Tom Sorensen

Sorensen Classic: The day Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and his new heart came home

Jerry Richardson and his wife, Rosalind, on the field at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., before the Carolina Panthers played in Super Bowl 50.
Jerry Richardson and his wife, Rosalind, on the field at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., before the Carolina Panthers played in Super Bowl 50. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Editor’s note: This column was originally published on Feb. 13, 2009.

Jerry Richardson left Carolinas Medical Center about 1:30 p.m. Thursday. After spending 12 days at CMC, and after looking at the same four walls on each of them, he and his new heart went home.

They didn’t go straight home. But they went home.

Richardson, who owns the Carolina Panthers, will be weak for months. Visitors will be limited to reduce the risk of infection. He’ll check on the team, tell his jokes, and laugh at the jokes of others, holding his chest as he does.

Richardson, 72, underwent a heart transplant on Super Bowl Sunday.

“It was a miracle,” says Rosalind Richardson, wife of Jerry. “One of our dear friends said, ‘God does not give out hearts lightly.’”

They don’t know who the donor is and might never know.

“But we are so grateful,” she says. “And we know it’s the gift of life.”

She adds: “It’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to our family. It’s all I wanted. It’s the greatest gift ever for me.”

Rosalind talks Thursday night at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Cary. She is waiting to accept the North Carolinian of the Year award from the N.C. Press Association on her husband’s behalf.

Every year, the NCPA honors an individual who has served the state with distinction and honor. Previous winners include William Friday, Peggy Kirk Bell and Hugh Morton.

After a video tribute to Jerry Richardson, Rosalind steps onto a small stage and accepts the award from Charlotte Observer editor Rick Thames.

“From Jerry’s strong heart through my voice, we’d like to thank the North Carolina Press Association for this esteemed award,” she says. She adds that it “means more to Jerry than you’ll know.”

She leaves to an ovation and returns to Charlotte and to her husband, who was in the care of a nurse. A few others cry after the touching video. Rosalind beams.

Before she steps onto the stage, we sit at a table in the ballroom. She talks about her husband. She wants to talk about him. She prepared two pages of notes and hands them to me.

This is what the first note says:

“So many people had a hand or voice in giving us support during Jerry’s wait for a new heart and his second chance for life.

“All those who called or sent a card, e-mail, letter, note; offered a prayer or joined a prayer group; picked up a set of needles to knit or crochet a shawl; stopped to give a hug while greeting our family members in passing; sent a family keepsake for his pocket; sent a handmade board of heroes medals and ribbons picked up in flea markets abroad; home made cards and handwritten letters from children; a book, DVD or CD to occupy his time; flowers for the soul; reminders to believe, believe that prayers will be answered, believe that he will be better.”

Rosalind believes.

“He’s got a lot more to do,” she says. “And he’s telling everybody that his heart is probably younger than theirs. So I’m going to have to be doing something to keep up with him, I’ll tell you. He’s a little older than me. Not much. But a little.”

The Richardson’s youngest child, daughter Ashley, drove Richardson home from the hospital Thursday.

“He wanted to take the scenic route,” Rosalind says.

So they stopped at Bank of America Stadium. Richardson did not get out of the car. He just savored the view. They drove to the home of Hugh McColl, who was instrumental in helping Richardson buy the team. McColl gave him a glass of milk, which he drank immediately.

Then they drove to Bojangles’.

He gets to eat chicken?

“Noooo, “ says Rosalind. “He got a refill on his milk. But he smelled the chicken as he went through.”

Then they drove home. The roof to the SUV was open. The walls were gone.

Richardson smelled the flowers and the trees, even noticing a bird’s nest in one. When Ashley pulled into the driveway, the rest of the family, who waited in the yard, cheered.

Richardson stood up, too quickly, and sat again. Then he got up and out.

“He was in the sunshine, “ says Rosalind. “It was such a beautiful day. I don’t think I saw a cloud in the sky.”

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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