Cam Newton's involvement with Ali stage production a natural fit

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- To some, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is a hero. They look at the 2015 NFL MVP as a role model and consider him bigger than life.

Newton has an idol of his own.

Muhammad Ali.

So it was a natural fit when the Cam Newton Foundation became the lead sponsor of the Children’s Theater of Charlotte production about the early years of the former heavyweight champion boxer when he was known as Cassius Clay. Newton felt it was important to share Ali’s story, which had a profound impact on the civil rights movement, with the community.

Before the show, “And in This Corner: Cassius Clay," opened last week, Newton visited the cast with a group of kids as part of a foundation event. Part of the visit included how to fake box with Deon Releford-Lee, who plays the late Ali.

“His form was a little off," Releford-Lee said of Newton with a laugh. “But I’m glad he tried it. We don’t actually punch each other in the face, but when we were doing it I let him punch me in the chin. The way he reacted, it was funny."

Ali, who died June 3, 2016, has been Newton’s role model and hero for as long as the quarterback can remember.

“Muhammad Ali has had a profound impact on my life," Newton once wrote. “Anyone who knows me well knows that I idolize Muhammad Ali. I gravitated towards the fact that he seemed to truly enjoy himself and have fun as an athlete and that he was not scared to have an opinion about important social issues.

“The six core principles on which he based his beliefs -- confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality -- are admirable."

One of Newton’s most memorable moments came when Ali gave him a surprise call on his birthday.

“He finished the surprise birthday call in true Ali fashion. He said, 'You might be a good football player, but you will never be as pretty as me,' Newton recalled for the Players Tribune in 2016 after Ali passed.

The first social media post Newton made after his devastating loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50 was a picture of him standing in front of a picture of the young Ali and one of Ali’s memorable quotes.

"Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even," the quote read.

When Ali passed at the age of 74, Newton wrote on his Instagram post about the “hurt" he felt losing a man he called “bigger than life."

Newton, 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, appeared bigger than life when he towered over Releford-Lee, who comes up to the quarterback’s shoulder when standing beside him.

But Releford-Lee quickly found out that Newton was “down to earth."

“I’m from Philadelphia," Releford-Lee said. “I knew who Cam Newton was, but I didn’t know much about him. He was just a cool guy. He was just a dude."

Releford-Lee also quickly found out just how much Newton knew about Ali.

“Like the story about how Ali was doing an interview at his home," he recalled. “The interviewer was really nervous. So Ali tickled him. They were on the floor wrestling each other.

“Cam’s a really big fan of Ali, so he knows a lot about his life. It was cool, especially what he takes away about how I play and imitate that kind of character."