CHARLOTTE — Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton doesn’t need to look far for an example of what kind of impact a professional athlete can have on a young person’s life — really only back to his own childhood.
When Newton was growing up in Atlanta, his school was visited by then-Atlanta Braves outfielder David Justice, a World Series champion and one of the biggest figures in town. The young Newton figured if he could see a star such as Justice in person, he could one day reach that level.
Not only has Newton reached that level of stardom, but he has also assumed the same role Justice played in his life for at least one other young athlete. Now, as that young athlete deals with gut-wrenching tragedy, Newton’s heart goes out to his former pupil.
Michael Gallup was one of the Cam Newton Foundation’s first 7-on-7 All-Stars team as a senior at Monroe (Ga.) High. Four years later, Gallup was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2018 NFL draft out of Colorado State, playing against Newton and the Panthers in his first NFL regular-season game.
But the dream year has taken a dark turn. Gallup’s brother committed suicide last weekend. Although he has yet to reach out, Newton said his heart goes out to his former camper.
“My heart just drops just even thinking about it, because I know him,” Newton said. “I had an opportunity to see what he was capable of then, and now for that to happen — I’m big on personal space and when the time’s right, it’ll be time for me to reach out to him.”
Newton hosts several community service events through his foundation each year, including his annual Thanksgiving Jam, which this year fed 1,200 underprivileged children and sent them home with a Thanksgiving meal to cook later in the week.
But it’s his 7-on-7 football tournaments that Newton believes has the biggest effect on kids’ lives. They provide a chance for him to interact with and become more than a name to teenagers with their eyes on a bright future.
Teenagers such as Michael Gallup.
“I try to do things that I’m passionate about. I use the game of football to lure a lot of people to my foundation,” Newton said. “My biggest impact, I want to say, is the Thanksgiving Jams or the Christmas with Cams, but my biggest impacts is my 7-on-7 all-star teams, because I have more of a latched-on relationship with them.
“I’m at practice, they get to talk to me then, we go on college tours, they get to talk to me and be around me then.
“It gets to a point where they don’t see Cam Newton as the NFL star, they just see me as the joking coach or big brother or person that’s just around trying to help them get to the next level.”
Gallup got a firsthand taste of Newton’s dedication to his pupils back in Week 1, when the Cowboys played the Panthers in Charlotte.
The former NFL MVP approached the rookie before the game, only slightly less of a surprise to Gallup as what Newton did after the game.
“I didn’t really think he was going to remember me like that,” Gallup told Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News. “But he did. After the game, he found me again and he said give me your jersey and I’m going to send you mine.”
Newton generally doesn’t exchange jerseys with players but couldn’t help himself after seeing the culmination of Gallup’s four-year journey from camper to NFL player.
“It’s deeper than just football. We really have good relationships with people and everybody from Michael Gallup’s year to Deshaun (Watson’s) year to this past year that just left know I don’t need nothing from you,” Newton said. “I just want to see you get to where I am and when you get there, you do the same things that I’m doing and giving back.”
Cam’s father, Cecil, instilled that mentality in his son, and Panthers coach Ron Rivera said it’s an area in which his quarterback has matured during an eight-year pro career.
“That’s probably the biggest thing you’ve seen him grow in, more so than anything else,” Rivera said. “As a young man he understands his significance and importance in his community. It’s one of the things we talk about in this organization, is how important it is to give back.”