CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I ask Cam Newton if he knows who Johnny Unitas is.
“Mr. Richardson and I had a conversation late last year after the season and he was talking about great quarterbacks,” says Newton.
Richardson was talking about Unitas. But he didn’t refer to Unitas by name. He referred to him by number. Richardson neatly wrote the number Unitas wore, 19, on a piece of paper.
Newton looked at the paper.
“We had a receiver on our team that was No. 19,” says Newton. “So you know I’m just trying to put two and two together and (Richardson) said, ‘You got to be great like 19.’ I’m like, ‘19?’”
No. 19 on the Carolina Panthers roster was Seyi Ajirotutu. He caught one pass last season for 4 yards.
“Mr. Richardson was talking about the greatest quarterback that every played, Johnny U,” says Newton. “I said, ‘Oh.’ I thought he was talking about the 19 in the organization.”
Adds Newton: “Everybody knows about the legend. Of course I never got to see him play. I just hear stories Mr. Richardson has told.”
We all have stories about a quarterback. Maybe yours is about Joe Montana or Joe Namath, Tom Brady or Drew Brees.
Richardson’s stories are more intimate and built from his relationship with the NFL that spans more than a half century. He’s gone from Unitas, his first quarterback as a receiver with the Baltimore Colts, to Newton.
Richardson shared a huddle with Unitas, caught his passes. A small-college star at Wofford, Richardson was selected by the Baltimore Colts in the 13th round of the NFL draft. He played for Baltimore in 1959 and ’60.
Do you think your background as a receiver enables you to see qualities in a quarterback the rest of us don’t?
“I don’t think,” says Richardson, 76. “I’m sure.”
When the Colts failed to jack his salary up from $9,750 to $10,000 after his second season, Richardson returned to Spartanburg and with a partner started a hamburger restaurant that would become Hardee’s.
Unitas stuck with football. He was the first quarterback to pass for 30 touchdowns in a season. He threw a touchdown pass in 47 straight games. He won two NFL championships and a Super Bowl. He was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1979, 10 years before Newton was born. He died of a heart attack, at the age of 69, in 2002.
Richardson, 76, would love to have found a quarterback such as Unitas for the Carolina Panthers, the team Richardson owns. But he didn’t expect to.
“I never thought about getting a quarterback like Johnny,” says Richardson. “They don’t come along often.”
A franchise quarterback
The Panthers have invested a first-round pick on a quarterback twice. Newton was the first player selected in the 2011 draft. In their first draft in 1995 they took Kerry Collins with the fifth pick in the first round.
Collins had a nice career but never became a franchise quarterback, a quarterback who could lift or save a team when little else succeeded.
Did you ever look at a quarterback such as Peyton Manning and say, “What I would give for one of those?”
“I know what I’d give,” says Richardson. “I know how much we offered to trade for Peyton Manning.”
The Indianapolis Colts drafted Manning in 1998. The Panthers proposed a trade for the pick. Richardson remembers offering Collins, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and a package of draft choices.
Indianapolis president Bill Polian had been Richardson’s general manager in Carolina.
“I thought Bill would do it because he wanted Kerry,” Richardson says.
Says Polian: “There was some back and forth. Kerry, Moose (Muhammad), plus draft choices is what comes to mind. Needless to say, we elected to stay with the choice and Peyton. Obviously, it worked out for us. I hope the same is true for Carolina with Cam.”
Collins was the second quarterback to start for the Panthers. Newton is the 14th.
Unitas was Richardson’s first quarterback. Newton, says Richardson, will be his last.
Drive to win
In what ways are they alike?
“John Unitas wanted to win at almost any cost, and Cameron is the same way,” Richardson says. “Physically, they’re totally different. John was 6-1 and 190 pounds. Sloop shoulders. Wore high-top shoes. There wasn’t any flash to him.
“Cameron – I hesitate to use this word – has star quality about him. But coaches and players believe in Cam. And he doesn’t want to let his teammates down or, first, he doesn’t want to let his family down. And that’s important.”
Richardson has had a relationship with each.
Before he depended on Unitas to get him the ball, Richardson depended on Unitas to get him to practice. When Richardson first reported to the Colts his wife, Rosalind, was back in Spartanburg, pregnant with their first child. She kept the car.
Unitas was a star. How did he know you needed a ride?
“He was alert,” says Richardson. “He knew what was going on. He came into the league the hard way and knew it was going to be hard for me.”
A ninth-round pick by his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers, Unitas was cut before he played a game. The next season, 1956, he signed with Baltimore.
Richardson was a 13th-round pick. He was shy, Unitas was shy. That’s what made the three or four-mile ride to practice enjoyable: neither needed to talk unless he had something to say.
In 1959, in Richardson’s first game as a Colt against the college all-stars, a big game then, Unitas did. More than 50 years later, Richardson remembers that he was supposed to come back for a Unitas pass. He cut the route short by a few feet but made the reception anyway. He remembers the quarterback’s reaction.
“I was pleased I caught the ball,” says Richardson. “Well, he came all the way from the huddle and chewed (me) out. And I’m a rookie and this is the first real game we played.”
Richardson’s career numbers: 15 receptions for 171 yards and four touchdowns. As a rookie he caught a 12-yard touchdown pass in the NFL championship game that gave Baltimore a 21-9 lead. The Colts beat the Giants 31-16.
Here’s a reason Richardson loved Unitas as a friend:
“One time we were playing in Chicago and we roomed together,” says Richardson. “And Sport Magazine was a big deal back then and they were doing the interviews in our room and there were several photographers. And they asked if they could take him out to dinner. And he said no, he already had plans. And they said we’ll take you someplace nice. And he said no, he already had plans.
“So when they left he said, ‘You want to have dinner?’ ”
Here’s a reason Richardson and his teammates loved Unitas as a player.
“Whatever he called in the huddle you believed was going to work,” says Richardson. “With him, you always thought you could win. And he was tough. I hear these players now say I tweaked my shin or my calf. I never heard him say stuff like that. I don’t know if I ever heard him mention hamstrings or my shoulder hurts.
“I don’t think Cam will be a better leader. He may be an equal leader but I don’t think you can be a better leader than Johnny Unitas was.”
Newton is a better runner. Last season he set a record for quarterbacks by rushing for 14 touchdowns. He threw for 4,051 yards, the most ever by a rookie.
“When Cam is out passing I can tell when he’s throwing the ball versus somebody else,” says Richardson. “I can hear. Some time when you’re out there close your eyes or turn your back and guess who’s throwing the ball.”
Just the sound of the ball going through the air?
“Through the air,” says Richardson.
Richardson says that he knew Newton could be special not after studying tape or measuring body fat. He knew when they sat down at Richardson’s house before the 2011 draft.
“He did everything right that day,” Richardson says. “I think Cam might be the kind of person that will always rise to the occasion, whatever it is.’
Newton looked Richardson in the eye, called him Mr. and sir, and sent a handwritten note thanking him for his time.
As a quarterback, “You’ve got to keep in mind he’s still learning,” Richardson says of Newton. “To get back to my friend John when he walked up to the line of scrimmage he knew like that where the ball was going. Cam doesn’t know that yet.”
If the time comes that he does?
“I think because of his physical skills he will be better,” Richardson says.
Richardson adds: “John couldn’t run like Cam. That’s a characteristic Cam has, either you’ve got it or you don’t.”
I tell Newton what Richardson told me, that Newton could better than 19.
“Sheww,” Newton says. “Well that’s a lot of pressure on me I would say. I’m just going to continue to do what I have been doing. I just think if we stay on schedule as a team and we do what we’re capable of doing I think the sky’s the limit. I don’t want to put no type of fate, no type of destiny or anything. I just know what we’re capable of doing as a team and if we do that life will be good.”
Life is good for Richardson, who enters the season with a team that should contend for the playoffs – and with a quarterback for whom he’s waited 50 years.
What’s having Cam changed for you, I ask Richardson.
“My disposition,” he says.