There they are, just getting started: On a muggy summer afternoon in uptown Charlotte, a tall, imposing man slides a brown leather mitt over his left hand and perches on an upturned bucket. His dark eyes crinkle when he smiles at his daughter, tan and fit, standing about 30 feet from him and holding a neon yellow softball. She pitches. The ball hits his mitt with a pop. “There you go,” he says, throwing it back. It’s one of those all-American father-daughter scenes. A rising sophomore at the University of California at Los Angeles, the 19-year-old girl, Courtney, works out with her father regularly. But they’re not in a backyard. They’re on a manicured field in an empty stadium built to hold 74,000. And were anyone to happen upon the scene, they wouldn’t see an ordinary dad. This is Ron Rivera, head coach of the Carolina Panthers, with whom rests the hope of faithful fans who’ve longed for a Playoffs-bound team that would crush opponents with double-digit wins and dominate the highlight reels. But after a bipolar eight seasons with former Coach John Fox – marked by euphoric highs (a trip to Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2003) and excruciating lows (a 2-14 season in 2010) – team owner Jerry Richardson and weary Panthers fans were ready for a fresh start. They got that in 2011. When Rivera left his post as defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers to be the head coach of the Panthers, he joined a team that would draft rookie quarterback Cam Newton, a franchise-defining player who shattered NFL records and was named to the Pro-Bowl. Rivera was the master puppeteer. But to his two kids, Christopher and Courtney, he’s just a doting dad who has always encouraged them to follow their passions. And to his wife of 27 years, he’s just Ron, the 50-year-old gentleman who approached her at a frozen yogurt shop nearly three decades ago.
Hard work Rivera was born the second-youngest of four boys to Eugenio and Dolores Rivera. Eugenio, a Puerto Rican commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, ran the household with structure, discipline and a chain of command. At 6:30 a.m. each weekday, Rivera woke to his father’s brisk knock on his door. He had chores to do before school. By 7 a.m. on Saturday mornings, when most of their peers were lazing in bed or watching cartoons, the Rivera sons were grooming the yard to perfection. “You never got anything. You had to earn it,” Rivera says. “If you wanted 50 cents to go to the movies, you had to cut the grass, wash the cars and do your chores. If you wanted to go bowling, you would walk down the street, knock on a few doors and see if anybody wanted their grass cut.” Dolores, a California girl of Mexican heritage, signed her boys up for every sport. Rivera, who was six feet tall by age 13, excelled at baseball, basketball and football. Sports were a stabilizing force in Rivera’s life, as his father’s Army career bounced the family from Fort Ord, Calif., to Germany, Panama, Washington, D.C. and Maryland. “You needed a distraction because six months later, a year later, two years later, you’re moving,” says Rivera. “Sports were a way you were easily accepted.” Rivera was a three-sport athlete at Seaside High on the Monterey Peninsula. Folks in the area still remember the baseball game when Rivera hit a home run so hard that the ball landed on the embankment of the highway – about a 425-foot pop, Rivera says. Though he was courted by a number of schools, Rivera chose the University of California, Berkley because it was just an hour and a half from home. It wasn’t long before he became an All-American linebacker. Dolores spent much of her paycheck traveling to Rivera’s football games. She only missed one in his whole college career.
‘Together ever since’ In the summer of 1983, when Rivera was a senior in college, he bumped into a petite sophomore named Stephanie who played point guard for Cal. They were each with a group of friends at Yogurt Park, a frozen-yogurt hangout near campus. “You know when you get caught making eye contact and you have to acknowledge it? That’s what happened,” recalls Stephanie. Rivera introduced himself and found out Stephanie and her fleet of tall friends were working at a local basketball camp that summer. He challenged them to a pick-up game against his buddies. They met to play Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but it took Rivera until the third day to say something to Stephanie other than “screen right or screen left,” she says. After an hour of chitchat, he summoned the courage to ask her on a date. “We’ve been together ever since,” says Rivera, grinning. Four months later, Rivera proposed. Their newlywed years were a whirlwind. Rivera was drafted by the Chicago Bears, he and Stephanie wed, and she became pregnant with their son, Christopher. During the 1985 season, Rivera – a rookie – played in Super Bowl XX, when the Bears beat the New England Patriots, 46-10. Rivera played in 149 games for the Bears, and retired after the 1992 season. But he wasn’t done with the sport.
‘I can do this’ When Christopher was old enough to play Pop Warner football, Rivera offered to coach his team. Courtney, about 6 years old at the time, wept when her parents told her she couldn’t play, too. “She used to put her brother’s helmet on and go run into the wall. She thought that’s what it was all about,” Rivera says. They have family photos of Courtney at youth sports camps, tackling dummies and trying to catch the ball. Rivera keeps a beloved copy of Christopher’s first football picture saved on his phone. Christopher has the helmet, cleats, pads and jersey. Beside him in the traditionally solo photo is Courtney, wearing leggings and a pink Disney’s “Aladdin” T-shirt. After retiring, Rivera – like many former players – became a sports broadcaster. While coaching Christopher’s football team on the side, he worked for WGN-TV and SportsChannel Chicago, giving pregame, halftime and postgame reports. He says he’ll never forget covering the Bears’ Monday night season-opener against the Dallas Cowboys in 1996. Rivera stood on the sideline beside star running back Walter Payton. “I turned to (him) and I said, ‘You know, Walt, I can do this. I can coach,’” Rivera recalls. “He said ‘Are you serious?’” Payton arranged for Rivera to meet with the team owner and then with head coach Dave Wannstedt, who gave Rivera a volunteer position for no pay. Rivera so impressed the defensive-back coaches that after a few months, he got a permanent position on the staff. Meanwhile, Stephanie was coaching basketball –from Courtney’s teams to the WNBA –her gigs following Ron’s career around the country. Finally, after stints with the Bears, the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Diego Chargers, and nine interviews for head-coaching gigs that didn’t pan out, Rivera got his shot. Hello, Charlotte.
Sources of inspiration Rivera’s glass office at the stadium is orderly, his desk clear of clutter. It’s like he keeps their home, Stephanie says. He’s great about cleaning. But she does the cooking. “I don’t even let him near the grill,” she says, laughing. A golden plaque, a gift from Christopher (now 26 with a production job with Disney in California), faces out from the front of the desk with a quote from Ronald Reagan: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” Rivera draws inspiration from history. He loves biographies and keeps a few tucked on a shelf behind his desk, next to his books of famous motivational speeches, all dog-eared and tabbed. He rattles off nearly a dozen he’s read recently: books on Patton, Eisenhower, FDR, Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin. He pulls out three different editions of “God’s Little Instruction Book for Men.” “These are some things I always try to draw from,” Rivera says. “I’ve given them to some players who I felt needed to read them.”
A dream realized Rivera celebrated his 50th birthday in January 2012, during his first season with the Panthers. He says reaching the landmark year only reminds him more of what he wants the team to grow into: Super Bowl champions. “I’ve been there at the tip top of the mountain There’s nothing like it. I want these guys to experience it,” Rivera says. But it’s all about the journey, he adds – the hard work, the preparation, the playing as a team, the feeling of winning together. Before Courtney was born, Rivera took the family to the farmlands of Bayamón, Puerto Rico, where his father’s family of mostly sharecroppers still live. Eugenio’s siblings built their homes around the land, but if you stand at the top of a hill and look into the valley, you’ll see a two-room shack made of cinder block and wood. The home has a small stove and a dirt floor. The family intentionally left the home on the property as a reminder of where they came from. “You understand the humble beginning, and it gives you a sense of pride,” says Rivera. In June, Rivera flew to his alma mater, Seaside High, to give the commencement speech. “I told them, ‘Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you cannot come from this city and be successful,’” Rivera says. “‘Yes, you can. But if you want something, you’ve got to go get it. They’re not going to send a limo.’” Rivera had a pregame ritual during his pro-ball career. When he walked onto the field, he made eye contact with Stephanie in the stands and did the sign language motion for “I love you.” Now, years later as head coach, he still does the same, only these fans are a throbbing mass of teal and black. “We’re walking out on the field,” Rivera says, “and I point to Stephanie. ... Just to say we made it.”