The past week has not been an easy one for the residents of North and South Carolina as they prepared for the impact of Hurricane Florence. While residents further inland worried about having extra water and if power lines would sustain the high winds, those who live farther east were making plans to evacuate their homes and leave everything behind. One of those families, Joe and Grayson Marlette and their 10-year-old son, Richie, were one of those families. They live in Newport, N.C., just a five-minute drive from Morehead City right along the coastline.
They're all huge Panthers fans and had made plans a year ago to see their favorite team play the Falcons in Atlanta on Sunday. This year's game was going to be extra special with Richie's 11th birthday coming on September 20.
But a week before the game, the threat of a category five hurricane hitting the Carolina coast was becoming more and more of a reality. On Wednesday the family made the hard decision to evacuate for their own safety. And in an attempt to salvage their son's birthday, they also made the decision to head to Atlanta for the Panthers game.
"Before the game on Sunday, I will be honest, I did not really want to go," Mrs. Marlette said in an email. "So many people are suffering and it did not seem right that I was attending a fun event. However, I wanted to give Richie a little bit of fun on his birthday weekend and I wanted to give him a little bit of normalcy before heading home to the horrible scene we were to face. So we went with my parents and Joe and I decided that we would try to put things aside for the duration of the game and just have fun."
Before the game, one of our team videographers had seen a couple of Panthers fans in the front row of one of the end zones in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, holding a sign indicating they were from Eastern N.C. and had been impacted by the hurricane. He pointed them out to me knowing they could wind up being the fitting recipients of a Cam Newton "Sunday giveaway."
Sometimes you plan for moments hoping they happen and often times they do not. However, in the second quarter on a short pass over the middle to wide receiver Jarius Wright, the Panthers scored a touchdown. Quarterback Cam Newton retrieved the football from Wright and as he walked toward the end zone he started to remove a Carolina Panthers Lokai bracelet from underneath his wristbands. He headed straight to Richie and handed him the football, then the bracelet.
In the photos you can see pure joy in the faces of Richie and his father, while his mother in the row behind them, overcome with emotion, covering her tears with her hands.
These photos are not extraordinary in that they show a mind-boggling one-handed catch in mid-air or a ribcage-rattling tackle, but because they show how the smallest acts of humanity can make an enormous and lasting impact on others. The enormity of this moment is best summed up by Richie's mother as she describes how meaningful that gesture was to her family:
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think Richie's biggest dream of a football from Cam Newton would come true!! When it happened, I broke down in tears!" she wrote. "Cam had no idea that it was his birthday, or that his best friend couldn't be there because of the hurricane. Cam had no idea that we had cancelled the trip twice before deciding to finally go. And Cam had no idea what this football means to all of us in Eastern N.C. We are taking this football back as a football of HOPE for all of us!!!! We will KEEP POUNDING! We will rebuild and we will be stronger."