Carolina Panthers majority owner Jerry Richardson spent a muggy morning one day last week at the YMCA’s Camp Thunderbird, chatting with starstruck campers about his camp days, keys to success and the upcoming football season.
Wearing athletic shoes, khaki pants and a white golf shirt with a Panthers logo, Richardson toured the sprawling camp grounds on Lake Wylie in a golf cart.
First stop was the flag football field.
“What’s your name?” Richardson asked, while shaking hands with the 15 boys and girls who crowded around him.
“Good to meet you,” he replied, addressing each youth by name.
“That’s a nice handshake. I like that,” Richardson told a boy in a University of South Carolina Gamecocks hat.
A former wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts, co-founder of fast-food giant Hardee’s and linchpin in the recent National Football League labor negotiations, Richardson also is this year’s honorary chairman of the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund.
The fund raises money to send children from low-income families to day and overnight camps.
Richardson, a former camper who advanced to counselor, attributes much of his success to the life skills and values he learned at summer camp – ones he still lives by today.
“I’m not aware of anything ... that’s more helpful to a young person than going to a camp,” Richardson told the Observer this summer. “There comes a time when you graduate from high school and you leave home and go to work ... or college. You have to get along with people, building relationships. ...Camping, for me, was one of the first environments that really exposed me to that.”
Pranks, ‘prized possessions’
Richardson was born in Spring Hope and grew up in Fayetteville. His father was a barber and his mother worked at a ladies clothing store.
He attended Camp Seagull on the coast near New Bern the first year it opened in 1948. His parents sacrificed to afford the costs every summer.
Richardson enjoyed boating, sailing, water-skiing – “anything near the water,” he says.
He also reveled in the occasional prank.
“You guys ever heard of a clothespin?” Richardson joked with the campers. “Don’t know if they even make them anymore, but when I was at camp, they were prized possessions.”
They used them to hang their bathing suits on the clothes lines to dry, he explained. One night, Richardson sneaked out of his cabin to steal all the clothespins.
“Even then, I was tall,” said Richardson, who stands 6-foot-3. That made it easy for the awakened counselors to spot him.
Richardson took off.
“I was running across the campus, and they were screaming and hollering...with flashlights,” he recalls. “Fortunately, I was running faster than them.”
And then...bam! His feet were airborne and he fell to the ground.
Richardson laughs. “I hit a clothesline.”