Cam Newton shows gratitude through foundation

Panthers quarterback, family huddle for charity off the field

It is a typical Sunday during football season. The Carolina Panthers prepare to take the field in a few hours as the stadium thrums with pre-game activity. Fans tailgate in the parking lots. Media crews set up their gear.

Quarterback Cam Newton is focused. Intense. There’s a heat surrounding him, a sizzle in the air.

Literally. The Heisman Trophy winning star player who went No. 1 in the 2011 draft, and who recently signed a five-year contract extension worth $103.8 million, spends part of each football Sunday at the ironing board.

“I listen to gospel music,” he said. “I pray. It’s the calm before the storm, knowing I’ve done everything possible to prepare.”

The simple, humble act of pressing away wrinkles connects the highest paid player in Panther history with his tight-knit family and no-nonsense upbringing in metro Atlanta. While growing up, he concentrated on schoolwork all week, and Saturdays were filled with chores.

“I can count on one hand how many Saturdays I had where it was me and TV and cereal,” he recalled with a laugh.

And Sundays meant getting ready for church.

His father, Cecil Newton Sr., is bishop of Holy Zion Center of Deliverance in Newnan. Today Cam’s pregame routine of hymns and sharp creases honors both his dad’s sermons and his mother Jackie Newton’s instructions on caring for his Sunday best.

“I really like ironing my clothes,” he said. “It puts me at peace.”

The Panthers’ regular season begins Sept. 13 in Jacksonville, against the Jaguars. It comes on the heels of a busy summer for the quarterback, including the 2015 Cam Newton Foundation 7 v 7 Tournament, held at his Atlanta alma mater, Westlake High School, and North Cobb High School. Joining him for the event were his parents and brothers, Cecil Newton Jr. and Caylin Newton.

Dozens of high school teams played the half-field games while Newton offered tips to the young athletes and his father, Cecil Newton Jr., laid down the law.

“Conduct yourself like a gentleman,” the elder Newton admonished as young players got ready for the day. “If it’s not your property, leave it alone. Be coachable. Have fun. This is team spirit. It’s not just about you.”

The family later gathered in Charlotte for the Cam Newton Foundation Kids Rock Gala, where Cam and ESPN personality Trey Wingo served as hosts and Grammy-nominated artist Gavin DeGraw performed. Local and national media were there to cover the event.

Far less splashy was his visit to Charleston following the shooting spree at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that took the lives of nine people. He spent time with grieving members of victims’ families during the discreet trip but “didn’t want to be a distraction,” he told The Sporting News afterward. “Out of respect to the families, I didn’t want to say too much about it.”

Cam’s charitable foundation is a family affair. His dad, who had brief stints on the rosters of the the 1983 Dallas Cowboys and 1984 Buffalo Bills, is president of the Cam Newton Foundation. His uncle James R. Newton, a rehabilitation counselor and vocational evaluator with a doctorate degree in health science, is treasurer. His mom is the organization’s executive director.

No one appears to be getting rich from the foundation; its 2013 tax documents reflect a $3,000 payment to Jackie Newton but no compensation to any of the other board members. Instead their roles mean long hours and hard work. During the youth football tournament days the Newtons pitched in alongside volunteers, unloading gear, hauling in lunch for the players and making sure everyone stayed hydrated.

As close as the family is, they found out along with the rest of the world when Cam was involved in a wreck last December. His truck flipped four times on a Charlotte bridge, but he miraculously escaped without serious injury.

His father heard the news the way so many vital bulletins are communicated these days.

“I started getting all these texts saying they’re praying for Cam,” Cecil Newton Sr. recalled. “Then my wife called me.”

The elder Newton sought refuge in his faith.

“We immediately went into intercessory prayer,” he said. “I was kind of taken aback that it was being covered (live on television). That could have been a death scene. I was really shaken by that.”

Cam emerged from the ordeal with his faith strengthened. He posted a photo of his mangled truck on Facebook with a long post about the importance of forgiveness and gratitude.

“As that crash constantly plays back in my mind every time I close my eyes, I can’t go another day without me thanking God for the opportunities he has given me in my life,” he wrote. “This accident puts a lot of things in perspective of what’s important and what’s not!”

More than 270,000 Facebook users liked the post, which was shared nearly 60,000 times.

He was pleased at the reaction.

“Nobody’s going to tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, you’re about to get in a car wreck. You’re going to get robbed tonight,’” he said. “If you have anything that you’re holding onto, let it go.”

He has embraced his own advice, making very public peace with his past troubles.

As high school teams filed into the North Cobb High School stadium ahead of the 7 v 7 tournament this summer, loudspeakers boomed clips not only from games and other triumphant moments in Cam’s life, but also news broadcasts detailing an incident when campus police caught him with a stolen laptop computer when he was a student at the University of Florida. Charges were dropped after he went through a pretrial diversion program.

“I am extremely open about the failures I’ve had in my life,” he said. “As an athlete you’re held to a higher standard. We make mistakes as well.”

After the incident Newton transferred first to Blinn College in Brenham, Tex., then to Auburn where the Heisman and the No. 1 draft pick awaited, and the richest paycheck in Panthers history eventually followed.

Today he’s eager not only to continue perfecting his game but to devote time to his foundation, which champions fitness, character and academic achievement.

“It means so much,” he said. “The power of giving back is part of success.”