CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Less than a week after foot surgery and just hours after waking up with an upset stomach, Cam Newton is at a Charlotte men's shelter — standing on his right leg while resting his left knee on his three-wheeled scooter — serving dinner to more than 200 men for an hour.
Some of these men he's seen in the Charlotte streets before, and they're quick to remind him. Others use their few moments to thank Newton for what he's doing.
It's here, at the fifth hour and end of his sixth annual Christmas charity drive across town styled as "Santa Cam's Surprise Sleigh," that you can spot a different side of Newton. Through his foundation on this Tuesday, Newton will give more than $130,000 in money and gifts to schools and their staff, an after-school program, a food bank and to this shelter.
But here is where he can be real. These men have seen enough in their life to spot a phony immediately. So as Newton puts chicken tenders on their plate, he shares brief moments of honesty, and levity, with them.
"I'm just saying," one man shouts, "they don't appreciate you."
"Aye, that's Cam!," another exclaims as he gets to the front of the line. "I thought they was playing!"
"All the trash talk is on Sunday. Ain't nobody got nothing to say now," a third man smiles to Newton.
CBS Sports was one of three media outlets invited to cover the event. The day began around 2:30 p.m. at Berry Academy where Newton donated $15,000 to the school's athletic program and did a Q&A with a select group of high school student-athletes. He then went to Westerly Hills Elementary and gave $100 Visa gift cards to all school staff. Next, a trip to the UrbanPromise after-school camp where he donated $25,000 to the majority-minority program.
Newton deals with children with his usual aplomb: play some music, encourage dancing, dispense wisdom on the importance of following your dreams. With the elementary school staff, he entertained 50 or so teachers for 30 minutes like the comedian who warms up the crowd before a late-night show.
He admits that this year's edition of the charity drive is "a little different" than years previous. Newton hasn't played since September and, in about three months, he may no longer be the Carolina Panthers starting quarterback. But in a quick interview, Newton isn't interested in that sort of reflection at the moment.
"I don't want to keep dwelling on the negativity of 2019 has been," he says. "It's been such a blessing for me to have these experiences like this, going to different venues to put people in the holiday cheer. That's what it was curated for and that's what we want to keep doing."
To be sure, Newton wants to remain in Carolina. That's what he has shared with people near and far to him. He made it a point to greet Panthers owner David Tepper on Sunday when he watched the Seahawks-Panthers game from his suite.
The Panthers will either trade or keep Newton in the final year of his contract. Outright release should not be an option for Carolina. Newton stands to count $21.1 million against the cap next season, which is both manageable enough to keep him and tantalizing enough to trade for.
Complicating things is Newton's recent mid-foot surgery to his Lisfranc injury. It's the third time in two-and-a-half years that he's gone under the knife, and he's winless in his last eight injury-riddled games since 2018. What would fair trade compensation be for the former MVP? How much would Carolina want to roll the dice, again, on his health?
Part of the equation is who the new head coach will be. Tepper is shading toward a younger, offensive-minded head coach. Will that man, who will already be in a sort of arranged marriage with general manager Marty Hurney and a to-be-named assistant GM, want to also start his offseason program with an injured quarterback?
The truth is that no decision has been made. Tepper doesn't know yet what he's going to do at the quarterback position, though the last six weeks has made it crystal clear that Carolina won't be going into Week 1 of the 2020 season with Kyle Allen as the starter.
Back at this charity drive, Newton stops at a food bank to donate $25,000 to its volunteer program before heading to the men's shelter. "This is our guy and we have to be careful with him," says Second Harvest Food Bank CEO Kay Carter to those in attendance. "He's valuable to us and he's valuable to Charlotte."
Before Newton, there was no superstar in Charlotte. Yes, Michael Jordan owned the Bobcats before the Panthers took Newton first overall in 2011, but no one here has ever felt a strong tug to claim Jordan as a Charlottean.
Newton would, in his early years with the Panthers, lament seeing so many car flags and jerseys representing different NFL teams. The Carolina franchise was nationally irrelevant and mattered in Charlotte for three hours on 16 Sundays out of the year. Slowly, he changed the culture and the perspective of many fans here.
But when a fan of another team crept through the dinner line at the men's shelter, Newton had fun. He'd demand a Raiders fan take his hat off. He tells a Steelers fan to zip up his outer layer to cover the logo. "Have you ever met Dak? Well you're meeting me," Newton jokes with a Cowboys fan.
Newton quickly finds things to relate to these men. One is looking for a vegan option instead of the chicken. This man's been vegan for two years, and Newton says "that's what's up. I'm coming up on a year myself." Newton's also been growing out his hair for more than a year, and when a dreadlocked man waits for his food, Newton is stunned to hear he's been growing his hair out for 13 years.
And when Newton picks up on a slight accent of one man in a navy windbreaker, he asks where he's from.
"Africa," the man says.
"Me too!" Newton exclaims.
Multiple times in this hour men tell Newton how they want him to stay in Charlotte. They're telling him not to leave the city and the Panthers. Each time Newton points out he's under contract with the team for 2020. Plus, he doesn't want to leave.
"That's the plan. That's where I want to be. …You can't get rid of me that easily," he says.
"Listen let me tell you something," Newton says later. "In order for me to leave, they got to get rid of me."
Of course, there has to be that guy. You know, that one guy who's feeling himself and wants to puff out his chest for the other fellas around. It happens as Newton begins to wheel out of the eating area and people are trying to get their selfies with him.
A man in a tan sweater stands up in the back and comments on the lack of a Super Bowl in Carolina's 25-year history. Newton began the evening prepared for a little trash talk coming his way and here it was.
"Be patient. I've been trying," Newton said back. "You don't think I've been trying for you?"
Newton stuck around for 10 more minutes of conversation and selfies and pictures with an oversized check and eventually—apparently — the Tan Sweater Man realized he may have been out of line.
He approaches Newton in a crowd of people to say one last thing.
"Hey Cam, you put us on the map," he says. "Thank you."