CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton, his dreadlocks flowing from a hole in the top of his custom-made hat, looked like a modern-day pied piper as throngs of screaming children followed him room to room last fall during his annual Thanksgiving Jam.
The then-Carolina Panthers quarterback barely could walk a few feet before having to stop and pose for selfies, flashing a smile outshined only by the 1,300 kids around him.
It was a reminder of what Newton meant to the Charlotte community beyond his amazing athletic feats and outrageous outfits.
It was a reminder of the power of his magnetic personality on and off the field the past nine years, and how much of a loss it will be now that the Panthers are releasing Newton and are moving forward without the 2015 NFL MVP.
There are NFL owners in bigger markets than Charlotte who would love to capitalize on Newton’s marketability and talent if he returns to full health, the biggest question surrounding his future as he rehabs from December Lisfranc surgery.
The Los Angeles Chargers, with their shiny new stadium and logo, would seem to be a perfect fit for the soon-to-be 31-year-old quarterback.
There was just no reason for the Chargers or any other team to trade for Newton, with the coronavirus outbreak preventing workouts and medical exams and knowing the Panthers ultimately would release Newton, the first pick of the 2011 draft.
When the Panthers were on the way to an NFL-best 15-1 regular-season record in 2015 and a trip to Super Bowl 50, Newton and Peyton Manning were neck and neck for the league lead in endorsements.
Manning won the Super Bowl that year, beating the Panthers -- five years after the Indianapolis Colts moved on from him.
In 2015, Newton changed the image of the NFL quarterback with 35 touchdowns passing and 10 rushing in much the same way Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson did this past season.
Newton's celebratory dab became a national phenomenon, duplicated by kids and adults around the country. He touched kids with his football giveaway after touchdowns in ways that can’t be replaced.
Newton made people feel good beyond football.
Newton also touched his teammates. Running back Christian McCaffrey posted this on Instagram shortly after news surfaced that the quarterback was being released:
For all the arguments that the Panthers had to move on, the attention and joy Newton brought to the city through his foundation and charitable events was what made the decision to release him a difficult one.
Maybe that’s why Carolina owner David Tepper and his wife attended Newton’s Thanksgiving Jam, something former owner Jerry Richardson never did.
Maybe that’s why Newton’s teammates liked having him around the locker room last year at a time when many injured players barely showed their faces.
“He’s hurt, but he still is a team leader,” wide receiver Jarius Wright said at the time. “What he says still has a lot of weight.”
Safety Tre Boston “loved” seeing Newton around the team then and will miss him now.
“If Cam was away from us, people would write how he’s selfish, doesn’t want to be with his team and doesn’t want to be around his brothers when he doesn’t have to be,” he said. “He comes here because he loves us, wants to rehab with the team, he wants to see our faces.
“I want to see his face. I want to see outside of football how his family is doing, how his kids are growing up.”
The Panthers were Newton’s family. Charlotte was Newton’s family as well. He made that clear at his Thanksgiving Jam, saying he wanted to stay in Charlotte and hold this event here “for countless more years.”
In the end, the decision to release Newton was strictly business.
Could he lead another team to a Super Bowl? Is he worth a long-term deal to another team? The Panthers saved $19.1 million by releasing him; are they better off with Teddy Bridgewater and spending part of those savings on an extension for McCaffrey, now the face of the team?
That’s all to be determined.
Could we see a reunion of Newton and Rivera?
Matt Hasselbeck contends that a reunion between Cam Newton and Ron Rivera in Washington is the best fit for Newton this upcoming NFL season.
Newton will remain iconic, from his “Superman” moves on the field to his fashion statements to his Thanksgiving Jam, where he sang “If You’re Happy and You Know It” last fall to kids who seemed to miss him as much as he has missed them.
The Thanksgiving event, where Newton said the smiling children fixed some of the sadness of being injured, was a reminder of that.
“Coach Rivera always says it best,” Newton said of former Carolina coach Ron Rivera, fired with four games left in the 2019 season. “He puts it up on a slide and he says our greatest accomplishments or our greatest deeds aren’t behind us but in front of us.”
Newton’s greatest accomplishments, as a Carolina Panther at least, are behind us. The team has moved on with Bridgewater and new coach Matt Rhule. Fans have known this moment was coming for some time, so many were braced for the reality.
But moments like the Thanksgiving Jam are a reminder of the reality that Charlotte will miss Newton beyond anything he did on the field.