The Panthers are one win away from their first Super Bowl in franchise history. This will be their second appearance in football’s biggest game, but the promise given to Carolina fans by their new football team’s owner in 1993 is long overdue.
When Carolina was awarded an expansion franchise in 1993, Jerry Richardson promised fans the team would win a Super Bowl in their first ten years. He might be a little late, but Richardson has always been a man of his word. He’s been a man of principle thorough his NFL career, which started with catching rides to practice from Johnny Unitas.
Here’s what you need to know about Panthers owner Jerry Richardson:
1. Richardson Is One of Two Former NFL Players to Own a Team
Along with George Halas of the Bears, Richardson is the only former NFL player to eventually own a franchise. After playing football growing up in Fayettevillle, North Carolina, Richardson earned a scholarship to play football at Wofford University. In 1957, in an era when the forward pass was still used sparingly, Richardson set the school’s single-game record with 241 receiving yards. The record still stands today.
His pass-catching prowess led him to Baltimore, after the Colts selected him in the 13-round in the NFL Draft. With experience in a passing offense, Richardson became a trusted target of Jonnhy Unitas in the preseason. Unitas would drive him to and from practice every day, and fed Richardson the ball often. Richardson would be the last receiver added to the Colts roster in 1959, lining up in the slot next to future Hall of Famer Raymond Berry.
In the 1959 NFL Championship, Unitas looked to Richardson for a 12-yard touchdown pass. The Colts went on to win 31-16, and Richardson’s reward for the victory would eventually lead to the birth of the Carolina Panthers.
2. Used His Bonus From the 1959 NFL Championship Game to Found the First Hardee’s Franchise
Two years after that game Richardson walked away from the NFL. It was over a contract dispute, and Richardson headed back to his college stomping grounds of Spartanburg, South Carolina. For winning the 1959 title, Richardson was awarded a check of $4,674. With that money he and his college quarterback Charles Bradshaw opened the first Hardee’s restaurant in Spartanburg.
Hardee’s would be the launchpad for Richardson’s foodservice empire. The company grew to control multiple brands and over 3,000 restaurants, making Richardson a very wealthy man. Today, his net worth is just over $1 billion.
3. He Is Legendary For His Hands-On Approach & Close Relationships With Employees
Richardson doesn’t have a great reputation for smiling, but is well-known for taking care of his employees. At Hardee’s, he was known to show up at restaurant locations just to flip burgers or take out the trash. In Carolina, players marvel at his hands-on approach.
“I came from San Diego where you barely talk to the owner,” said Mike Tolbert, in his fourth season with Carolina. “I talk to [Richardson] three, four times a week. It’s just who he is. He cares about us a people, as well as players. It is not all about the dollar figure to him, it is about winning and that’s what we are trying to do.”
“Mr. Richardson knows his guys, said Ricky Proehl, the team’s receivers coach. “He loves them and cares about them. It shows, because of the way these guys talk about Mr. Richardson, how bad they want to win for him.”
He’s not only personable, he’s loyal. In Ron Rivera’s third season, the Panthers coach was facing hot water for their previous struggles and 1-3 start. Richardson assured Rivera that his job was safe, and let the coaching staff work without the fear of an axe over their heads. Another notable case is Thomas Davis, the 11-yaear veeran who has spent his whole career with the Panthers. That career has included three ACL surgeries, but Richardson has always stuck by his player. Richardson was among the first to check on Davis during the NFC Championship, and now Davis is determined to repay his boss on Sunday.
“As a football player who’s been given so much, it’s something that you want to do for him,” Davis said. “I want to be a part of the team that was able to give him that trophy and put a ring on his finger.”
4. Richardson Fired His Two Sons From the Panthers After Returning From a Heart Transplant
In 2009, Richardson, aged 72 at the time, underwent a five-hour procedure to replace his heart in 2009. He had undergone quadruple bypass surgery in 2002, but was now back to full strength. The changes he would then make would change his franchise forever.
While his health was in doubt, Richardson’s sons had major roles in the Panthers organization. The brothers were reportedly disagreeing as to how the team should be run, and Richardson settled the dispute when he was healthy enough to return to the job.
He cut them out of the Panthers, and had them both resign. It made sense for Jon Richardson, who was battling cancer while working as president of Bank of America Stadium. He passed away in 2013 at age 53. But it was toughter for Mark, who was the team president and groomed to be his father’s replacement. But now, Richardson has made it clear that there will be no replacements for the man they call Big Cat.
“My dad has already announced that when he passes, the team is going to be sold. That’s what is going to happen,” said Mark. I have accepted that, so I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it being different from that. I’m peaceful, and happy, and content, and enjoying the ride they have been on.”
5. Richardson Told Other Owners to ‘Take Back Our League’ During the 2011 Lockout
After joining the ranks of NFL owners in 1993, Richardson quickly became one of the league’s most respected owners. And when CBA negotiaions threatened the 2011 season, Richardson was adamant about the owners putting up a strong front. At an owner’s meeting to discuss the situation, one witness recalled Richardson giving the other owners a major pep-talk.
“Jerry said, ‘We signed a [expletive] deal last time, and we’re going to stick together and take back our league and [expletive] do something about it.’ He was practically yelling. It was amazing, and it set an incredible tone.”
His involvement in the 2011 lockout was not without controversy. Deadspin later reported that while Richardson said the Panthers were struggling financially, documents obtained by the site told a different story. you can view the documents, as well as read a response from the Panthers here.
Later in labor talks, Giants co-owner John Mara would turn to Richardson and say, “I don’t know whose heart you got, but that had to be a tough son-of-a-bitch.”
But after everything, the tough exterior of Richardson always melts away to reveal a more loving person. When Mara’s father Wellington was dying in 2005, Richardson was a constant bedside visitor. After Mara’s mother died, Richardson wrote Mara a note: “When I first came into the league, your parents said they were going to watch over me. Now that they are gone, I am going to watch over you.”