In the 1950s and '60s, the NFL was a kind of hobby—more of one for the players than for the owners, of course. Certainly it didn't offer much of a job for young men coming out of college. Every preseason the players gathered around to listen to commissioner Bert Bell's annual this-is-not-a-career address, as if they needed him to deliver that news. Johnny Unitas was making $7,000 the first time he heard ol' Bert, in 1956. Three years later his Baltimore Colt roommate, a middle-round draft choice named Jerry Richardson, was taking down $7,500 when he heard the commissioner's speech. "This is not an end unto itself," ol' Bert boomed from a speaker phone. "This is a means to an end." No kidding.
Almost every player had something going on the side, either supplementing his income or trying to develop a means to making a living once his playing days were over. "What have you got lined up?" was the clubhouse chatter of the day. Unitas remembers the Colts as being particularly enterprising, the guys all meeting in the trainer's room after "work" but before their noon practice. There were more sample cases around than playbooks. "We had insurance salesmen, whiskey salesmen, paint salesmen, cardboard-box salesmen," says Unitas. "We'd all start at seven and call on customers until 10:30 or 11. That's just what we did. We had to."
For one thing, history had told them it was far easier to squeeze some extra dough out of a cardboard-box customer than it was out of the Colts. According to Alex Hawkins, one ex-Colt who allows that he depended more on his football talents than his off-field industry, contract negotiations were anguished and generally one-sided. "You might argue over $500 in your contract—$500!—for months," says Hawkins. "And in the end you'd come out of [general manager] Don Kellett's office crying, just crying."
Unitas had worked his way up to $10,000 by 1959, but only after leading Baltimore to the first of two consecutive NFL championships. "[Former bonus baby] George Shaw had been sitting on the bench making $17,500, and I was getting my ass handed to me," recalls Unitas. "Finally, in 1960 I asked for $25,000. Kellett blew his lid."
Unitas eventually got his $25,000, but not until he took his case to owner Carroll Rosenbloom. By then, Unitas was among the league's best players. Less persuasive, apparently, was Richardson, whose contract called for him to be paid $9,750 for his third season, in 1961, but who wanted a full five figures. He was drawing an Army stipend while fulfilling his military commitment in the off-season, had invested his '59 championship check—$4,674—and was living frugally. But he had a wife and two kids and a third on the way, and no, he wasn't Raymond Berry. Still, he had caught a touchdown pass in the championship game, and $9,750 just didn't seem right. Over $250, he walked. Left camp in 1961 and never played another down of football. Went home to Spartanburg, S.C., and opened a hamburger stand.
It's interesting how the years treated those Colts. Many of them did subscribe to ol' Bert's advice and became successful businessmen. Fullback Alan Ameche and defensive end Gino Marchetti became wealthy in the fast-food business. Tight end Jim Mutscheller got rich selling insurance. Defensive tackle Art Donovan, like a lot of other guys, it seemed, had his own liquor store, and he ended up owning a country club. Of them, only Hawkins seemed a better customer than businessman. To this day he remains the pet ne'er-do-well of those Colt teams, happily chronicling his own misadventures.
And Richardson? "After the '61 season, my wife and I drove through Spartanburg, and sure enough, there was Jerry Richardson flipping burgers," says Hawkins. "We laughed and laughed at him. Told him what a great season we had had, how much fun we'd had. Ordered four burgers and told him to hurry it up, too. Kept asking him how much money you could make cooking hamburgers. It was a great joke. For Christmas, he sent me 12 of them in the mail."
Hawkins's second book is due this fall. He says it's about 15 of the 30 or so failed businesses he got involved in after his playing days. "It's called And Then Came Brain Damage" he says cheerfully.
While the great Johnny U wades through bankruptcy, having suffered several business failures, Richardson gets the last laugh on his teammates 30 years later. He parlayed that first hamburger stand into the fourth-largest restaurant and food-services empire in the country. Moreover, he hopes to become an NFL owner—and, indeed, he is among the front-runners—when the league announces its two expansion teams next year. They couldn't raise him that miserable $250, huh?
"The time we drove through Spartanburg?" says Hawkins. "I gotta admit, I thought he was crazy."
Richardson, 55, sits in a vast paneled suite high above Spartanburg. Anything much over two stories would be high over Spartanburg, but Richardson occupies a large office on the 16th floor in the headquarters of TW Services Inc., of which he is president and CEO. TW Services, which had 1990 sales of $3.7 billion (but showed a net loss of $68 million because of debt-service stemming from a leveraged buyout in 1989), controls—including company-owned restaurants and franchises—the Denny's chain of 1,369 restaurants as well as 498 Hardee's restaurants, 216 Quincy's Family Steakhouses, 223 El Polio Locos, and Canteen, which provides concession services to everything from Yankee Stadium to Yellowstone National Park.
Out his window Richardson can sec the stadium at Wofford College, where he played football. He says he chose the site of Spartanburg's lone skyscraper for the view, but that could be a joke. If he does look out on his alma mater, it's all the looking back he does in a day.
Richardson mostly thinks ahead, about making TW bigger and, lately, about bringing the NFL to the Carolinas, a proposition that could put him $250 million in the hole before he signs a single player. Both endeavors demand a business acumen not ordinarily associated with a backup receiver. As far as that goes, when he graduated from Wofford, Richardson could no more have been guaranteed an NFL career than he could a business success. One idea would have been as preposterous as the other. It's the old joke: Not only were NFL jobs bad, but they were hard to get, as well. The league had only 12 teams then, and smaller squads. And Richardson was not exactly a can't-miss prospect. He had been a walk-on at Wofford and, for all his hustle, was not about to make scouts forget he was a spindly 185 pounds and lacked speed.
"The first day in camp," recalls Richardson, leaning forward over an acre desk, "Weeb [Ewbank, the Colt coach] explained how he would keep 35 players, listing them by position. Well, he planned to keep just three wide receivers, and 19 were in camp. Two of them were Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore. I wasn't bursting with optimism."
Going into the final cuts, he figured to lose out to Michigan State's John (Big Thunder) Lewis, a player of higher pedigree and with a much better nickname than Richardson's (Stick). "The idea was, I'd play a quarter, he'd play a quarter," says Richardson of the final preseason game. "Well, he played first and did fairly well. I played second and did terrible. I remember at halftime that John—and keep in mind we roomed together—asked me how I was doing, and I told him terrible. The second half I caught something like seven passes. The next week the other guy got cut. When I think about it, I might have gotten a little help. You have to have a little help sometimes, don't you think?"
Did Unitas really do Richardson the favor of his passes? "To tell you the truth, I had forgotten we were roommates," says Unitas, "but yeah, that may have been something the coaches did, put a guy in there to go over pass patterns with." Whatever intentions Unitas may have had in that preseason game are forgotten.
Largely forgotten, too, is Richardson's short career. He modeled himself after Berry, which seems like a good idea if you don't know what being Raymond Berry was all about. "Nobody could act like Raymond Berry—washing your own uniform, eating raisins," says Hawkins. "But I did catch Jerry in the training room one time standing on his head, doing some kind of yoga for 30 minutes. Raymond had gotten him on some binge. Jerry was a good disciple, like Raymond, always looking for some edge."
As a rookie coming off the bench, Richardson caught seven passes in '59, three for touchdowns, and even he was amazed by those receptions. In an important game with the Los Angeles Rams, after calling a play that usually sent the ball to Berry, Unitas pulled Richardson aside and told him he might throw this pass hard. "I wondered why he told me that," says Richardson. "Was I supposed to knock it down for Raymond?" The pass went to Richardson for a touchdown, and the Colts came from behind to win.
Although he didn't play much in the title game against the New York Giants, he made his time count in that game, too. With Baltimore leading 14-9, Unitas hit him on a 12-yard down-and-out for the touchdown that turned the game into a runaway. "That pass has become legendary—in the Richardson family," he says.
But he had only eight receptions in '60, so when the time came to break with pro football after only two seasons, he did it without regret. He also did it without much of a plan, though he had queried Ameche and Marchetti about their burgeoning fast-food business and liked that line of work better than insurance.
When you transport yourself back to 1961, knowing what you know in 1991, you can't help but think that the fast-food business was a no-brainer. Americans had more and more disposable income and more wives were working. Thus there was a growing tendency to eat out. There also was little competition, and the cost of entry was low, not much more than the cost of kitchen equipment, really. In 1961 a man with a spatula and griddle was in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, knowing only what you knew in 1961, that man may have been presiding over a real dud.
Richardson had no particular conviction about the infant industry. It's just that an old buddy, Charlie Bradshaw—his Wofford quarterback, in fact—invited him to go thirds on Hardee's first franchise, in Spartanburg, and Richardson happened to have the wherewithal, thanks to that $4,000-plus '59 championship check. Richardson and Bradshaw were the working partners (a relative of Bradshaw's chipped in the other third) and, eventually, the 50-50 owners. But on Oct. 19, 1961, they were simply two fry cooks, dipping fries, picking up the trash in the lot and scratching their heads when it came time to balance the checkbook.
"The cooking was not complicated," says Richardson. "It turned out we didn't need to go to that Cornell restaurant school. Fixing the milkshake machine could be difficult. But the real disaster was the bookkeeping, one of those basic things that it's helpful to do if you want to operate a business. Just paying sales tax! Think about it, two guys, 25 years old, starting a business with a company's first franchise—the franchiser [Hardee's Food Systems, Inc., based in Rocky Mount. N.C.] didn't know any more than we did. It was a miracle that we made it."
On those days when things seemed to be going well, with lots of orders ("Hamburger, fries and a drink were 36 cents with tax," says Richardson) and not so many bills, Richardson and Bradshaw were confident enough to articulate their foolish dream. Some day, they told each other, they might make as much as $15,000 a year. Unitas money.
But their first Hardee's did well enough that their goals soon appreciated, along with their abilities to do bookkeeping. They opened their second store only months after opening the first. Their third outlet quickly followed. Lack of financing might have stalled further growth, even though, Richardson says, the budding business never operated even one month without profit. After all, Richardson and Bradshaw were trying to make something big out of a business that was selling hamburgers for 15 cents.
"The banks thought we were crazy," Richardson says. "They had to invest in our enthusiasm, not our balance sheet. It was an unknown concept." A junior bank officer named Hugh McColl seemed to recognize that enthusiasm, and he persuaded his bank to keep writing loans. By 1976, Richardson and Bradshaw operated 169 Hardee's franchises, and their company, Spartan Food Systems, Inc., had $56 million in sales and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Three years later, with their Hardee's franchises numbering 221, Bradshaw and Richardson sold Spartan food to Trans World Corp., then the parent company of Trans World Airlines, for $80 million. Both men continued to run Spartan Food until 1984, when Bradshaw became president and COO of Trans World Corp. On Dec. 30, 1986, Trans World was liquidated and the remaining food service subsidiaries, including Spartan, were merged into TW Services Inc., which went public as an independent company. Richardson became president of TW Services nine months later. Then, in '89, Richardson endured the leveraged buyout of TW Services by a group of New York corporate raiders, emerging as president and CEO of a company reeling under a $2.4 billion debt. Still, he owns about 4% of TW stock—4.1 million shares that have a value of more than $14 million—and his overall net worth, built on investments and his payoff in the various corporate takeovers, is believed to be in the neighborhood of $100 million.
Richardson is maddeningly self-effacing, especially when it comes time to explain this success story. He is surrounded by good people, he tells you. When that doesn't satisfy the question, he offers up luck. "We're as lucky as a dog with two.... Shut that tape recorder off for a minute." This shtick about his being lucky is a running joke among family, friends and business associates.
He seems hopelessly hokey, not the sort of businessman who employs 100,000 people. On his desk are some Post-it notes that, if you listen to him, detail his corporate philosophy. For this day, anyway, that philosophy is threefold: SAY NO, AVOID NEGATIVE PEOPLE and TEAMWORK MULTIPLIES THE POTENTIAL OF EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING. "I make 'em up," he says. This seems straight out of The Old Farmer's Almanac.
Richardson is a big list maker who is forever enumerating his thoughts, one through 10. These lists fly out of his office at an astonishing pace. Any piece of mail sent to him is liable to be returned with a list scrawled over your message: "1—How is your wife; 2—Our goal is to be the best food service in the world by 2000; 3—Keep up the good work." Once he wrote a note to his son Mark. It read: "M, 1—You're doing good; 2—We're proud of you; 3—We love you. JR."
But there is a financial sophistication beneath this down-home veneer. When TW Services took over Denny's, four years ago, the chain was in terrible shape. Richardson traveled to Denny's headquarters in La Mirada, Calif., spent a year there and reorganized and revitalized it. The chain is once more throwing off cash.
McColl, who is now CEO of NCNB, the country's seventh-largest bank, says what most impressed him about Richardson in the beginning was his ability to motivate hourly wage people, the heart of the fast-food business. "His restaurants were taut ships—clean, with good service," says McColl. "And here was an operating officer who could cook, serve customers and clean up the trash. He led by example."
Richardson still shows up occasionally at various Hardee's to help with the breakfast rush, making biscuits or spilling gravy over them. However, the story that they like to tell in Spartanburg to convey Richardson's hands-on style has him visiting the home of one of his hourly wage workers, who had suffered a death in the family. Upon leaving, Richardson noticed the grass was a little high. He shucked his coat, found the mower, cleaned up the yard and left. You would work hard for that man, wouldn't you?
Up to now the Richardson saga has been a local legend at most. And he would like it to be smaller than that. But he may be on the verge of bursting upon the country's sports pages. Ever since he got the idea to bring an NFL team to Charlotte, N.C. (located 70 miles northeast of Spartanburg), the possibility has increased that he just might pull it off. He had never contemplated owning a team, and, in fact, he had been burned out on football after watching Mark play at Clemson and his other son, Jon, play at North Carolina, sometimes on the same day. But when George Shinn landed an NBA franchise for Charlotte in April 1987, Richardson got to thinking.
Two months later he called Mark, who had just gotten his M.B.A. at Virginia, and asked if he would like to head up Richardson Sports and commence the campaign. It does not always pay to take a businessman's motives at face value, and Richardson's stated intentions—"I wanted to do something for an area of the country that has been awfully good to us"—beg for a cynic's translation. Yet he is that rare aspiring owner, one who is trying to reel in a franchise at relatively little expense to the city or its taxpayers. Richardson intends to foot the bill for the 70,000-seat football-only stadium, a $150 million project. He was shopping for suburban sites when Charlotte stepped in and agreed to lease him property in its central business district at $1 a year for 99 years. The stadium will be built only if the NFL grants Charlotte a franchise.
Richardson has made Mark, 31, and Jon, 32, daughter Ashley, 30, and his wife, Rosalind, partners in Richardson Sports, and has gathered a number of North and South Carolina tycoons of similar temperament as limited partners. When two of North Carolina's richest brothers were invited to invest they said, "O.K., but does anybody have to know about it?"
While Richardson and some of the others in his bunch like to lie low, Mark seems born to the job of front man. And Charlotte marketing maven Max Muhleman, who is assisting Richardson in his bid for an NFL team, seems a handy guy to have around when it comes to creative geography. In persuading Richardson, who grew up in Fayetteville, N.C., that the franchise should not be a city team, nor even a state team, but a team for the Carolinas, Muhleman put together research that shows that the drive-in market (the population living within 150 miles of the proposed stadium) is 9.6 million and the combined Carolinas TV market is more than 3 million households. It's all quite convincing.
Of course, on top of the stadium, the Richardson group would have to come up with another $100 million or so in franchise fees. What's more, he would be stuck, inevitably, with one of the league's worst teams. He seems not to be bothered by either prospect. "Is it scary?" he says, repeating the question. "It's not scary. It might get a little complicated, but not scary." He has attempted trickier moves than this, Johnny U's backup receiver has.
The idea of failure, which seems not to have occurred to him before the question, makes him nearly defensive. "Let's think about our life," he says, sliding once more into the modesty of plurality. "We went to a small school, played pro sports, were lucky enough to make it to the world championship and win. We started a company from scratch and took it to the New York Stock Exchange. We brought the company back to Spartanburg, one of the largest employers in the state of South Carolina." He stops himself as if to examine his luck, all luck. "A rather interesting life," he says.
It's the kind of life that happens, we're left to guess, when the backup receiver gets to call the plays. His old pro quarterback, for one, marvels at the transformation. "He was just one of those guys who thought there was something more out there for him," says Unitas. "I guess he did pretty good for himself, didn't he?"