Only timing kept Richardson away from NFL bid here

John Steadman

April 02, 1993|By John Steadman

Take Jerry Richardson away from the Charlotte proposal to enter the National Football League and, at best, the expansion race would be no contest, fait accompli. Had it not been for the most eventful and vital variable of them all -- timing -- he would likely have been trying to put a franchise in Baltimore, where he began and ended his pro football career.

The Richardson element is the most interesting aspect of all the play-action associated with the NFL's intention to add two new teams for the 1995 season. Still in the race are Baltimore, Charlotte, St. Louis, Memphis and Jacksonville, jockeying for position in a competitive contest that will be culminated by a decision to be made this fall.

Without Richardson, it's possible Charlotte already would have been eliminated. His impressive presence takes them from a have-not to one of the leading contenders in the process. This contention, in itself, provides a powerful testimonial to the quiet way the man carries himself and the admiration the fraternity of NFL owners and executives hold for him.

Richardson is an alumnus of the Baltimore Colts who took his check from the 1959 championship win over the New York Giants, amounting to $4,674.44, and bought half of a Hardee's food franchise in Spartanburg, S.C. His financial success is now history, but he never forgot what this city meant to him. One of his children was born and christened here and the fact he played for the Colts has been a distinct pleasure.

Baltimore, via the variable element of timing, is penalized in not having Richardson line up on its side of the scrimmage line as a potential owner. Put such a combination together, the ex-Colt Richardson connected to the Baltimore bid, and the city that was plundered by Bob Irsay in 1984 would be an overwhelming favorite. We tried the hypothesis on several NFL club officials and they agreed it's a formula difficult to deny, or even minimize.

Yes, Richardson and what he stands for as a quality individual plus the impression he created with the league has become that strong a factor. He represents a special ingredient. Not that the other cities in the chase, Baltimore included, don't have good NTC people interested in owning expansion clubs. They do. Most emphatically.

It's just that the league is absolutely enthralled with Richardson and what he stands for in integrity and business acumen. A former Colts teammate, Alex Hawkins, says flat out, "Jerry Richardson by just being there would lift any organization, in or out of sports, to a commanding position. Why? Because he's genuine, understands football, doesn't stand around bragging on himself and has a way, kind of like Art Rooney, that makes everyone feel comfortable being around him."

Richardson was appalled when the Colts took off for a place called Indianapolis. That was March 28, 1984, a night that has become ignominious in the datebook of Baltimore history. But the one-time Colts receiver had earlier signified his intention of trying to bring the NFL to the Carolinas. He had too much character to trade in his decency for mere opportunity when Baltimore became open territory after Irsay vanned the team away.

Had Richardson realized that Baltimore was going to become available by a dastardly deed of separating a city from a team it had for 35 years, it's reasonable to believe he may not have been so quick to jump at the Charlotte possibility. This would have offered a more attractive objective for any player with a proud Baltimore background, considering the options and the cities available.

The vast irony of it all is if Baltimore had been robbed of its team by Irsay before 1984, then Richardson might have opted to restore the sport in the city where he played pro football.

"Yes," admitted Hawkins, when asked, "that would have been a likely scenario. Don't get me wrong. I'm rooting for Baltimore and Charlotte for expansion."

Richardson's restoration of Baltimore to pro football would have been a momentous touch of poetic justice. But he had previously committed to Charlotte and, even though the Carolina city lacks what Baltimore has in a stadium facility, population and television audience, he's not going to back away.

There's too much loyalty within him to do anything else but "stay the course" -- which makes Baltimore's battle more difficult than it should be.

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