TAMPA, Fla. – While watching the first half of Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium Sunday night, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell received a phone call telling him his friend Jerry Richardson, the Carolina Panthers owner, was en route to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.
A heart donor, matching Richardson’s blood type and body size, was available and Richardson was scheduled for the transplant he’d been awaiting for more than a month.
Though the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals played one of the most exciting games in Super Bowl history, Goodell said he couldn’t get Richardson out of his mind.
He knew the next few hours would be critical.
“I thought about him the entire game and the entire night,” said Goodell.
Goodell presented the Lombardi Trophy to the Steelers, who beat the Cardinals 27-23 on a late touchdown, and then went to a post-game party the league annually throws for media members and other guests.
At 1:30 a.m. Monday, more than three hours after the game ended, Goodell was checking his cell phone for updates on Richardson’s surgery.
Early reports were encouraging, but Goodell still hadn’t heard whether the procedure had been successfully completed.
“We were waiting up for him, for reports, last night to see how he was doing,” Goodell said.
Goodell said he stayed up until 3 a.m., slept for two hours, then received another update about Richardson at 5 a.m.
By the time Goodell appeared at a press conference for Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes and Steelers coach Mike Holmgren, Richardson had received a strong prognosis from doctors.
“It’s positive news,” Goodell told the Observer, saying he’d been told the transplant process was “very successful.” “We’re very optimistic,” said Goodell. “I was glad to see all the reports were consistent with exactly the way they thought they were going to be.”
Goodell said he had been calling Richardson each week recently to read a note to Richardson. The transplant happened during the biggest event of the NFL season on a night when Richardson’s close friend Dan Rooney, the Steelers’ chairman, earned a record sixth Super Bowl championship.
“It brings new meaning to the word(s) `Super Sunday’ when you see a guy you respect so much and you admire so much -- Jerry Richardson -- and he’s got a new heart this morning,” Goodell said. “Hopefully, that’s going to solve the issue for him and he’s going to be back the way we expect him to be back.”
Goodell and Richardson forged a close relationship in the late 1980s and early ‘90s when Richardson was seeking an NFL franchise for the Carolinas. Goodell was assigned by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue to oversee the expansion process.
After Richardson was awarded a franchise in 1993, he became one of the most involved and influential NFL owners. He and Rooney have served together on some of the league’s most prestigious committees, including heading up the search to find a successor for Tagliabue, who turned out to be Goodell.
Richardson’s health problems are extremely personal to Goodell. “He (means) a great deal to me because he’s one of those guys who, when you’re in his life, he has a tremendous impact on you (by) the way he conducts himself and the way he is so principled in his values,” Goodell said. “He always instilled pride in me in doing that.”
Though there have been some anxious moments in recent months, Goodell is looking ahead to better times for Richardson.
“I’m just glad it’s behind him now,” said Goodell, “and he’s on his way to recovery.”