This is what makes the Panther Franchise Unique: The Big Cat

I know it sounds cliché to say a franchise is representative of its owner. From Wellington Mara to Art Rooney many owners have been praised for their impact on the game and the teams they employ.

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The Panthers as well can make this same claim but there is more. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson (Big Cat) is not only a successful businessman but also a former NFL player having played from 1958 to 1961 for the Baltimore Colts. The Panthers are the only franchise with that distinction and before you think "What does it really matter" consider the statements from these current players:

"Whatever he's saying is important," says fullback Brad Hoover. "He's an inspiration."

"He's very close to a lot of players, extremely close," says quarterback Jake Delhomme.

"He was just his usual funny self," linebacker Jon Beason says. "To see him out there supporting us truly is the example of a great leader."

On any other team when the owner comes ... players turn the other way or try to hide," says Delhomme. "But guys (here) flock to him and go to him. To me, that says it all right there."

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson garners the respect of the players not just because he signs the paychecks but more so because he is one of them. Richardson knows what's important for team harmony, for team identify and for team moral. Richardson knows that to get the most from his players he needs to treat them with respect; he lets them know he hasn't forgotten what its like to play in the trenches. Though he only played two seasons and caught a whopping 15 passes he did make one of them very memorable:

His most notable reception was in the 1959 NFL Championship Game win against the New York Giants, in which he caught the winning touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas.

I'm sure he is very proud of that one. The most impressive part of the Big Cat though is his rise up in the business world from humble beginnings:

Using his $3,500 check from the playoff games, Richardson partnered with Charles J. Bradshaw to form Spartan Foods, a food-service company which became the second--and ultimately the largest--franchisee of Hardee's restaurants. Spartan Foods later founded Quincy's Family Steakhouse and Dooley's Seafood Emporium. Spartan Foods was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1976. Through merger activities, Richardson became CEO of TW Services (later Flagstar) which operated Denny's and El Pollo Loco franchises in the Carolinas. Richardson put the earnings towards his lifelong goal of purchasing an NFL franchise.

From another post written back when the Panthers were being founded:

By 1976, Richardson and Bradshaw operated 169 Hardee's franchises, and their company, Spartan Food Systems, Inc., had $56 million in sales and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Three years later, with their Hardee's franchises numbering 221, Bradshaw and Richardson sold Spartan food to Trans World Corp., then the parent company of Trans World Airlines, for $80 million. Both men continued to run Spartan Food until 1984, when Bradshaw became president and COO of Trans World Corp. On Dec. 30, 1986, Trans World was liquidated and the remaining food service subsidiaries, including Spartan, were merged into TW Services Inc., which went public as an independent company. Richardson became president of TW Services nine months later. Then, in '89, Richardson endured the leveraged buyout of TW Services by a group of New York corporate raiders, emerging as president and CEO of a company reeling under a $2.4 billion debt. Still, he owns about 4% of TW stock-4.1 million shares that have a value of more than $14 million-and his overall net worth, built on investments and his payoff in the various corporate takeovers, is believed to be in the neighborhood of $100 million.

Not bad for a 13 round pick with only 15 catches huh? Now to the human side of JR:

Richardson is maddeningly self-effacing, especially when it comes time to explain this success story. He is surrounded by good people, he tells you. When that doesn't satisfy the question, he offers up luck. "We're as lucky as a dog with two.... Shut that tape recorder off for a minute." This shtick about his being lucky is a running joke among family, friends and business associates.

How can you not like a guy like that? Rarely takes credit for all that he has done. It's for this reason you will never see the Panthers go after the high-profile personalities such as Terrell Owens, they will never pursue the players of questionable character like Michael Vick. So when you see pictures of players greeting the owner during training camp its not just a courtesy acknowledgement due to his recent heart transplant, its much more than that. Richardson gives them hope that anyone can take the opportunity of playing in the NFL and turn it into a lifetime of success.

If I met him tomorrow I too would greet him enthusiastically and hopefully a little of that ‘shtick' would rub off on me!

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