NEW ORLEANS — Luke Kuechly’s voice began to crack on Sunday as he talked about Jerry Richardson being in the locker room following his final game as the owner of the Carolina Panthers.
Richardson visited with players, most individually, after Sunday’s 31-26 loss to the New Orleans Saints in an NFC wild-card playoff game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Now the team will go up for sale as Richardson, 81, faces an NFL investigation for workplace misconduct. According to a Sports Illustrated article published last month, the team founder paid off at least four former employees to keep quiet allegations of sexual harassment and the use of a racial slur to a former scout.
Despite the allegations, several players have said over the past few weeks they wanted to send Richardson off with a Super Bowl title. That dream ended against a New Orleans team that handed the Panthers (11-6) three of their six losses this season.
Nobody was more emotional about Richardson coming to the locker room than Kuechly, Carolina’s Pro Bowl middle linebacker.
“Everybody on this team owes a lot to him,” he said. “That’s not how we wanted him to …”
Kuechly stopped briefly to gather himself and fight back tears.
“It’s not how we wanted the season to end for him,” he continued. “Unfortunately for us, we’ll miss having him around. He helped a lot of guys in this locker room get where they are. He’s done a great job for the city.
“You talk to anybody in this locker room and they appreciate what he did for us and what he meant to this team and what he provided to everybody in this locker room. In the states of North Carolina and South Carolina, he’s done so much for us. We owe a lot for him. Unfortunately for us, it didn’t end how we wanted it to for him.”
While the allegations against Richardson are serious, players have talked about the man they claim to know and the things that Richardson did for them.
Coach Ron Rivera broke the team down with “Mr. Richardson” after Carolina wrapped up a playoff berth with a win against Tampa Bay in Week 16.
“He’s done a lot for every man in this locker room,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “For us to not come through today, it definitely hurts.”
Tight end Greg Olsen said he talked briefly to Richardson after the game and thanked him for all he has done for Olsen and his family. Richardson flew with Olsen and his wife to Boston in 2012 to visit with doctors to make sure they had all the information needed to make the right decision on how to deal with a congenital heart defect their son T.J. was born with.
“I’ve made no secret what he’s meant to me and my family,” Olsen said. “What he’s done for me personally and professionally is something I’ll always be grateful for.”
The Panthers are valued at $2.3 billion by Forbes magazine. The organization already has hired Steve Greenberg of New York investment bank Allen & Co. to help sell the team. The company has represented some of the biggest names in business and politics.
Potential buyers have ranged from entertainer Sean “Diddy” Combs and Charlotte native Stephen Curry to Speedway Motorsports Chairman Bruton Smith to former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
Richardson said the night SI’s article was published he would not accept any offers on the team until after the season ended, which officially happened on Sunday night.
The team has some stability in that Rivera on Saturday was given a two-year extension that runs through 2020. Rivera said on Sunday that he would like to continue working with interim general manager Marty Hurney, who took over the week before training camp after Dave Gettleman was fired.