Jerome J. Richardson was born on July 18, 1936 in Spring Hope, NC, the first step in a journey that would transform the Carolinas.
After growing up in the Fayetteville area, Richardson attended Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC; where he excelled at football and laid the foundation for a business empire that would allow him to return to the game he once walked away from.
He still holds the school’s single-game record for receiving yards (241 against Newberry in 1956), as well as the records for touchdown receptions in a season (9) and career (21). That kind of production earned him Associated Press Little All-America honors in 1957 and 1958, and in 1959 he was drafted by the Baltimore Colts.
With the Colts, he roomed with quarterback Johnny Unitas, and caught a touchdown pass from the Hall of Famer in the 1959 NFL Championship Game.
But after his second season, he walked away from the NFL in a dispute over money, and returned to Spartanburg to start his business career. Using his championship game bonus as seed money, he opened his first Hardee’s restaurant in Spartanburg.
There he began to emphasize customer service which would carry over into his management of his football team.
When he owned the team, Richardson often referred back to the lessons he learned selling hamburgers. He stopped by restaurants from time to time to check up, sticking his head in the drive-thru line to surprise customers and staff alike.
That kind of attention to detail was not unlike his days as owner of the Panthers, where he would approve details of landscaping plans (native plants from each state on the north and south sides of the stadium to represent the two Carolinas) and paint jobs on the field. On game days, he drove around Bank of America Stadium in his golf cart, greeting fans and taking pictures, enjoying the moments.
But before he could ride around those games and bask in the euphoria of bringing the NFL to the Carolinas, he had to deliver them.
Richardson began the process of building a football team in July 1987, when he met with former Bank of America CEO and Charlotte icon Hugh McColl to discuss his dream of bringing the sport to his home state.
Charlotte had already become a professional sports town with the arrival of the NBA’s Hornets in 1988, but those were the days when the city struggled to build an identity as anything other than a regional outpost, still confused with Charleston, SC or Charlottesville, Va. , and years away from becoming a national banking center.
Along the way, decisions were made that changed the face of the sports industry. He enlisted sports marketing executive Max Muhleman, and they put in place the first permanent seat license concept, where fans paid an upfront fee for access to season tickets. The Panthers were the first team to use the concept, and the influx of cash was crucial to private financing of what was then known as Carolinas Stadium.
But until Oct. 26, 1993 — the day Richardson was awarded the NFL’s 29th franchise — it was all still a dream, for everyone but Richardson.