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Man of Steal

Cam Newton is very good at playing quarterback in the NFL. He’s also exceptionally gifted at finding, and joining, random pickup basketball games, flag football showdowns, and beach volleyball contests.

Ryan Simpson
Ryan Simpson

On a Saturday in July 2015, Cam Newton walked past a flag football game in Atlanta and yelled: “It’s hot!” Newton wasn’t shouting to anyone in particular, because he didn’t know any of the players on the field. As he later explained to some of the pigskin participants, he was in Mozley Park visiting friends.

But a team from Greensboro, North Carolina, that was in town for the Fallen Warriors tournament recognized the Carolina Panthers quarterback and asked Newton if he would like to sit under their tent to escape the heat, which had topped 90 degrees. Newton shocked the members of the squad, named AthElites, by taking them up on their offer, then stunned them further by asking if they needed an extra player.

And then Newton joined the group of 20- and 30-somethings for some recreational flag football.

“We gave him an opportunity to play quarterback,” said Franklin Terry, one of the AthElites members. “But he said he didn’t want to take away from the team, so he’d just play wide receiver.”

Newton caught a few fade passes with ease (he is 6-foot-5, after all) and was, Terry said, “the world’s greatest hype man.” When one player took a screen pass and ran for a huge gain, Newton was elated, screaming: “Without a block!? He did that without a block!?” He was, Terry claimed, more excited for AthElites’ scores than regular members of the team.

Newton contributed beyond hauling in passes and cheerleading: Terry recalled the former no. 1 overall NFL draft pick asking a snow cone vendor how much he usually makes in a day, then buying him out and handing the snow cones to players and bystanders in the park. Between the two games in which Newton participated, he briefly left to fetch restorative Pedialyte for the whole AthElites team. It was all, to put it mildly, completely insane.

“At first I thought it was an elaborate joke,” Terry said.

It wasn’t. In fact, for the 2015 NFL MVP and one of the most famous football players alive, impromptu participation in amateur sporting events has become shockingly common. Newton, who declined to comment for this article, has developed a quiet habit of stopping by just about any game, unannounced and unexpectedly, when time allows. His Panthers teammates, whom he sometimes includes in his endeavors, say it’s always spontaneous. He’ll see a game and feel compelled to join.

“I was at a [charity] event in the summer and some parents came up to me and said, ‘My kid was at school and Cam jumped the fence and played football with the kids,’” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “People will come up to me and say, ‘My kid was having a birthday party and Cam walked by and threw the football.’ I was in Chicago when Michael Jordan was around and there were always stories about him driving around, stopping at the playground and playing — and like with Cam, it’s because they love competition.”

Rivera praised Newton’s competitive spirit and eagerness to hang out with fans. “It’s him,” the coach said. But he also admitted that the increased physical activity for his star concerns him.

“Yes, it does,” Rivera said. “Cam is so competitive, you don’t want to see him get hurt.”

Language prohibiting players from putting themselves in harm’s way through off-field activities is common in NFL contracts, but to date has not inhibited Newton’s adventures. While Rivera has hesitations, he doesn’t seem inclined to actively discourage Newton’s tendencies since they’re part of the quarterback’s “love of the game. That’s just who he is.”

Newton’s thirst for friendly, non-NFL competition isn’t confined to the flag football field. He trains in Baltimore in the offseason because his main sponsor, Under Armour, calls the city home. In July of this year, Newton and his Carolina teammates who were in Maryland to work out with Newton stunned those playing at the beach volleyball courts in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Panthers practice squad receiver Damiere Byrd, one of the handful of teammates Newton invited to train with him that week, said the Carolina crew was looking for something to do after a football workout. They drove by the courts, Newton yelled “Let’s play volleyball!” and the decision was made.

According to multiple volleyball players who were present at the time, Newton walked around the courts and met just about everyone there. He apparently told one player, Eric George, that he looked like Michael Phelps. He then approached Kevin Lynch, a 35-year-old who works in video production. Lynch and his wife had brought their newborn to the courts for the first time, and Newton “looked like he wanted to hold our baby,” Lynch said. “So I said, ‘Uh, want to hold our baby?’ and he said yes.” Lynch said that Newton held Lucas, then 6 months old, for about a minute, telling the crowd that he had a baby around the same age, but about 10 pounds heavier. Newton then shifted his focus to the actual volleyball, while his Panthers teammates dispersed to different courts and took photos with the local players.

In trademark fashion, Newton found out who was in charge and asked if he could play, then joined a two-on-two game. Newton must have enjoyed himself, because he came back the next night. He played for a few hours and was, according to his competitors that night, comically respectful of the sport, obeying normal substitution patterns to ensure that everyone got to play, and trying to use sound volleyball technique. (Lynch estimated that, despite Newton’s best efforts, Ted Ginn Jr. was the top volleyball player on the Panthers.) All of this, Baltimore’s volleyball players said, seemed like laid-back fun at first. And then:

Larrissa Gunn, a 28-year-old health and education teacher in Montgomery County, blocked Newton. “It was surreal,” Gunn, a huge football fan, said. “I couldn’t stop saying ‘What the heck is happening?’ Even on the drive home.” Newton laughed at the block in the moment, but later events revealed that he was salty. Gunn said that when Newton blocked her later in the match, he yelled “It doesn’t feel so good, does it?” She replied “You still got blocked by a girl,” which got the crowd roaring. Gunn recalled a sheepish Newton replying with “That’s fair.”

“You can tell he’s very, very into winning,” Gunn said.

Moments like this no longer surprise anyone on the Panthers. Newton likes competing in everything he can and, his teammates say, he likes being as random as possible. Carolina’s backup quarterback Derek Anderson laughed when recalling the time last fall that Newton rode his hoverboard through a Charlotte YMCA just to get a reaction. Mostly, though, Newton just wants to play sports.

“He’s just a kid,” said Byrd, who has played volleyball and basketball with Newton in random, public places following their summer workout sessions. “It’s not just ‘I’m going to show up for these people to see it.’ It’s that he really, really just wants to play.”

Mimi Siadak, a language arts and social studies middle school teacher at Community School of Davidson in North Carolina, said that Newton made a guest appearance at recess this spring. “I’m Cam Newton, would you mind if I jump the fence and come play football with your kids?” she remembered him asking.

Siadak said Newton did an “actual barrel roll” over the fence and grabbed a football that the kids were using. He was mobbed so quickly that regaining enough order to organize a game was out of the question; instead, the kids and Newton played an informal game of catch. “Every kid was screaming, just trying to get a word in,” Siadak said. “There’s a girl in class, Lauren, who is Cam Newton’s biggest fan, and when we had to go back to class, she had tears coming down her face and she kept saying ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’”

Though football is his greatest talent, basketball is the sport Newton most frequently joins in pickup settings, Anderson said. “We had an intern last year from Auburn,” Rivera recalled. “And he comes back from the summer last year and says ‘Hey, I saw Cam playing pickup basketball with students for three hours,’ and I said, ‘Three hours?’ and he said, ‘Three hours!’ You hear this stuff all the time.”

Auburn’s campus has seen plenty of Cam’s crashing. In the spring of 2013, Stephen Liu, then an Auburn student and now a dental student at Alabama-Birmingham, arrived at a gym before an intramural hoops game in order to warm up. “I saw a group of people gathering around one of the courts,” Liu said. “Everyone has their phones out and I heard people say ‘It’s Cam!’”

“People were trying to keep their cool about it but everyone was clearly excited,” Liu said. “His demeanor was very playful but competitive.”

In the summer of 2015, Newton used the gym at Towson University in Maryland for post-football-workout pickup hoops games. Word quickly spread that he was on campus, Byrd said, and students joined in. Byrd said folks rarely go easy on Newton, the Panthers’ best asset. They’ll foul him just like anyone else. “It’s not like he’s the president,” Byrd joked.

Teammates offer varying scouting reports on Newton’s basketball abilities. Anderson said Newton can’t shoot; Byrd said the quarterback spends most of the game in the post “trying to be a finesse player.”

Newton’s other backup, Joe Webb, who has played volleyball and hoops with Newton, said that the best part of witnessing Newton’s happenstance outings is seeing everyone’s face when Newton decides to play a pickup game.

It might be common for Newton. But “it’s the last thing in the world,” Webb said, “any person expects to see.”