How ‘Big Cat’ Made the Team

Before Jerry Richardson was an NFL owner, he was a player. But he might never have made the Baltimore Colts if legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas had not taken him under his wing


Johnny Unitas had given Baltimore the title, and nothing could be bigger than the NFL championship. But what about the follow-up season in 1959? The city of Baltimore was intoxicated by a yearlong celebration, but could Unitas and the Colts do it again? The players were certainly thinking that way when they gathered for training camp at Westminster College that summer.

Because the Colts were champions, they were accorded an extra exhibition game, one against the College All-Stars in Chicago, a charity game sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. It wasn’t a game the veterans looked forward to, but for anxious rookies trying to make the team, it was an opportunity. Trying to crack a championship team made it that much harder for any rookie.

Jerry Richardson, a tall, shy, good-looking receiver, was one of the newcomers. Like Unitas, he came from a small college. He had played college football in South Carolina at Wofford College, and Richardson always seemed to be explaining just where Wofford was. He was the third receiver taken by the Colts in the 1958 college draft that Bell had preserved that day in Congress the year before. And Richardson could have been ready to explain to the congressional members where Wofford was after he first put on a Colts practice jersey.

There were approximately one dozen other receivers running around trying to make a lasting impression, one that would enable them to fill the sole spot on the roster. Richardson’s chances, arriving from tiny Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, were not exactly promising. Richardson was taken in the thirteenth round and was the 153rd player overall. However, defying the long odds, Richardson showed enough promise for the Colts to keep him on the team’s reserve list for $100 per week, which allowed him to practice with the regulars during the 1958 season.

Richardson was having a very good camp a year later, which earned him a trip to Chicago for the All-Star game. And he got more than he ever would have imagined—his roommate for the All-Star game was Unitas! That alone would have been enough to write home about even if he never played in a regular season game with the Colts. Richardson never figured why they roomed him with Unitas. And he was smart enough not to ask, either. No one, especially a rookie, would ask Unitas why. And when writers asked too much, Unitas gave them icy stares.

Being the NFL’s new idol meant that Unitas, a private person, was subjected to an entire new world of incessant interviews. He averaged four radio, television, or banquet appearances per week because of his newly acquired fame. In Chicago, Sport magazine was waiting for him. After all, he drove away their Corvette as the MVP of the 1958 championship game. They didn’t know it, but Unitas, with a wife and three kids, didn’t have any use for a Corvette and traded it for a bigger car. There were three or four representatives of the magazine in Unitas’ room assigned to do an in-depth feature on the star. After an hour or so of bantering, the Sport representatives invited Unitas to dinner. They did so without any mention of Richardson. The slight wasn’t lost on Unitas. And he didn’t hesitate in responding, “No thanks, I have other plans.” After the magazine entourage left, Unitas looked over at Richardson and said, “Let’s get something to eat.”

Unitas saw the underdog in Richardson, who had married his high school sweetheart, Rosalind Sallenger. When training camp opened for the 1959 season, Richardson had no way to get to practice, so Unitas helped him out. He picked him up in front of his rented house every morning to drive him to camp. They got along fine: Unitas didn’t talk, and neither did the rookie, which suited them both. Further, Rosalind picked up her husband at the end of the day, so Unitas considered it to be a good arrangement.

The compassionate Unitas helped Richardson earn the only remaining receiver spot on the roster, as well. During an exhibition game against the Cardinals in St. Louis, Berry wasn’t going to play much at all, and the Colts’ game plan was to alternate Harold “Big Thunder” Lewis, the prohibitive favorite to make the team that year, with Richardson. At halftime, Unitas approached Richardson.

“How are you doing?” Unitas asked.

“I didn’t do too good,” Richardson said.

Unitas didn’t say another word, but in the second half, Richardson saw more balls than he ever could have imagined. He caught seven passes, which left an impression on the coaches. Richardson was a Colt.

“Catching seven passes in an exhibition game was a lot for a rookie,” said Richardson. “John helped me again the following year too. Against the Eagles, near the end of the exhibition season when the final cuts were made, I caught six or seven passes and kept my place on the team.”

Unitas’ help may have been because he still wanted to pick up Richardson and take him to practice in 1960—Unitas did not like change. But 1961 was Richardson’s final year—not only as a Baltimore Colt, but also as a professional football player. He became involved in a contract dispute with the team’s management and quit.

“My first year I received a $750 bonus and a $7,500 contract,” said Richardson. “The second year, my contract was $8,750, and I had been the Colt Rookie of the Year in 1959. In my third season in 1961, they offered me a contract for $9,750—a $1,000 swing. I felt I should get $10,000, which was only a $250 differential. After five weeks in camp, I packed it in.”

Richardson quit on principle. Yet that miniscule $250 gap changed his life forever and enabled him to reach a bigger goal than playing pro ball for perhaps ten more years. He took the $4,674 bonus money he earned from the 1959 championship game, went back to North Carolina, and got into the food business. But his biggest dream of all was to own a pro football team. In 1994, he secured an NFL franchise when the Carolina Panthers became the league’s twenty-ninth team.

This excerpt from Johnny Unitas: America’s Quarterback is published with permission from Triumph Books/ .

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