Prior to the Panthers’ opening-night practice at Gibbs Stadium, a thickly built, older man entered from the corner of the stadium with several family members.
Wearing team-issued gear that included a black T, long gray shorts, running shoes and a Panthers cap, the man could have passed for an assistant offensive line coach or a high school gym teacher.
It was Panthers owner David Tepper, the Carolinas’ new $11 billion man.
With a huge, bronze sculpture of Richardson overlooking the field, Tepper spent much of the two-hour practice alongside general manager Marty Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera, learning more about his $2.275 billion investment.
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“He watches and asks questions about guys,” Rivera said. “One of the things I really appreciate is he said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t assume to know. So I may ask you guys a lot of questions.’
“And that’s what he was doing. He asked a lot of questions and made a lot of comments about things.”
Tepper spent two days at Wofford last week, addressing the team on reporting day, visiting with Rivera and Hurney and attending the first practice.
While he built his fortune as a hedge fund manager, Tepper held on to his middle-class, Pittsburgh roots. Friends, family and business associates talk about how approachable and down-to-earth Tepper is, no matter his net worth.
Nothing he did during his drop-in at training camp changed that perception.
“He’s a great dude. I think we all really enjoyed him talking to us the other night,” defensive end Wes Horton said. “He opened up. We got to know him on a personal level, got to know his background.”
Players said Tepper encouraged them to ask him anything they wanted during their meeting, while Rivera said watching the new owner interact with players is “hilarious.”
Quarterback Cam Newton, selected No. 1 overall in 2011 following a pre-draft meeting at Richardson’s house, appreciated Tepper’s candor.
“He was an open book for us,” Newton said, “and I think that’s extremely important because it’s been a lot of unknowns (with) him.”
There have been several changes on the business side of the organization since the sale closed three weeks ago. Former Richardson aide Tina Becker resigned and longtime attorney Richard Thigpen was fired, as were a handful of other employees.
But Rivera said Tepper hasn’t issued any directives on the football side since taking over.
“Probably the biggest thing I feel for him is he gives people the opportunity to do their job, and expects you to do it,” Rivera said last week.
“We’ve had a couple conversations and mostly it’s been about the football team, about the players, about how things are going in terms of preparation,” Rivera added. “I assume we’ll talk about how practice went, but he’s been pretty normal and just on top of what we do as a football team.”
Tepper told players about both his personal and business background, which includes nearly 10 years as a co-owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Several players have said they appreciate Tepper’s interest in their charitable endeavors and his offers to help them in that area.
“I think he wants to be hands-on with us. I think he’s going to be around,” Horton said. “I think he wants to do a ton in the community, which is awesome. He’s just the type of dude that just seems like a down-to-earth guy. For a guy that has that much money, he seems like he’s very down-to-earth and can relate to us.”
Tepper, who has been outspoken in his contempt for Donald Trump, has yet to weigh in publicly on the national anthem debate.
Thomas Davis, the Panthers’ veteran linebacker, thinks Tepper is waiting to see what comes of last week’s meeting between NFL and NFL Players Association officials on the anthem before making his opinion known.
“I think Mr. Tepper’s stance right now on it is really what the league and the (NFLPA) came out and said. Everything is at a standstill right now,” Davis said. “So there’s no real pressure to do anything at this point. So guys are really focusing in on football.”
Tepper was not available to reporters last week in Spartanburg, although he did ride in a golf cart with a team media member discussing his favorite sports movies (“Rudy”) and pizza toppings (everything but anchovies), and belting out several lines of Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Just as he did in two press conferences since joining one of the world’s most elite fraternities, Tepper comes across in the golf-cart video as a normal “dude,” to borrow Horton’s expression.
Newton hasn’t been the only one dancing during the Panthers’ first week of camp. Tepper was spotted doing the same on the sideline on opening night.
“I think for us the excitement is something we all should get prepared for. I’m excited knowing that we have a very lively owner,” Newton said.
“The first thing he said (is) he wants to win. So that alone should get anybody excited.”