Carolina Panthers star player Cam Newton will be a big part of Super Bowl 50 on February 7. And while his antics on the field have been criticized by some, his boisterous play and athleticism have redefined the role of the modern quarterback.
On and off the field, Newton is also redefining what it means to inspire kids, including kids with ADHD.
Since his rookie year in 2011, whenever Newton scores a touchdown, he presents the football to a kid in the stands. By some estimates, he’s given out more than 50 footballs so far.
That gift has motivated many kids. One of them is Hannah Garthwright, who has ADHD. After she got a football from Newton, Hannah wrote him a thank-you letter that said:
“I have hearing aids and ADHD. When I see the Panthers get a touchdown, it makes me think that I can do that too—only a little bit different, because I play basketball. You inspire me by letting me know that I can do anything.”
Another youngster with ADHD, Alphonzo “Fonz” McDonald, got to catch a pass from Newton on the Panthers’ practice field. Newton participates in a nonprofit program that works to make the sports dreams of kids with disabilities come true. And Fonz, who also has autism, had dreamed of being a wide receiver for the Panthers.
Newton doesn’t appear to have a learning or thinking difference. But stories from his childhood seem to show why he has a soft spot for kids who don’t fit the mold.
Born and raised in Georgia, Newton was a bright and likeable child. His energy, though, made him tough to handle in the classroom.
“It was difficult to get him to focus and settle down…,” says Marie Caldwell, a teacher at Camp Creek Middle School in College Park, near Atlanta, where Newton attended. In fact, notes Caldwell, Newton’s energy on the football field is the same energy he displayed in the Camp Creek hallways.
As a teen, Newton talked a lot in class and loved attention. That sometimes distracted his teachers.
Newton’s parents helped channel his energy and thirst for attention into football—and fashion. His father told Newton that a better way to get people to notice him was to dress up. So Newton took to wearing button-down shirts, slacks and dress shoes to school. His fashion style is still unique—like the purple camouflage suit he wore to a press conference.
“[H]e had wonderful parents who were extremely supportive of him and his education,” observes Caldwell. “You just knew with the level of support he had at home that he was going to do big things.”
Newton’s work for kids also had early beginnings. He started volunteering in elementary schools during college. After joining the NFL, he started the Cam Newton Foundation. It provides programs for disadvantaged kids. The programs address various aspects of kids’ needs: physical, social, emotional and educational.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that kids are inspired by Newton. To many, when he’s playing football with a giant grin, he seems like a child at heart. Take what Hannah Garthwright wrote in her letter to Newton: “P.S.—I like your smile.”
His teammates recognize that side of Newton too. “He’s a big kid out there,” says Panthers defensive back Cortland Finnegan. “It’s who he is. You watch him and realize he’s having a great time.”
Read more stories about people who are making a difference for kids with learning and thinking differences.
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About the author
About the author
Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.