ATLANTA - Over the past three years, the only thing that could stop Panthers Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson from obsessing over the NFL's labor issues was a heart transplant that threatened his very life.
Thursday evening, when NFL owners ratified a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), Richardson's fellow owners praised the heart he showed in getting what once seemed to be a dire situation to the verge of resolution.
"Boy, they must have put a good one in him," Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones said of the heart that Richardson received on Feb. 1, 2009. "We all know he's had his health challenges, and this came at a time when he's been right in the middle of this. I was so impressed that he was able to have the energy to do this."
Since the owners exercised their option to opt out of the previous CBA in May of 2008, Richardson has relentlessly sought a solution. Now, only the players' approval is needed to put in effect an unprecedented 10-year deal orchestrated in many ways by Richardson.
"It's historic in professional sports. It's 10 years for our fans and for our teams and owners and organizations to focus on football for 10 straight years without any worry of any interruption," said Richardson, co-chair of the NFL's management council executive committee. "I can truthfully say that a day did not pass that I didn't think about this, with the exception of the time I was thinking about something else - and that was just making it to the next day.
"After that, I literally would think about it almost constantly, seven days a week. That in itself is wearing. I don't know when I'm going to really sleep again. I can't really remember a night that I haven't looked over at my clock and seen three or four or five. It was very draining."
The hard work, however, appears to have paid off. Pending the players' approval, the new league year is slated to start Wednesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goddell said. In making the announcement following a final full day of debate and a 31-0 vote with one abstention by the owners, Goodell ascended the podium at the Marriott Gateway flanked by several owners key to the negotiations.
"We would not be here today without his leadership. He did an extraordinary job," Goodell said of Richardson. "As chairman, you couldn't ask for someone who was more supportive. As far as committing time, energy and leadership, he did an extraordinary job on behalf of everyone at the NFL."
Goodell said that Richardson's status as a former player was indispensable to the process. Richardson is the only current owner that played in the NFL and one of just two in the history of the League.
"We're confident that the teams and the players have arrived at a good place. We think we have a fair, balanced agreement," Richardson said. "It's been a joy for me personally during these negotiations to have close contact with the players. They have been tremendous."
Soon, Richardson's attention will turn fully back to his players, with the roster far from set in the light of the work stoppage and with training camp right around the corner. He said the Panthers would first take care of key free agents from their 2010 roster.
"We are going to be very aggressive," Richardson said. "(General manager) Marty (Hurney) and his team have a plan, and when we get the green light, we'll be going wide-open.
"We're prepared to do what it takes to put the best team together as quickly as we can."
Richardson also will be associated with another team going forward – a team leader in a group that helped bring football back to fans.
"We would not have gotten it done without Jerry Richardson," said John Mara, the New York Giants' president and chief executive officer. "He kept us in line. When some of us would start to disagree or want to go home, he kept us in line.
"Everybody on our committee respects him so much."