Richardson's name comes with respect

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Jerry Richardson calls almost every one of his employees by a different nickname that has some deep, personal meaning.

Around the offices and in the locker room of Bank of America Stadium, there are favorite Richardson names like "Opie," "Waffle House," "Crash" and dozens of others. Around the offices and in the locker room of Bank of America Stadium, there's only one name for the owner of the Carolina Panthers.

Mr. Richardson.

It's not because he signs the paychecks. It's because that's the kind of respect the man commands. Inside the building and outside it. Throughout the Carolinas and throughout the National Football League.

Yeah, there might be a few exceptions, such as wife Rosalind, some other franchise owners and boyhood friends who call him Jerry. After all, that's how he introduces himself on the telephone and what he tells others to call him.

"Yeah, but how could you possibly call him Jerry?" said Atlanta Falcons communications coordinator Ted Crews, who used to work for the Panthers. "Mr. Richardson is just one of those people who just epitomizes why you use the word 'Mister.' He's so filled with class and has such a presence about him. When he's in the building, you just know he's there."

That's a common view for all who know Richardson. But the irony is the man who did more than anyone to make Charlotte a major league location isn't even certain he'll be in the building for one of the biggest sports events in the city's history.

Richardson, 72, had been having health problems throughout the fall and doctors found major issues with his heart. He has been placed on a list for a heart transplant and is awaiting a donor. Richardson has been working an abbreviated schedule, mostly over the phone from home in recent weeks, and trips outside the house depend on how he's feeling from day to day.

That's why the Panthers are saying only that Richardson is "hopeful" of attending Saturday night's playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals. It's only the third home playoff game in the history of the franchise -- a franchise Richardson brought to the Carolinas.

If you don't know the history on that, we're going with the nutshell version because there's a lot more to tell about Richardson that deserves some significant space.

Back in the late 1950s, Richardson played wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts for a couple of seasons. He caught a few passes from Johnny Unitas, took his money and started a hamburger joint that grew into Hardees and a few other restaurant chains. In the 1980s, he started lobbying the NFL for an expansion franchise in Charlotte. He got his wish, and the Panthers started play as an expansion team in 1995 -- going with Carolina in the team name because Richardson wanted North Carolina and South Carolina involved. There have been ups and downs, but the Panthers have built a dedicated fan base and are hoping to top off one of the best seasons in franchise history.

In a paragraph, that's Richardson's legend. But that doesn't come close to touching what the man is all about. Richardson is one of the most unique owners in sports and it's not just because he played the game and can relate to players.

In league meetings, Richardson has often been the bridge between the old and the new. He's got the charm to bring Dan Rooney and Dan Snyder, and everyone else in between, to common ground.

Dealing with players and owners is a necessary skill, but Richardson takes it beyond that. He relates to fans -- before most home games in Carolina history, Richardson has driven around the stadium in a golf cart or Jeep, mingling with fans. He relates to the media -- calling a beat writer or columnist a couple times a year to go to lunch and asking what the Panthers could do better.

Lunch is a big thing with Richardson, and the people who work for him know that if the owner strolls by their desk at 11:45 a.m. and asks what they're doing for lunch, they've got an invitation (one you don't decline) to go to Art's, a local greasy spoon. For the next hour, they're going to get quizzed about their families, about their jobs and they're going to hear Richardson's thoughts on football, the salary cap or whatever is on his mind.

"From John Coleman [the security guard who works the front desk at the team's offices] to [Pro Bowl defensive end] Julius Peppers, Mr. Richardson knows everyone in that building, all about their family, what their role with the team is and why it's important," Crews said. "He doesn't tell you to go out and do a good job. Just by being Mr. Richardson, he makes you want to go out and do a good job."

Richardson's a common man in owner's clothing. That's what makes him so special. That's what makes him so real.

He speaks with a strong southern drawl and carries himself with the uncommon grace of a 6-foot-4 former NFL receiver who also reached the highest levels of the business world. He also can crack a joke with the best of them or make even a big-name player, who gets in trouble off the field, sweat. But Richardson also can get a little flustered on the rare occasions he'll agree to speak at a news conference.

That, perhaps, might be the best of Richardson's traits. He doesn't run around seeking attention or thumping his chest and telling you how good he is. He doesn't have to. It's obvious.

He'll repeatedly tell you to call him Jerry. But you just automatically have to call him Mr. Richardson.