North Carolina is known for its sports—heated college-basketball rivalries, NASCAR, Durham Bulls baseball—and, at least traditionally, for its tobacco. These seemingly incongruous traits of the Tar Heel State intersected a few years back, when the University of North Carolina legend and Charlotte Hornets chairman Michael Jordan met Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and gifted him a cigar. There was only one problem: At the time, Newton had never smoked a cigar. “Since then, I’ve looked from top to bottom at cigars, the cigar industry, and who smokes them, and he’s at the top,” Newton says. “One of the things on my bucket list is to smoke a cigar with Michael Jordan.”
Fast-forward to 2019, and Newton—now a full-fledged cigar connoisseur—has the perfect place to host the occasion. Earlier this year, he and his brother, former NFL player Cecil Newton Jr., opened a cigar bar, lounge, and restaurant in their hometown of Atlanta. Dubbed Fellaship—more on that later—the venue debuted in time for the city’s hosting of Super Bowl LIII (it sits just a few blocks from Mercedes-Benz Stadium) before having its official grand opening in May.
With its nondescript exterior and velvet rope at the door, Fellaship from the outside looks more like a nightclub than an upscale restaurant and cigar lounge. Inside, the expansive ground floor is divided into two sections, with one containing the whiskey-and-wine-centric bar and a glass-walled, walk-in humidor with about 100 selections. The other half houses a library, complete with a rolling ladder and shelves stacked high with leather-bound books. Upstairs, there’s a half-floor loft, containing a VIP and members’ lounge with its own small bar and private rooms. Throughout the space, contemporary leather furnishings, custom globe lighting, a zinc-plated bar, and selections from Newton’s art collection help set a sophisticated vibe.
“Everything you see, top to bottom, is either me or my brother,” says Newton, whose fingerprint is indeed all over Fellaship. Just as he earnestly studies tapes before games, he analyzed details of cigar bars and cocktail lounges as he traveled the nation playing football. “I went to New York, to California, and to Miami—that’s a hot market for cigar bars,” he says. “I’d look at the ambience, what was going on, and think, ‘If you close your eyes and take a mental snapshot, what would you like, and what would you remember?’”
(Photos by Marc Serota)
Fellaship is in many ways a peek into Newton’s mind. It reflects his personal passions, from art collecting and fashion to his favorite color (blue) and, of course, cigars. You can catch a game on TV, but otherwise there’s nary a whiff of sports-bar kitsch—the closest thing being a framed black-and-white photo of Muhammad Ali. And while it will satisfy steak lovers, the menu has plenty of options for its owner, who is a devoted vegan. The upscale-casual dress code is also in line with the tastes of a famously fashionable man who has a new custom suit and hat made for every single game day during season. Some of the headwear that he has collaborated on with Los Angeles–based hatmaker Alberto Hernandez is highlighted in glass cases at Fellaship, displayed how another athlete might show off his trophies.
Fellaship’s focus on fashion, cigars, and sophistication, rather than sports, is in keeping with the compartmentalization of Newton’s life. “My kids need attention—that’s my life,” he explains. “Football is my profession. Cigars are my refuge.”
Refuge, relax, escape, even therapeutic. These are words that come up over and over again when Newton describes his passion for cigars. And as one of the more high-profile—and controversial—people in the world of sports, he has often needed a refuge.
In college, an academic scandal at the University of Florida led to Newton transferring to Auburn, where he subsequently won a national championship and the Heisman Trophy. In the NFL, he shattered several long-standing records during his Rookie of the Year season in 2011, and he earned the MVP award while leading his team to Super Bowl 50 in 2015. Still, his perceived selfishness and cockiness have made him a target of criticism throughout his career. In 2017, his sexist locker-room comment to a female reporter was universally condemned and led to him losing an endorsement deal with Dannon Oikos.
More recently, Newton sat out the final two games of 2018 with a shoulder injury that required surgery and a lengthy rehab. As he enters the 2019 season, the 30-year-old quarterback will no doubt be under the magnifying glass of the media and fans, who will be pondering and prognosticating whether he can rediscover his MVP form. It’s at times like this that he turns to his mantra, “Shine through the shade,” a saying that he represents with a custom neon “Shine” sculpture at Fellaship—and that serves as a reminder to persevere and overcome.
Newton’s primary source of strength and support is his family. He and his brother named Fellaship in honor of their father, a preacher with a small Atlanta church who used to wake the boys each Sunday for services. “We are sons of a preacher, a bishop,” says Newton. “When we were thinking of names, we wanted something that derived from our roots, from church, from people coming together. When you think about coming together, what is that? It’s fellowship.”
“We have a spiritual background,” adds Newton Jr. “When our father would wake us for church, he would say, ‘It’s time for fellowship.’”
(Photos by Austin Aronsson)
True to its name, Fellaship thus far has been a place for people to gather. The disparate scene is a welcoming one, with customers eating, drinking, smoking, working on laptops, and, most of all, talking. The venue, unlike many cigar lounges, is attracting a good number of women, who have been coming in small groups with regularity to enjoy a smoke and glass of wine or craft cocktail.
“Smoking cigars is an old tradition, but at Fellaship we are trying to modernize that,” Newton says. “It was a long process, but we finally got it.”
For Newton, the process was driven by his passion for cigars. “It’s more than a hobby. There’s a lot that goes into it, and whether it’s a five-dollar cigar or a 50-dollar cigar, you need to do your research and figure out what you like,” he says. “All of my investments have the same thing in common: I have to be attached to it—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I don’t just put money in.”
After putting a “significant investment” into their Atlanta lounge, the Newton brothers are now looking at what’s next. Newton won’t say where—he evades the question like he has sidestepped so many linebackers over the years—but his intentions are clear. “Since we opened, we’ve been getting great reviews, and we’ve put ourselves in a great position to open additional locations,” he says. “But right now, we’re still learning the blueprint for Fellaship, the ins and outs of what people want.”
Meanwhile, what Newton wants is for a fellow North Carolina sports legend to stop by for a smoke.