CHARLOTTE – Jerry Richardson is best known as the man who brought the NFL to the Carolinas, but the Panthers owner/founder has also brought moments of happiness to countless people in his community without the fanfare that surrounded his foray into football.
For his impactful acts big and small, Richardson was presented with the 2014 Award Against Indifference at the Echo Foundation's 16th Annual Awards Gala on Wednesday evening at McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square.
"Jerry Richardson fortunately found his gift early in life: the gift to use his immense personal drive and all his resources surrounding him to help and support others," close friend Steve Luquire said in introducing Richardson for the honor. "He is an incredible man."
Richardson received the award moments after a panel discussion featuring two former winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
"You can let your brain cells relax – the intellectual part of the evening is over," Richardson said. "When I hear about the education level of the people that have been speaking tonight, mine is pretty basic. I went to a small college. I graduated with a C average.
"What I learned is that you have to earn more money than you spend. I've always tried to practice that."
Richardson has always been generous with that money and has always taken seriously the responsibility that comes with it. He took a check for $2,800 he earned as a member of the Baltimore Colts the 1959 NFL Championship team and started a burger restaurant. After building it into a food service giant, Richardson used his position of prominence to effect change in his community.
Echo Foundation president Stephanie G. Ansaldo read excerpts from countless letters her organization collected detailing Richardson's impact. In one, Wofford College senior vice president and dean David Wood recounted a story told by Dewey Tullis, one of Richardson's employees in the early days of Spartan Foods.
"Back when it was not popular to do so in segregated Spartanburg, South Carolina, Mr. Richardson was the first man to take the black man from the kitchen to the cash register," Wood quotes Tullis as saying. "I was one of those young black men in the early 1960s, and my life was forever changed for the better, along with the lives of countless others. This is the measure of the kind of man he is."
Richardson eventually left the food service industry to take on the seemingly impossible challenge of bringing the NFL to his stomping grounds.
"I thought you were crazy," former Bank of America chairman Hugh McColl wrote in a letter of congratulations, "but I should have known you would succeed."
In addition to bringing professional football to fans in the region, Richardson continued to do more behind the scenes.
"Thank God that years ago you were reborn with a new heart," former Coca-Cola CEO Don Keough wrote. "I have often thought, Jerry, that your old heart was so full and worked so hard that you needed another one to fill with love and affection for the people around you."
Richardson's heart was open wide for all to see Wednesday, when he unsuccessfully tried to choke back tears while telling those in attendance that he takes very seriously the current situation involving the NFL and domestic violence.
"Standing before you tonight, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge an issue weighing heavily on our sport and on our society," Richardson said. "When it comes to domestic violence, my stance is not one of indifference. I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple.
"To those who would suggest we've been too slow to act, I ask that you consider not being too quick to judge. Over the course of our 20 years, we have worked extremely hard to build an organization with integrity and earn the trust of your community. I look forward to continuing to earn your trust, and I thank you for this award."
The Echo Award Against Indifference is presented annually to a member of the Mecklenburg County community who works "with an eye toward peace, a heart filled with compassion and a voice against indifference." The Charlotte-based Echo Foundation was founded in 1997 as a call to action for human dignity, justice and moral courage.