CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The SUV pulled in through a rarely used gate Thursday morning. Jerry Richardson wasn't noticed until he had climbed behind the wheel of a golf cart and whizzed onto the field where the Carolina Panthers players were stretching.
The applause started immediately.
Less than four months after the Carolina owner received a heart transplant, a thinner, yet healthy-looking Richardson was soon jumping out of his cart to shake hands with players and coaches in his first time around the team since the lifesaving surgery on Feb. 1.
"All you have to do is look at the reaction of everybody," general manager Marty Hurney said. "Players, coaches and staff, everybody was thrilled to see him. He just means so much to all of us. It lifted everybody's spirits."
Richardson zipping around in a golf cart had been a regular sight at Panthers practices since the expansion team's debut in 1995. But those visits had stopped as Richardson fought congestive heart failure last season. After a pacemaker still left him weak and sapped of energy, doctors placed him on the transplant waiting list.
A donor match was found less than two months later -- on Super Bowl Sunday. The 72-year-old Richardson was released from the hospital 12 days later and has responded well, slowly regaining his strength and energy.
The influential NFL owner and former teammate of Johnny Unitas had made a couple of trips to his stadium office. But this visit -- the first practice he had attended in just under a year -- was different.
"I'm doing great," a smiling Richardson told a group of reporters before leaving the complex.
Richardson, dressed in a black jacket and blue tie despite the intense humidity, was driven to the practice field by former Bank of America CEO and friend Hugh McColl. But McColl ended up becoming a passenger on the golf cart.
Richardson's background as a player with the Baltimore Colts in the late 1950s created a unique bond with his players that was on display with the reaction he received once they were aware of his surprise visit at the team's optional offseason workout.
The man nicknamed "Big Cat" around the franchise soon toured the practice complex as the players broke into position drills. First stop, the quarterbacks, where Richardson leaped out of his cart to shake Jake Delhomme's hand.
"He's not just an owner by name," Delhomme said. "He's one that many guys on the team have a relationship with and not just, 'Hey how are you doing?' It's a true relationship where he knows your family and knows your kids. It's something that goes unnoticed, but that's the way he wants it.
"It was certainly great to see him out here. He certainly looks good."
Soon Hurney had jumped on the back of the cart, and Richardson continued to talk to players.
"He just said that he was happy to be back," safety Chris Harris said. "He missed us, he missed this. He was just happy to see us."
Richardson still faces a long recovery. Most patients have routine biopsies and take medication to fight rejection, infection and other problems. According to the American Heart Association, the five-year survival rate for heart-transplant recipients is about 72 percent for males.
Richardson, whose age is at the high-end of those who receive transplants, already has cleared several hurdles.
"I thought he looked great," coach John Fox said. "He's getting stronger by the day and everything is going well. It was great to see him out here."