Jerry Richardson, football star turned Hardee's biscuit maker, dies at age 86

A former owner of the Carolina Panthers NFL team, the North Carolina native made his money as a Hardee's franchisee. He would later operate Quincy's, Denny's and El Pollo Loco, among other restaurant brands.
A statue of Richardson stands outside the Carolina Panthers' stadium. / Photo: Shutterstock

Jerry Richardson, the football star who parlayed his championship bonus from the Baltimore Colts into a restaurant empire that included Hardee’s, Denny’s and El Pollo Loco, died earlier this month at age 86.

He had a second career as owner of the Carolina Panthers NFL team.

The cause of death was not revealed. Richardson had a long history of heart problems, eventually qualifying for a heart transplant.

At the time of his death, the North Carolina native had been out of the restaurant spotlight for nearly two decades. But he was one of the business’ standout leaders from the 1960s until the mid-1990s, starting with a single franchised Hardee’s fast-food restaurant.

He had bought the restaurant in 1961, using the bonus check he’d received as a member of the Colts’ championship squad of 1959. During the playoff game that earned the team its first-place finish, Richardson caught a pass from quarterback Johnny Unitas to seal the victory.

Richardson acquired the first Hardee’s franchise with former Wofford College teammate Charlie Bradshaw. The two would go on to open hundreds of restaurants under the Hardee’s and Quincy’s Family Steakhouse names.

Their venture, Spartan Food Systems, would become part of a large holding company called Trans World Corp., best known at the time as the parent of the air carrier TWA. Acquisitions would eventually make Spartan a sister business to Denny’s, El Pollo Loco, Winchell’s Donuts and Canteen Corp., as well as such brands outside of the business as Century 21 and Hilton International.

Richardson would eventually become CEO of the company, which morphed into a public operation called Flagstar.

He retired from the business in 1995. By then one of the wealthiest individuals in the country, he indulged a longstanding desire to own an NFL team. He and a group of investors paid about $206 billion to bring an expansion franchise to Charlotte, N.C., in the mid-1990s.

Richardson became active in the operation of the team and its parent league, including the hiring of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodall.

He would lead the team to two Super Bowl appearances, in 2003 and 2016. The Panthers lost both matches.

Right after the latter appearance, Sports Illustrated reported that Richardson had used sexual and racially inappropriate language in his capacity as a team owner. He sold the Panthers for nearly $2.3 billion, which more than covered a $2.8 million fine from the NFL.

A statue of Richardson stands outside the Panther’s home field, Bank of America Stadium.

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