Panthers owner Richardson gets support
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó When your resume includes catching the decisive touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas to win the NFL championship, you earn instant respect from your players.
When you quickly gain the trust of the commissioner and your fellow owners, you become one of the most respected figures in the league.
So it’s no surprise that, as word spread that Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is in need of a heart transplant, there was an immediate outpouring of support from across the NFL.
“Many players are close to him on this football team,” Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said Thursday. “Closer than many people could possibly imagine.”
The team announced Wednesday that Richardson, hospitalized since last week, had been placed on a donor list. He remains at Carolinas Medical Center, where he’ll undergo the surgery if a matching heart is found.
“I was able to visit with Jerry on Monday afternoon,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement Thursday. “He was in good spirits, and he is receiving excellent care. We are supporting Jerry and the Richardson family in any way we can. He is the ultimate competitor, and he will fight through this.”
Dr. Ted Frank, the director of the hospital’s heart transplantation center, said a transplant is recommended after other remedies for congestive heart failure don’t work.
Richardson, who had quadruple bypass surgery in 2002, recently had a pacemaker installed. But he remained sapped of energy, which along with shortness of breath are common symptoms.
“When those therapies fail and a patient’s quality of life is significantly impaired, and the length of your life we believe will also be curtailed, then we sometimes bring up the option of a heart transplant,” Frank said.
At 72, Richardson’s age is at the high end for heart transplants. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, there are more than 2,700 patients waiting for a heart transplant in the United States. The average wait is just over two months, but some patients are unable to find a heart from a person with a matching body build and blood type.
According to the American Heart Association, the five-year survival rate for heart-transplant recipients is about 72 percent for males.
A team spokesman said Richardson has been able to visit with friends and even do a little work in the hospital.
“We ask everybody out there to keep their prayers up, and we’ll keep our prayers up,” Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. “We’re waiting for him to walk back into this locker room so we can be excited again.”
Richardson’s close relationship with his players was forged from his unique background ó the first ex-player to own a team since the legendary George Halas ran the Chicago Bears.
Richardson, who helped the Baltimore Colts win the NFL title in 1959, played just two years in the league. He used his championship check to start a restaurant business that turned into the largest group of Hardee’s franchises in the country.
Richardson, who grew up in tiny Spring Hope, starred at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., where he built his business. Using his money and NFL connections, he spent years persuading the NFL to put a franchise in Charlotte.
His dream was realized in 1993, when the NFL awarded the expansion Panthers to Richardson and his family. The Panthers, who hold training camp at Richardson’s alma mater, have since become one of the model franchises in the league.
“I’m blessed to be here,” Panthers coach John Fox said. “I think it’s a huge advantage that he played the game, understands football. I have the utmost respect for him and what he’s done, his work ethic and the class he has.”
Richardson quickly became an influential figure in the league, serving on powerful ownership committees and getting heavily involved in collective bargaining agreement negotiations. While Richardson has proved to be a tough negotiator, he broke down earlier this year when discussing the death of NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw.
“He is very well respected throughout the NFL,” said Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, whose franchise Richardson said he wanted the Panthers to emulate. “He has helped solve problems and has been a positive influence during his many years with the league. I hope that he will fully recover and continue to have a positive impact on the league for years to come.”
While Richardson has allowed Fox and general manager Marty Hurney room to make personnel moves, he’d been an active presence on game day until his recent illness. When not zipping around in a golf cart greeting fans, he would sometimes address the team before games.
Richardson gets close to players, shedding tears at the recent retirement news conferences of veterans Mike Rucker and Mike Minter.
“It meant a lot for him to be there that day,” Rucker said. “It’s a day I’ll never forget, and it just touches my heart with the situation that’s presented. But I just know through prayer everything is going to be OK.”
Richardson’s illness comes as the Panthers (10-3) are off to their best start in franchise history, perhaps even close to bringing a Super Bowl to the Carolinas, something Richardson promised fans when he was awarded the team.
“I know he’s happy right now because we’re doing some decent things, and hopefully we can keep him happy,” Delhomme said. “We can’t wait for him to be back.”