CHARLOTTE -- They are football players, after all, so stiff-upper-lip stoicism is expected from the Carolina Panthers.
But because owner Jerry Richardson is more than just the guy who signs the checks around here, the reactions were emotional and heartfelt Thursday.
The Panthers players learned Wednesday afternoon that the 72-year-old Richardson was placed on the transplant waiting list because of his recent heart problems. To a man, they sounded positive about his prognosis, despite the sudden shock of hearing such news.
"Hearing he's having to get a heart transplant, that's not an everyday occurrence," quarterback Jake Delhomme said of getting the news from team doctors. "Everybody seems somewhat optimistic, and certainly we are."
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But Richardson's ties with his players is unique, since he's one of them. A former tight end for the Baltimore Colts (who caught a touchdown in the 1959 championship game), Richardson owns the respect of his players as a peer as much as a boss, and that has led to some unique bonds.
Wide receiver Steve Smith was taken under his wing early on in Charlotte, and he has been on both ends of the spectrum. He has been mentored and punished, brought to the big house for stern lectures, and greeted over dinner in better times. Smith counts Richardson as a friend as much as an employer, and he has always talked about their "unique relationship."
"When you hear that, you get concerned, worried," Smith admitted, voice quiet. "Your mind starts racing thinking about the uncertainty. You think about all the good times and interaction you had with him.
"You think about how it impacts you and where you go from here."
For Richardson, he'll wait, now that he's on the national list for transplants. It could be months before an acceptable match comes available for him, but those who work for him are relieved he now has a clear diagnosis. Richardson had to have a pacemaker-defibrillator installed a month ago, but that didn't clear up his problems, and he learned this week he would need the transplant operation.
"We've been familiar that he's not being feeling well," Panthers coach John Fox said. "The good news is that they know what's wrong. Now it's just getting healthy, and we feel real confident he will."
Delhomme referred to him as "a man's man," and said that he values his advice and accessibility, both on a professional and personal level. He agreed that Richardson was a de facto father figure to many of his players.
"It's what he does, the little things he does that go unnoticed, it's the close relationship he has with the guys," Delhomme said. "I'm lucky enough, I think I'm pretty close with him. And there's a bunch of guys in this room, not just a select few. He knows a lot about everybody, and you can talk to him.
"You don't feel uncomfortable around him. That's the biggest thing if you're in a room with somebody else you're not comfortable with, you're uneasy. I'll be honest with you, if ever he walks through this locker room, guys don't look to hide. And that happens. I promise you that happens in a lot of places. He walks through the locker room, and guys go up and shake his hand. And it's not brown-nosing. It's him."
Fox said he was impressed by Richardson early on, and found out during the job interview process in 2002 how he was more than just an ex-player, he was a man who understood the business world as well as football, and was able to meld them into one.
"I think one of the big things even when I came here to interview was communication," Fox said. "I think that's a big part of any successful business, and this is a business. There is a business side and a football side, and he's a good blend of those things. Having been able to play and then being a very successful businessman, he gets it.
"Communication has been key, always has been and even continues to be now."
His influence is seen on the field as well. Though he doesn't meddle in personnel, he provides the framework for it. He and Fox and general manager Marty Hurney met this offseason to discuss philosophy, and they came back to the hard-nosed ways that were so evident in last week's 299-rushing-yard thrashing of Tampa Bay. Delhomme laughed and said that providing such games is what players can do to help, "And I promise you he was happy on Monday and Tuesday."
Mostly, they credit Richardson with creating the franchise's organizational character.
"It's little things, just a way of respect that's what he's about," Delhomme said. "That's the organization, that's what he tries to build on. It trickles down from our owner to the head coach to the kind of players we have.
"It really does. You guys see it. We've got a good locker room, and I think that's a reflection on him."