directed Newton, who normally picks out a kid near the middle of the end-zone wall, toward Colin.

Colin, whose father died of a heart condition a month earlier, was there with his two grandfathers. Newton had no idea of the pain Colin or his family had experienced.

All he saw was the smile.

As Laura Toler said in explaining the odd circumstances in which her grandson got the ball, "It was a God wink."

Jennifer Baker, Colin's mom, watched the moment on television. She said she could only imagine what Colin's dad would have said.

"I can just see the smile on his face," she said. "He would have been so excited for Colin. Colin and he watched the games together on Sundays before he passed. Football was something very special between them. The reason Colin liked the Panthers was because of his dad."

Newton's giveaway program isn't always well-received. A few opposing players have made it more difficult for him to get the football, particularly when Newton scores on the road.

To them it's almost like a slap in the face. To the kids it's a lifetime memory.

"Well, that's just haters," said Michael's uncle, Bismarck Herrera. "He makes the kids happy. Look at him right now. He's excited, happy. Priceless. I hope Cam keeps doing that no matter what. It's very important. Kids love that. Kids just love that."

Parents love it, too.

Jaden's mom, Christi, had gone to the concession stand when her son got the ball. She almost came to tears recalling how she missed the moment that her son can't stop talking about.

"I don't know how anybody can criticize him for doing that," she said of Newton giving footballs to children. "I hear people say he's cocky. But he's a good guy."

Rusty Porter pointed to his granddaughter's smile when asked about those who might be offended by the giveaway program.

"I don't know what you could criticize about giving a touchdown ball to a little kid like that," he said.

Some of the kids have their footballs proudly displayed in a glass case in their room. Some have taken them to school to show to their friends.

Some, like Michael Arellano, have slept with it.

"I couldn't let it go," he said.

Pictures of Michael's expression when Newton gave him the ball were of pure joy.

"He was screaming and yelling," his uncle said. "He couldn't believe he got the ball. And then everyone began texting us saying, 'We saw Michael on the TV.' They texted me the picture when he was like, crying.

"He was like, 'Did I make the face?' I was, 'Yeah, you made the face.' He was like, 'Whoa! I can't believe I made that face.'"

Michael got a second surprise a few weeks later. He was downtown when Newton came gliding by on his hover board, going from the stadium to his uptown apartment.

"He was like, 'Cam! Cam! Cam!'" Newton said. "I talked to him. He was like, 'I'm one of those kids you gave a ball to.'

"I'm a child at heart, so I said, 'Nah, really?'"

Newton was skeptical. Then Michael pulled up a picture on his cellphone of him getting the ball.

"Lo and behold, there he goes," Newton said with a smile just as big as the one Michael had at the game. "He's screaming, and I'm handing him the ball. That's what it's all about, using your influence in a positive way.

"We took another picture then, but it was just great to see how just the fans and the connections with the players can take a life of its own."