The most famous piece of furniture in the NFL is a grandfather clock inside the home of Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. The clock ticks slowly and loudly and angrily. When a player or employee does something Richardson really doesn’t like, he invites the culprit to his house, not really asking. The man is led to a chair not far from the clock.
Five years ago when Carolina quarterback Cam Newton first visited Richardson’s house, he asked, “Is that the clock?” When Newton’s father, Cecil, later visited the house for the first time, his first question was, “Oh, no, is that the clock?”
I’ve been in the house and I’ve sat in the chair and I’ve listened to the clock’s nasty tick. And even though I didn’t do anything, I wanted to say, “Yes, yes, I did it, I confess, but the idea was Scott Fowler’s.”
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Richardson is on the clock. He turns 80 years old Monday. His silver hair still is impeccably arranged, as are his clothes, and he has yet to win a Super Bowl.
You’ll recall that in 1993, when Richardson (and not Charlotte; he didn’t have to put the team in Charlotte) was offered an NFL franchise, he promised fans a Super Bowl victory within 10 years. Although the Panthers have made the game twice since their 1995 inception, most recently last season, they have yet to win it.
Fans who see Richardson in his suite at Bank of America Stadium on football Sundays see a man whose expression doesn’t change regardless of how well or poorly his team plays. But stoic is an expression, not a lifestyle.
A woman sitting across the table from Richardson at the Palm restaurant one night stuck her fork into a shrimp and the shrimp took off like a miniature drone straight at Richardson’s head. Richardson smiled, reached out with one large hand, caught the shrimp and, seeing the woman’s embarrassment, gently set the shrimp on the side of her plate and asked, “How about if we put it here?”
A different sort of owner
On his way into and out of the restaurants he favors, he’ll mingle with diners. Sometimes they initiate the conversation, and sometimes he does. He makes them laugh and he poses for pictures.
Sit down with him and, as he makes a point or tells a story, he often pulls out a pen and draws a diagram, because he needs the other party to understand.
Fans and non-fans are surprised when he returns telephone calls to his office.
He doesn’t use email. When he wants to praise somebody, he’ll send a hand-written note. Who knew you still could do that in 2016?
He is immensely loyal to employees and friends. Linebacker Thomas Davis is a player you want on your team and, because of his exemplary charity work, in your town. But he three times tore up the same knee. The Panthers continued to pay him despite the injuries he was not expected to overcome, and are thrilled they did. Davis is a fine linebacker and a fine leader and, based on conversations I’ve had with the owner, Richardson’s favorite player.
Richardson provided an airplane to star tight end Greg Olsen and the Olsen family when son T.J. was born with a heart defect. The Olsens flew to Boston to consult a doctor and Richardson accompanied them. Would the owner have done this if Olsen had been a lesser player? I believe he would have.
When George Seifert was hired as head coach, he wanted to replace Jackie Miles, the equipment manager who had worked for the Panthers since their inception. Seifert had his own guy. If Seifert’s guy ever saw a game, he probably bought a ticket. Miles stayed. There are other Panther lifers throughout the stadium.
When I was out with a concussion in 2015, Richardson called and sent letters. He has a code. He’s always on time, he always looks you in the eye, and while he’s never told me everything, I can’t come up with a single lie.
He has a temper that I’d heard about but until last season had never seen. We were in a restaurant, and I asked a question he didn’t like, and he erupted. I expected lava.
Richardson apologized. I told him that he didn’t need to, but added that the question was legitimate. He apologized again. Before we walked out, he apologized a third time.
He did finally answer the question.
Richardson underwent a heart transplant in 2006. A few years later I told him how amazing acupuncture was and recommended an acupuncturist. The man is not from the U.S., and had no idea who Richardson was, so I told him. On Richardson’s first visit the acupuncturist said: “I understand that you own the hockey team.”
Richardson cracked up. Then, as he lay on his back while needles were inserted, immediately fell into a deep sleep. Richardson went only twice. He said he stopped because he was uncomfortable giving up control.
One final challenge
Richardson, who played two seasons for the Baltimore Colts, is not an absentee owner. He shares unsolicited opinions with general managers, coaches and players. He is aware of every major decision the Panthers make, and has input in many or most of them.
I like Richardson. I liked him even when his team was terrible. I’d love to see him get his Super Bowl victory next February, confetti falling from the top of Houston’s NRG Stadium and the Lombardi Trophy secure in Richardson’s large hands.
But the clock is ticking, and Richardson hears it more clearly than anybody.
Tom Sorensen is a retired Observer columnist who writes occasionally. Reach him on Twitter, @tomsorensen