The fourth- and fifth-graders thought they had come to the Dick's Sporting Goods store in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a holiday-season field trip. Each was told to grab a camping chair and have a seat. They were here because they'd done something important, whether it was improve a grade or a behavior at school.
Then came the surprise.
Cam Newton walked into the room. The 6-foot-5 Carolina Panthers quarterback saw the adults standing and the kids sitting and grabbed a lawn chair, unfolded it in front of the students, sat eye to eye and started chatting it up with the kids.
"There were still some kids in shock that Cam Newton was in a lawn chair in front of them," said Gina Salvati, the vice president of advancement at Communities in Schools, the program that organized the event. "But then, the excitement just filled the room."
Newton stayed as each of these kids got $200 to buy presents for themselves and family. Only one child, Salvati said, had ever even been inside a Dick's store before.
"Cam has -- and I don't know if the world knows this -- a genuine heart for kids," Salvati said. "It's not just about the press or what he's supposed to do. It's about the way he wants to support kids and the way he wants them to be supported. Many of our kids really feel apart from the world; this is the way our kids can feel part of the world beyond their street."
Newton has his detractors, some of whom don't appreciate his post-touchdown dab, but few around him doubt his sincerity when it comes to interacting with children through his charities or as NFL fans. This season he has emerged on the field as one of the best quarterbacks in the league in front of the 14-0 Panthers, yet he remains just as committed to his off-the-field endeavors, especially with youth. And the kids? They dig the dab.
Veteran wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery is impressed by Newton's touch. "He's incredible with that, he's completely incredible," Cotchery said. "Really he's a superstar, but the way he interacts with fans and kids is just an unbelievable deal. Some people are burdened by that, but he interacts with fans and children and it's cool to see."
Newton has been volunteering at elementary schools since his college days, once he realized the power conferred by his status and the importance of second chances, said his agent Carlos Fleming, a senior vice president in Sports Talent Marketing at WME-IMG. His parents taught Newton that, and actually accompanied him last week on the day he went to four schools while wearing his red Christmas sweater with the image of a dabbing Santa.
"You give credit to his parents for making him aware of that, but it's just him," Cotchery said. "From the outside looking in, people want to know if it's genuine or not everything that he's doing. It is; it's him smiling all the time, it's him interacting with everyone all the time, celebrating with his teammates. Yeah, he celebrates on his own sometimes, but when he comes back he's always encouraging his teammates. It's a good thing to be around."
Kimberly Beal, the director of the Cam Newton Foundation, said he is the first athlete she has worked with who will spend a few days at the office each week during the offseason. A lot of the foundation's programs spring from ideas Newton generated.
For instance, the foundation's celebrity kickball tournament? That was Newton's pitch. The quarterback isn't interested in golf, so he needed an alternative to the dusty old fundraising staple. The kickball game netted $300,000 for the foundation. The 26-year-old Newton also pitched television executives a new series, which will debut on Nickelodeon next fall. Each episode Newton will showcase kids in pursuit of a singular goal, like becoming a performer in Cirque du Soleil. Newton will also be the show's executive producer.
And this is where his interest in kids and his own childlike enthusiasm became rewarding in a very real sense. Newton is earning about $20 million on the field, and he will add roughly $11 million in endorsements in 2015, but those endorsements play a role in the success of his foundation.
Beal said that Newton's sponsors -- Under Armour, Belk, Gatorade, GMC, Beats by Dre and Dannon -- all have a stake in the foundation, whether it's buying a table at a gala or investing in a specific program. Fleming said many of the brands that have partnered with Newton are targeting that 13- to 25-year-old demographic. UA, Dannon, Beats by Dre and Gatorade will debut ads featuring Newton in the upcoming weeks.
David Schwab, a senior VP at Octagon who has expertise in pairing corporations with celebrity endorsers, said Newton is poised to cross the line between athlete endorser and celebrity endorser. "He feels fresh and relevant, and has a sense of style and personality," Schwab said. But the most important part of that is the sincerity of his connection with fans and kids, and that's something that is innate, according to the people who see Newton visit the local schools near the Panthers' training facility.
Suzanne Evans, the senior administrative secretary at Metro School, works with children who are developmentally disabled. Some of them can't communicate verbally, so it isn't often that there are big-name visitors. A week before Christmas, Newton arrived in his red sweater and walked into a gym filled with kids, greeting each child, even the ones who couldn't respond. It can be challenging for visitors, Evans said, because it's hard to know how much some of the kids are taking in, much less providing a response, but that didn't stop Newton.
"He took pictures and selfies, he was willing to do anything," she said. Evans was moved but was even more impressed that this wasn't Newton's first visit. "I am not a Panthers fan, but I'm a huge Cam Newton fan," Evans said. "The things he does in the community here -- it's all with kids."