SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Jerry Richardson began by thanking his players for their support during his illness. Then the Carolina owner asked the franchise's biggest offseason distraction, Julius Peppers, to stand next to him.

Richardson also showed the team that he hadn't lost his sense of humor, by drawing some laughs during his talk with the team.

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Richardson may lost considerable weight, but he showed Monday in his first address to the team since getting a new heart that he hasn't lost his direct style. He assured his players he's getting well -- and that there are no lingering effects from management following Peppers' public pleas to play elsewhere.

"He's always been an owner that if he has something to say, he's going to say it," receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "He's going to say it to your face. He's not going to talk behind your back. He's that kind of guy. He stood up in front of the team, said what we wanted to say -- then broke us down after that."

The jokes were sprinkled in a serious talk, which came after former Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker chauffeured the owner on the 90-minute drive to watch his first practice since a brief visit to an offseason workout in June.

After stretching, the players circled near midfield around their 73-year-old owner, who is still recovering after getting a heart transplant on Super Bowl Sunday.

"Certainly he's lost a lot of weight, but he looked good," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "He had good color in his face and it's always good to see him."

Early in the 5-minute speech -- which couldn't be heard by fans and reporters ringing the field -- Richardson summoned Peppers.

While Richardson and Peppers didn't speak to reporters, other players said the owner told of a recent meeting with the Pro Bowl defensive end. It came at the end of a tumultuous offseason that included Peppers saying he had "maxed out" in Carolina, implored management to let him leave in free agency, and declared he would never sign a long-term deal with the team.

The Panthers still placed the restrictive franchise tag on their career sacks leader. After skipping offseason workouts, Peppers relented and signed his one-year, $16.7 million tender.

"He just said that they had a conversation and went out for lunch and everything was cool," linebacker Jon Beason said.

Then a couple of bursts of laughter were heard, before the players broke into position groups to begin practice. Richardson, wearing sunglasses, dark pants and a white dress shirt, then tooled around on a golf cart. He stopped briefly in front of a group of reporters to say he was "feeling well."

"Just to reassure the organization and the players that he's on the road to recovery, I think that did some good for everyone," Muhammad said. "And it's always nice to hear him talk, because he's always going to say something that's funny. He's going to let you know how focused he is and how focused he wants the team to be."

A former teammate of Johnny Unitas with the Baltimore Colts, Richardson is an imposing figure that leaves employees on edge. Muhammad joked that when he shows up it's "like the boss is walking in, so you start shuffling papers."

But the man who founded the expansion franchise is highly respected in the locker room because of his status as being the first ex-player to own a team since George Halas ran the Chicago Bears.

Hence when he speaks about most issues -- including Peppers -- it hits home with the players.

"You've got to understand, there's a certain respect players have for guys who play the game," Delhomme said. "Well, we have the only owner to play the game. That's very big. ... It's a very refreshing feeling. When you come into that atmosphere every day, it sends good vibes."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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