Sorensen: Critics of Panthers owner Richardson tough to find on day of hope

tsorensen@charlotteobserver.comjneff@newsobserver.comApril 27, 2013 

The man in the No. 59 Luke Kuechly jersey with the sleeves cut off wants the autograph on his bicep, beneath his tattoo. With a Sharpie Jerry Richardson neatly signs his name.

Richardson, who owns the Carolina Panthers, sits on a golf cart Saturday outside the West Entrance of Bank of America Stadium. The team annually throws a draft party, and Richardson doesn’t want to miss it.

Fans don’t want to miss him. He stops his golf cart at the request of a fan and for at least 20 minutes signs helmets, jerseys, placards, programs and one bicep.

Richardson, 76, signs for women his age. He drops to one knee so he can talk to the kids for whom he signs.

When Richardson finishes, he turns left. I ask him if he likes the team’s first two draft picks, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, both 300 plus-pound defensive tackles.

“I love them,” he says.

We circle the stadium from the rear, turn right and drive down Mint Street, in the right lane, a car behind us.

“Hey Big Cat!” fans yell. “Hey Mr. Richardson!” “There’s Jerry Richardson!”

Richardson keeps one arm on the wheel – this is a good thing – and waves with his left.

The people who complain about the $87.5 million investment the Charlotte City Council approved for renovations to middle-aged Bank of America Stadium are quiet or not present. Maybe they don’t go to parties. Maybe they don’t get invited.

The fans we encounter are upbeat and optimistic. The NFL draft is about hope. The hope is that Carolina’s five picks – the two defensive tackles, a guard, a linebacker and a tailback – can play.

The hope also appears to be that a superior pass rush makes defensive backs more effective.

Saturday is a celebration. Kids run the 40-yard dash on the same field on which the Panthers play. Fans tour the home team’s locker room and gym. Players sign autographs. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly engages in a question and answer session with fans from a parking lot stage.

A woman asks Richardson to pose for a picture and cuddles up – in a mature and proper fashion – as her friend snaps a picture with a cell phone.

Richardson asks if I have a cell phone so he can find out who the Panthers drafted in the fifth round. My cell phone is so dysfunctional it probably would say West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin.

The pick is Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein, Richardson learns later. He likes the pick. He expected Klein to go earlier.

We’re on the street, then the sidewalk, and then driving across grass. Fans ask Richardson, who wears a blue sweater-shirt, for his time, a word and a signature. He stops the golf cart about 10 yards past the bronze life-size statue of former Panther linebacker Sam Mills.

When he finishes we drive past a kid about 10-years-old who drops a pass.

“Good hands, son,” Richardson says.

“He dropped the pass.”

“Positive reinforcement,” Richardson says.

Behind the stadium Star Lotulelei, the team’s first-round pick, and his wife, Fuiva, get into a black car. Richardson stops the cart and embraces them.

The Lotuleleis spent part of the morning at Richardson’s home.

Says Richardson: “He told me, ‘Thank you for letting me into your beautiful home.’ What’s that tell you?”

It tells me that if Lotulelei’s talent is as good as his manners, the Panthers made a fine pick.

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