In Mister Richardson's Neighborhood, the oak trees are broad and green this time of year, the rolling front lawn is as lush as a fairway, and the iced tea is cold and plentiful. Everything is perfect here at Carolina Panther owner Jerry Richardson's two-story house in a quiet and shady enclave in Spartanburg, S.C., where last Friday Richardson picked out his favorite wing chair and discussed the prototypical Panther he expected to select in the next day's NFL draft.
"In our draft room right now," the 58-year-old Richardson began, leaning forward in the chair, "we have a board with 139 names on it. That may not be as many as some other teams, but we've eliminated a lot of names. We only want players who will help us win the Super Bowl. We will not draft a player we and everyone in the Carolinas won't be proud of. We sure as heck won't have a guy out there in the community whose character we're worried about."
Gone from the Panther draft board were the assorted injury cases every team eliminates. But also absent were players with known drug problems (like Miami defensive lineman Warren Sapp) and players with possible weight problems (like Ohio State tackle Korey Stringer). At the very top of the board stood the name of Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins, whom the Panthers proudly made the first draft pick in franchise history with the fifth selection on Saturday.
Carolina chose a man it thinks will wear Panther black and Carolina blue at a Super Bowl one day. The Panthers also drafted a man who will wear an Italian suit and wing tips to the Fayetteville Rotary Club smoker and be darned glad to do it. By late Saturday, with Collins and three other draftees—Fort Valley State cornerback Tyrone Poole, Texas tackle Blake Brockermeyer and Northeast Louisiana defensive end Shawn King—in the fold, the Panthers thought that life was just about as perfect as Richardson's lawn. "This franchise is going to get 100 percent of Kerry Collins on and off the field," Collins said. "I won't rest until Carolina has won a Super Bowl."
Several NFL teams were stunned that the Panthers traded down from the first pick to fifth and bypassed franchise running back Ki-Jana Carter. The move was reminiscent of that of the expansion Seattle Seahawks in 1977, when they passed on Tony Dorsett and traded down from second overall to 14th and took Tulsa guard Steve August, plus three second-round picks.
The San Diego Chargers had another Collins, Michigan quarterback Todd, rated ahead of Kerry. The Buffalo Bills gave Kerry Collins a second-round grade. But don't let any expert try to fool you. No one today knows if Carolina coach Dom Capers, president Mike McCormack and general manager Bill Polian are brains or boobs, and no one will know by the end of the upcoming two-or three-win expansion season. "Nobody ever won a trophy for winning the draft," said Polian, the architect of Buffalo's Super Bowl teams.
But there were a lot of wide smiles Saturday night in the temporary Panther offices in Rock Hill, S.C., 15 miles south of Charlotte. The 6'5" kid with the clutch arm was the reason why.
Polian's interest in Collins mushroomed last November in Champaign, Ill., where the Nittany Lions were playing the Illini with the Big Ten title, a trip to the Rose Bowl and a national championship on the line. Polian wanted to see firsthand if the quarterback whom his gut told him could be the Panthers' franchise player could play big in a very big game.
As he visited with Penn State coach Joe Paterno the day before the game, Polian asked, "Joe, can Kerry win a big game when it's all on his shoulders—when he has to win it by himself?"
"Well, he really hasn't had to," Paterno said. "But I think he could if he had to."