CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - Jerry Richardson's nickname is "Big Cat" but no one associated with the Carolina Panthers, the team he founded and owns, would dare to call him anything but "Mr. Richardson".
Mick Mixon, the Panthers' play-by-play radio announcer, was warned about that on his very first day of work.
"I think even (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell calls him 'Mr. Richardson'," Mixon said.
His Panthers are favored to win their first Super Bowl in their 21st season but Richardson, a 79-year-old North Carolina native, rarely speaks or appears in public. He has declined interview requests, including one from Reuters.
Yet no one doubts that his vision and persistence - and deep pockets - are why the Carolinas, where stock-car racing and college basketball once reigned, have embraced professional football.
"He brought football to this area with the purpose of making this area relevant and helping to revitalize it, and that's what it's done," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said while preparing his team to take on the Broncos in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Richardson has endured health issues and public criticism in recent years.
He had a heart transplant in 2009 and two years later he led NFL owners in heated negotiations during a 135-day player lockout, reportedly questioning players' toughness and intelligence.
Last year, Richardson was accused of leniency toward All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy, who was charged with assaulting his ex-girlfriend. The team declined to re-sign Hardy for the 2015 season, and Richardson made it clear the decision was his.
Richardson can identify with players because, alone among NFL owners, he also played the game at top level.
A late-round draft choice from tiny Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., he played receiver for two years with the Baltimore Colts and caught a touchdown pass in the 1959 NFL Championship Game.
"You look at him, and you understand how he could play, because he's a huge human being," said Roman Harper, the Panthers' starting strong safety. "He told me, 'Safeties tackle, so just keep tackling.' I was like, 'Yes, sir'."
Richardson quit playing football in 1961 and, with a college teammate, turned ownership of the first Hardee's franchise into a food-service empire encompassing 2,500 restaurants and 100,000 employees by his retirement in 1995.
The Panthers played their first NFL season that year. Richardson had lobbied for a league team since the late 1980s, and he was finally granted a franchise in 1993.
"He tells you exactly what is on his mind," said Richardson's friend John Mara, the New York Giants' co-owner, president and CEO. "He doesn’t speak all that often, but when he does, he commands the attention of everybody in the room."
Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes