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How Cam Newton's childhood punishment opened his eyes to the world

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Much of the offseason focus on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been (1:06)

Much of the offseason focus on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been on his right shoulder that underwent arthroscopic surgery in late January. Newton is optimistic he will be ready for the season, but beyond his rehab he is focused on his second annual ''Un1ted as 1'' program for Charlotte Mecklenburg County kids. The program's focus is on diversity and how ''difference is OK.'' It is Newton's brainchild and his message goes back to the fiber of his upbringing without diversity. Video by David Newton (1:06)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton had been warned. Misbehave in sixth-grade math once more, and there’d be a price to pay after what Jackie Newton called many “undesirable parent-teacher conferences."

Not your typical punishment, either. The future NFL MVP would have to wear church clothes to school.

Sure enough, the call came.

What began as a punishment turned into a life-changing moment for Newton, the Carolina Panthers' 29-year-old quarterback.

Having to wear a white, button-down shirt, slacks and dress shoes to school instead of sneakers and jeans made Newton stand out to the point that other kids picked on him. It was his first real experience in what it was like to be different.

“It feels like the joke was on me because he ended up liking it," Jackie Newton said. “It opened up his mind."

Now Cam Newton is a champion for diversity through his Un1ted As 1 program, which kicked off its second year last week, when Newton recalled the punishment that led to his mantra: “Uniquely you, uniquely me."

Yes, there’s more to Newton’s offseason than rehabbing his right shoulder, which in late January required surgery for the second time in three years. Not that the shoulder doesn’t warrant a lot of attention -- the moderator of Newton’s Un1ted As 1 kickoff started a Q&A session in front of a group of Charlotte Mecklenburg County middle-school kids by asking what most Carolina fans want to know.

“How’s the shoulder?" she asked.

Newton gave an almost bashful “it’s all right" reply, then shared his concerns about the shoulder before the arthroscopic procedure started showing positive results that have him more confident than ever that he’ll be ready for the season.

“I know it was a lot of things said, 'Cam's not going to play this year,'" Newton said. “Don't believe that. I’m for sure [going to play]."

Then the focus returned to Newton’s passion for making today’s youth aware of diversity and everything that surrounds it, things he wasn’t aware of growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood and school in Atlanta.

“When I looked around at my school in the sixth, seventh grade, all I saw was African-Americans," Newton said. “That’s it. ... The first time I ever dabbled in knowing or understanding other cultures was in college. ... I was 17 years old.

“Think about it."

Fashion to activism

Jackie Newton can’t say for sure that her son’s punishment is why he dares to be unique in his style today, a style that has been described as brash, boastful and insane, with an occasional faux paus that even the quarterback can’t deny.

But she knows for sure that having to wear church clothes to school had an impact on her son and helped make him an advocate for social activism and diversity.

It all came together in Un1ted As 1, Newton’s brainchild that has become the centerpiece of his foundation. Just as Newton is unique, so is the program that teaches kids how to better work together, embrace diversity, solve problems and learn how to understand their power in having an impact on social change.

Thirty-two youth, most around age 14, were selected to participate in this year’s program that began with Tuesday’s kickoff and will continue March 30 and 31 with programs that include discussions on issues in today’s society.

Newton picked this age because it is a time when many kids begin forming the ideas and opinions they carry into adulthood.

“I used the analogy earlier about us all being sponges," Newton said. “At that age, you start getting different funny feelings about certain people. Your curiosity goes up. What is this, mom? What is that? Sneakiness.

“We just want to attack that age because the earlier we can get them, it’s that happy medium where you can touch on subjects that are somewhat sensitive, but we try to nuke it down so they can digest it."

Newton didn’t talk much about diversity when he first entered the league. His offseason projects focused on his 7-on-7 football tournament and charity kickball tournament. He still is heavily involved in both, but the Un1ted As 1 program has taken on a bigger platform, with social activism becoming more popular among NFL players.

“Creating this was something I didn’t have, and I would love to have been a part of any type of initiative that gave me diversion and some kind of diversity to a lot of cultural issues," Newton said. “I really was illiterate to the fact of how other people thought because that wasn’t something I was privy to."

"It feels like the joke was on me because he ended up liking it. It opened up his mind."
Jackie Newton, on making her son wear church clothes to school

College curiosity

Newton’s first real foray into diversity came when he was a freshman at the University of Florida, where he stayed for two years before his arrest for stealing a laptop led him to Binn College and then Auburn. It was the first time he had been around so many different cultures and races.

“Particularly when he went to Auburn, he started observing people and seeing how other people are different," Jackie Newton said of her son’s final year in college, when he won a national championship and the Heisman Trophy in 2010.

“It provoked him to ask, ‘Why don’t we know more about what this culture is doing, that culture is doing?’ He became curious and embraced everybody. So what if you wear blue hair or whatever? More importantly, embrace the person and not just what that person has on."

When Cam returned to Auburn after several years in the NFL to complete his degree, he was in a sociology class when a professor asked the class to remember their first experiences with people of different races. His answer went beyond football, where he has to depend on teammates of different colors and backgrounds to perform.

“So just imagine for 17 years of your life, you’ve never been in regular contact with a Caucasian," Newton said. “The only thing you seen was black. So just imagine how skewed you were to speak. You don’t know how to talk to them. You don’t know how to relate. You don’t know what makes them laugh.

“That’s what really kind of morphed me into, you know, sparking curiosity."

What do people see?

One 14-year-old wasn’t subtle during the Q&A session.

“How do you want people to see you?" he asked the 2015 NFL MVP.

Newton didn’t hesitate, sharing that he always kneels by one of the goal posts before games and prays that people see the “joy" with which he plays.

“I see different players. I’m like, ‘Why does he look so angry and mad?’" Newton said. “When you get an opportunity to show your gift to the world, I want people to see that. I want people to say, ‘He always smiling.’"

Newton makes it no secret that he hates to lose. But he no longer hides his frustration under a towel on the sideline or hoodie in a news conference, as he memorably did after the Panthers' Super Bowl 50. He doesn’t go into what he has called his “dark, dark side." Having four children, including one at that middle-school age, has made him more aware of the impact his actions have on kids.

“I’ve been playing this game since I was 7 years old," Newton said. “That same person and childlike energy taking the field is the same, and I want people to see it."

Football is the platform

In his latest YouTube video, Newton shared that he has hired a full-time person to help rehab the shoulder, with sessions two to three times a day. He has also gone to a vegan diet to get his weight down to 232 pounds, about 10 pounds lighter than he was a year ago.

“Without my shoulder, I’m pretty much done," he said.

Newton feels far from done. There was a confidence in his voice when he talked to the kids that went beyond feeling good about his shoulder.

Newton has come a long way since that sixth-grader was made to wear church clothes to school. His identity has gone beyond football, and he says he is a “businessman way more than I am football player."

“So you have to kind of put yourself in the position where you at least know about things," said Newton, who recently opened a cigar lounge/restaurant in Atlanta. “That’s extremely important, especially in this day and time, when diversity is everywhere."

His punishment became a statement.

“Difference is OK," Newton said. “... It’s all about self-value. No matter how weird you may come off to somebody else or how you look or what makes you different from others, it’s the same things that makes you yourself.

“Not pushing it away or alienating yourself but more so embracing that and building on it."