The lights go low, smoke pours, drums play and out of the giant Carolina Panther head runs quarterback Cam Newton.
A disclaimer: If you want to read about turnovers, towels, sacks, scrambles or a perceived absence of leadership, this is not the column for you.
Newton on Tuesday is different than Ive seen him, and Ive seen him in games, in locker rooms, behind lecterns, at practice, in a golf cart, at training camp, at Auburn and, when his clothing line was introduced, at Belks.
The reason for Tuesdays festivities is a $150,000 gift from the Cam Newton Foundation to three Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Bradley Middle School in Huntersville, Thomasboro Academy and Randolph Middle School in Charlotte each received $50,000.
The money is theirs to apply. Newton says he wants to develop a relationship with the schools and see how the kids are doing.
The principals know the money is coming. Almost nobody else in the gym does.
About 450 middle-school students from the three schools cram into the bleachers in the Randolph Middle School gym. When students see Newton they yell and scream. A few no longer can sit and they run to Newton, who is only a few yards away. Then a few more do. Then hes engulfed.
As PR representatives wince, Newton moves not away from the kids but into the crowd.
Its not something I was forced to do, Newton, 23, tells me later. I wanted to do that.
The Panthers prepared a script. Newton will talk for five to 10 minutes, some of it answering questions from radio play-by-play man Mick Mixon.
Newton has his own script, although he consults it only when he calls out an award-winning student by name. He talks about 30 minutes, the microphone in his right hand an extension of his arm.
Casual Cam in jeans, a sweat-suit jacket and sneakers, Newton works the room like a comedian. He shakes his head, looks up and looks down, strides and circles.
He talks to the football teams at Bradley and Randolph, inviting the quarterback of each to join him on the floor.
He also praises the National Junior Honor Society. And when he deems the response insufficient, he demands more applause. In a just world, honor societies would receive more applause.
Hes not morose, hes not forlorn and he says each and every only once. This is not the guy we see in the locker room.
Its just life, man, Newton says later as he sits atop a students desk in the schools health education science lab, the walls of which feature slogans such as Be a Team Player, Be Able to Ignore Unkind Words and Get the Facts about Media Influence.
You come to grips with whats important I want to continually let my impact grow on this community, Newton says.
Newton paces the gym floor, the six baskets and backboards folded up on the ceiling, superintendent of schools Heath Morrison in a chair at courtside. Newton calls academic, science and Special Olympic award winners down from the bleachers, asks questions, tells jokes, and when he finishes tells them to sit on down, sit, sit, sit.
He asks what they want to be when they grow up.
A vet, one student says. A doctor, says another. A football coach, says a third.
Wonderful, says Newton. But you cant be any of these things if you dont stay in school. He says that when he was in middle school (outside Atlanta) his favorite subject was math.
Newton invokes Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, Rhianna, Steve Smith, Justin Bieber (a few boos), President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. What do they have in common? They worked to attain what they have.
Ignore education and your opportunities are limited, Newton says. Get an education and theyre limitless.
Still moving, still pacing and still covering ground, Newton seemingly makes eye contact with every student in the bleachers.
I know theres a lot of talent going unnoticed, Newton says later from the science lab. Whether its singing or playing a particular sport or kids that might be geniuses, kids might be scared to come out of their shell.
I want to make it cool to be smart. Make it cool to show yourself and show people who you really are.