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Jerry Richardson, Carolina Panthers' first owner, dies at 86

The Carolina Panthers' first owner, Jerry Richardson, who brought professional football to Charlotte, has died at age 86, the team said Thursday.

The team posted an announcement shortly before 2 p.m. that said Richardson died Wednesday night.

Richardson's audacious bid to bring an NFL franchise to Charlotte in 1993 transformed the city's image, vaulting the growing town into the big leagues — literally. The Panthers were the second professional sports franchise, after the Charlotte Hornets started playing in 1988.

The Panthers played their first season in 1995 at Clemson University. The team's Charlotte stadium opened uptown a year later, named Ericsson Stadium at the time.

Richardson ultimately sold the Panthers to current owner David Tepper, a hedge fund manager, for just under $2.3 billion in 2018. That was after the NFL opened investigations into Richardson and the Panthers over allegations of a sexual and racial misconduct in the workplace stemming from allegations in a Sports Illustrated article. The NFL ultimately fined Richardson $2.75 million, and the Panthers removed the imposing bronze statue of Richardson flanked by snarling panthers from the front of the stadium.

Richardson was born in Spring Hope, North Carolina in 1936. He grew up in the Fayetteville area and played football for Wofford College, in South Carolina. The Baltimore Colts drafted Richardson, a receiver, in 1959. That year, he scored a touchdown in a the NFL's Championship Game (before the Super Bowl began) from quarterback Johnny Unitas.

Richardson quit the NFL after two seasons. He moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and opened a Hardee's that would eventually expand into a fast food franchise company with hundreds of locations across the Southeast.

In 1987, Richardson began his quest to bring an NFL franchise to Charlotte, working with other local leaders like NationsBank president Hugh McColl. The effort took six years, and Richardson had to overcome skepticism that a city of Charlotte's size could support an NFL stadium. He sold permanent seat licenses to prospective fans to finance the stadium, and put up half of the $140 million franchise expansion, working with local investors for the rest.

"I never thought about not getting a franchise," Richardson said, expressing his trademark confidence. "The odds against us were huge. People had said it was 150-to-1, 200-to-1. That never deterred me."

Richardson received a heart transplant in 2009. After that, he remained a fixture at Panthers games for years, watching stoically from the owner's box or driving a golf cart on the sidelines.

Under Richardson's ownership, the Panthers made two Super Bowl appearances, in 2003 and 2015, both of which the team lost.

This is a developing story and we will update it throughout the afternoon.

Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.
Kenny is a Maryland native who began his career in media as a sportswriter at Tuskegee University, covering SIAC sports working for the athletic department and as a sports correspondent for the Tuskegee Campus Digest. Following his time at Tuskegee, he was accepted to the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program as a Marketing Intern for The NASCAR Foundation in Daytona Beach, Florida in 2017.