Cam, Luke, Smith, Olsen: Carolina Panthers pour in to pay respects to Jerry Richardson
Former Carolina Panthers came from near and far Saturday to celebrate the life of the team’s founder, Jerry Richardson, at his memorial service on the Wofford College campus.
Cam Newton slipped in just before the service began. Thomas Davis spoke during the ceremony. Steve Smith, Lamar Lathon, Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen, Wesley Walls and Jake Delhomme all sat in the stands and then patiently waited to greet members of Richardson’s family after the hour-long service.
Four current or former Panther head coaches — Frank Reich, Ron Rivera, Steve Wilks and Dom Capers — also showed up to pay their respects to the man who brought the NFL to the Carolinas. Also attending were Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and former Panther GM Marty Hurney. Richardson was awarded the Panthers franchise in 1993 and owned the team until 2018, when he sold the Panthers to current owner David Tepper.
“I’ve gotten a chance to see a bunch of my former teammates,” said Davis, and indeed the event practically doubled as a Panther reunion of the team’s first 30 years of existence. “I’ve seen Luke, Greg, Smitty, Mike Rucker. I know all of those guys think, ‘I was Mr. Richardson’s favorite.’ But we all know (that Davis was).”
Richardson’s memorial service was held Saturday in front of about 1,000 people at Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium on the Wofford College campus. The name of the building alone will give you an idea of how much Richardson meant to the place in terms of the hundreds of millions of dollars he donated to his alma mater, which also has a dormitory that bears his name, an art museum named for his wife, Rosalind, and a statue of Richardson standing by the Wofford practice fields where the Panthers have held training camp for more than two decades.
But the event was more about what Richardson meant to people, rather than the food empire he built starting with 15-cent hamburgers at Hardee’s, or the riches he earned.
Said former Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who gave one of his children the middle name of “Jerry” in honor of Richardson: “The thing that struck all of us as you listened to the stories… all these people that knew him so well, you sat there in the audience and smiled, because every story that was shared, we had similar versions of it. He was such a generous man, such a kind person…. The lives that he impacted behind the scenes…. that’s who he was. And it was really a fitting ceremony to memorialize a really special man to a lot of us.”
The event’s five speakers were, in order of appearance: granddaughter Caroline Allen Campbell, grandson Lukas Richardson Allen, former Wofford President Joe Lesesne, Thomas Davis and sportscaster Jim Gray.
Richardson’s son Mark — once the Panthers team president and heir apparent as owner until he resigned from the team under mysterious circumstances in 2009 — did not speak publicly.
But Mark was at the service, greeting guests along with Jerry’s widow, Rosalind Sallenger Richardson, and Ashley Richardson Allen, Mark’s sister. Jon Richardson, the third child of Jerry and Rosalind Richardson, preceded his father in death in 2013 at age 53 after a long battle with cancer.
No one on stage ever mentioned the fact that Jerry Richardson sold the Panthers under duress to Tepper in 2018, announcing that he would do so only hours after a Sports Illustrated story detailing Richardson’s workplace misconduct. That story led to an NFL investigation and a then-record $2.75 million fine from the league in 2018.
But the omission wasn’t surprising. Saturday was for friends and family to remember a man who died at age 86 on March 1, but who had made an impact on thousands in Spartanburg, Charlotte and numerous other places before he passed away. A private, family-only burial service had already been held days earlier.
Campbell, Richardson’s eldest grandchild, recalled how she had nicknamed Richardson “Honey” as a child, a name that all the rest of the grandchildren eventually used.
Lesesne recalled Richardson calling him to a restaurant once to meet a 16-year-old young man. Richardson wanted Lesesne to convince the teenager to go to college, and said if Lesesne could do it, Richardson would pay for it.
After the service, Delhomme recalled how Richardson had been kind to him following his five-interception performance in a playoff game against Arizona in the 2008 postseason.
“I get to the locker room and he’s sitting in my locker,” Delhomme said of Richardson. “I didn’t want to face him. I just lost the game… He said, ‘It’s all right. We wouldn’t have been here without you.’” Richardson then called Delhomme two days later, telling him to look outside at the sunshine.
“It’s over,” Richardson told Carolina’s quarterback. “Get over it.” Added Delhomme as he recalled the story: “I promise you, every one of these guys has a story like that.”
Eugene Robinson, who played briefly for the Panthers and then was a longtime radio announcer for the team, drove down to Charlotte and remembered that Richardson had once driven a golf cart straight across a practice field after giving Robinson a lift to the field. Robinson, thinking Richardson to be a security guy, had told him various jokes during the ride.
When Richardson started arrowing the cart across the field, Robinson yelled: “Hey, old dude, you just can’t cross the field like that!’” Richardson never veered from his path.
“And then,” Robinson said, “I was like: ‘Oh, no. Don’t tell me he’s the owner!”
Cam Newton wore one of his signature hats to the service but said he didn’t want to speak to reporters afterward. Lathon flew from Houston to attend the service and then was able to catch up with Capers afterward and talk about their time together in the mid-1990s. The Panthers are re-installing the 3-4 defense that featured Lathon and Kevin Greene as pass-rushing outside linebackers in the mid-1990s.
A member of the original 1995 Panthers team, Lathon was one of the players who nicknamed Richardson “Big Cat” during that expansion season.
“As they said on the stage, there are people who have not yet been born who will be impacted by his generosity,” Lathon said. “He was a man’s man. … You absolutely wanted to go out on Sunday and play for Jerry. There was only one Jerry Richardson.”