David Justice: I had no idea I influenced Cam Newton in such a positive way

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The scrawny, little kid knew who David Justice was, but the then-Atlanta Braves outfielder had no idea who the scrawny, little kid was when he spoke at Solid Rock Academy near Atlanta 23 years ago.

Or who the kid would grow up to be.

But Justice, now 52 and living in San Diego, made an impression on the kid that day, when he spoke about the importance of education and being the best you that you can be.

Enough that the scrawny, little kid believed he could one day be a star like Justice and use his celebrity status to be a positive influence on others, as he did on Monday night, when he served more than 1,200 kids a Thanksgiving meal they otherwise might not have had.

The kid no longer is little nor scrawny. The kid was Cam Newton.

"This was right after they won the World Series," the Carolina Panthers quarterback, now 29 years old and 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, said of meeting Justice that day. "My thought was if I can see him, if I can touch him and ask a question ... I may not even be able to ask a question ... but if I can see him, I can get to where he is."

It just goes to show, you never know who you're influencing. Or when.

"You never know," Justice told ESPN.com of that day not long after the Braves won the 1995 World Series. "That's the beauty of it. As you go through life, you never know how many people you touch in a positive way. You're lucky when somebody shares their story.

"When I can touch the lives of people like Cam Newton and whoever else I've touched, it lets me know I'm doing what my purpose is on this earth."

Justice has influenced a lot of kids as a player, broadcaster, actor and youth coach. Last month, while attending the Los Angeles Rams-Green Bay Packers game, Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Jon Jay approached him and said, "When I was young, I wanted to be just like you."

That has been Newton's goal since he reached in the NFL the professional status Justice had in baseball. His "Thanksgiving Cam Jam" on Monday night came a week after his foundation and Lowe's helped renovate a room at four Teen Centers for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Charlotte.

Newton never had a Teen Center to go to growing up, but he had a park where he could hang out and feel safe. And he ran into good influences such as Justice all the time.

"I remember certain things happened at my age that sparked interest," Newton said. "That's pretty much all I'm trying to do is just to be a spark for a kid's life."

Justice understands. His mom encouraged him early in his professional career to use his platform to touch the lives of kids less fortunate than he.

"That was always something that was special to me," Justice said. "I was in the gym a year ago and [saw] a kid I coached in Little League baseball, and he was so happy to see me, and he thanked me for making him love the game of baseball because of how fun our practices were and how positive I was to him as a coach.

"That made me feel really, really good."

Obligation to use influence

Newton was running late for his appearance at the Sedgefield Boys & Girls Club last week. Bad weather delayed his flight from Atlanta to Charlotte after a long weekend off following an embarrassing 52-21 loss to Pittsburgh.

But eyes lit up when the 2015 NFL MVP walked into the room.

Newton didn't hide the disappointment of the prime-time loss, saying he had been eating a lot of comfort food -- honeybuns, chips and cereal -- since the game.

But neither the weather nor the loss was going to keep Newton from being there in person, just as Justice felt the need to make such appearances when he was a player.

The same was true for Newton on Monday at his Thanksgiving event that came 24 hours after he missed wide receiver Jarius Wright for a two-point conversion pass with 1:07 left in a 20-19 loss at Detroit.

"Here I am, probably one of the most influential people in Charlotte," Newton said. "I don't take that lightly. I want to help as many people as possible, these kids included. When they can see me, when they can ask questions, when they can touch me, when we can laugh and laugh together, and they sense that Cam's no different than me."

Again, Justice understood.

"I embraced a leadership role," he said. "My mom told me, 'Son, God has blessed you immensely, and he has put you in this position.' I just accepted it, and I've never stopped accepting it."

That Justice never had a chance to meet members of the Reds or any of the other professional sports franchises growing up in Cincinnati made him realize even more the importance of being visible in the community.

"I grew up around the Big Red Machine," Justice said of the Reds who dominated baseball throughout much of the 1970s. "But as a kid, I never thought I could play for the Cincinnati Reds, and largely because of that. I didn't know any of them. I never ran across them, never met them when I was a kid.

"That makes me feel real good to know I was able to make an impression on Cam Newton, to make him want to do the same thing when he got to where he is today."

'Whole life is a testimony'

Linebacker Thomas Davis and tight end Greg Olsen are among the many Panthers players who are active in the community, but they weren't drawn to community service because of somebody famous.

Davis began his "Defending Dreams Foundation" because he wanted kids to have a better life than the one he had in Shellman, Georgia. Olsen began his "The HEARTest Yard" foundation in 2012 after his son, TJ, was born with a congenital heart defect.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera was influenced as a kid growing up on a military base in Fort Ord, California. It was there that he met many NFL players from the nearby Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers. It was there that he met legendary coach John Madden, who remains an influence.

"It's kind of one of the neat things to know somebody of their stature cares," Rivera said. "I'm just glad that our guys are doing it. I'm glad they appreciate people in the community."

Justice credits former Pittsburgh Pirates legend Willie Stargell for reinforcing the advice his mom gave.

"Willie Stargell embraced me like a son," he recalled of his early days in the Braves' organization, in which Stargell was a coach. "One of the things he said to me was you have to reach back and continue to teach the next generation what I'm telling you. I embraced that."

Newton embraced what Justice and others told him growing up, and he shares stories with kids at events such as the "Cam Jam," where he at times sounds more like a Southern minister than a football player.

Newton doesn't hide his mistakes, such as his 2008 arrest for stealing a laptop while at the University of Florida. He inspires with his successes, such as winning the Heisman Trophy at Auburn in 2010 and taking the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2015.

"I feel if you can't dream it, it can't be done," Newton said. "Things that I saw on TV inspired me. The people I want to be on TV inspired me, that I read about in magazines and newspapers inspired me.

"For these kids when they see or hear about certain things they want to be, I don't want them to ever be deterred by another person's thoughts or their living conditions or whatever conditions may hinder it."

Newton says his "whole life is a testimony."

"[I've] seen the lows of the lows of not being in college. I've seen what it would be like in jail, to be honest. There's nothing I really haven't seen," he said. "A lot of times people forget I've been knocking on the door with death with accidents."

Newton suffered two fractures in his back in December 2014 when another vehicle T-boned his truck while the quarterback was driving to Bank of America Stadium.

"A lot of times people forget," Newton said. "They see the final product on Sunday. They see what you've done, the touchdowns you throw or the losses you have or whatever. But nothing can prepare you for what life throws at you."

Newton hasn't forgotten that.

He hasn't forgotten the day he met Justice, even though Justice didn't know him from any of the other scrawny, little kids in the room.

"I had no idea," Justice said. "To know that Cam Newton took something I may have said to him, or the fact he saw me in front of him and that gave him a little bit of inspiration that he could do it, that's made my day."