With two Coach of the Year awards and now a Super Bowl appearance under his belt, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has become one of the most recognizable and beloved sports figures in Charlotte.
And now the Humane Society of Charlotte is banking on the 54-year-old’s popularity (and his likeness) to help sell a limited-edition T-shirt. It features a cartoon version of Rivera in trademark transition lenses and a riverboat gambler outfit, holding up a playing card with an “R” on it and leaning on an oversized football.
We recently sat down with Rivera’s wife, Stephanie Rivera – who has been leading a grassroots effort to spread the word about the shirt and the couple’s partnership with the Humane Society – to get the lowdown. Here are five key takeaways from the conversation:
1. The Charlotte-based illustrator who designed the “Riverboat Ron” tee is the same guy who created the “Purrbacca” shirt for Panthers tight end Greg Olsen’s The HEARTest Yard charity last year. On that one, Joey Ellis reimagined the black cat of Panthers-logo fame with Chewbacca (of “Star Wars” fame) fur and wearing the Wookiee’s trademark bandolier. The limited-edition white tee raised $62,100 for families of children with congenital heart disease; only occasionally will you find stray ones on eBay, where they’ll sell for somewhere in the neighborhood of $50. Like the “Purrbacca” tee, the “Riverboat Ron” shirts will be printed by Dapper Ink Custom Outfitters of Greenville, S.C.
2. An earlier version of the design had Rivera smiling more broadly, but when he saw the one with him wearing an expression that looked a bit more smug, “Ron said ‘Keep the smirk,’ ” Stephanie Rivera says. “When he comes up with an idea, he gets that smirk.” The outfit his caricature is wearing makes him look like a riverboat gambler. As most fans know, he adopted the “Riverboat Ron” nickname in 2013, after he became famous for frequently electing to have Carolina go for it on fourth downs rather than kick field goals. (The hat looks rather like the one he wore to the Kentucky Derby this past May.) There’s nothing on the back of the shirt, but instead of a shirt tag, the slogan “Safe Bet, Adopt a Pet” is printed on the inside, where the traditional tag would normally be.
3. This is the third major fundraiser the Riveras have done for the Humane Society of Charlotte. (The couple also has designated as charitable partners the Ronald McDonald House of Charlotte, Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and the USO.) In 2013, they put out a 2014 calendar called “Puppies, Panthers and Kittens ... Oh, My!” which featured players like Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Jonathan Stewart posing with cats and dogs. In 2014, the Riveras partnered with the organization on the “Rescue Recipes Tailgating Cookbook,” which revealed recipes from local restaurants like Bonterra, Gallery, Napa on Providence and Zebra. Last year, they were unable to do a fundraiser because of personal tragedies, including a devastating house fire and the loss of Ron Rivera’s older brother, Mickey, to pancreatic cancer.
4. The Riveras have two dogs: an 11-year-old golden retriever named Fiyero and a 10 1/2-year-old terrier mix named Penny. Fiyero they got from a breeder, and Stephanie Rivera says “he was from a show line ... and that means that if you get a camera out, he’ll stop and pose.” Penny, meanwhile, they met randomly at a dog park in Illinois back when Ron Rivera was defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears in the mid-2000s. Penny and Fiyero started playing, and it turned out she was a foster. “My daughter (Courtney, then about 13) was with me,” Stephanie Rivera says, “and she was like, ‘Hey, weren’t we talking about getting Fiyero a buddy?’ Next thing you know, we were going through the adoption process.” To this day, the pups are a key part of Ron’s daily routine, Stephanie says: “Coach wakes up and walks them first thing in the morning. If it’s dark, he’s got one of those headlamps on.”
5. If you happen to be a member of the Carolina Panthers, and you happen to be reading this, this is your reminder: Stephanie Rivera wants you to put on that “Riverboat Ron” shirt she gave you and post a photo on social media of you wearing it. “Oh, the players all have one. I keep telling them, ‘You guys gotta take a picture with your pets.’ I know some of the guys live in apartments. I’m like, ‘Well, borrow your friends’ pets!’ ... I know A.J. Klein has a rescue, I know Thomas Davis has a bulldog and Greg Olsen has a lab. ... I’m gonna keep harassing ’em,” she says, laughing. “Once I see their wives and tell them, the photos will start going up.”
▪ The shirts are advertised as costing $25, but they’re only available online (at http://bit.ly/RiverboatRonT) and shipping is about $6, so let’s call it $31. After expenses, the Humane Society should net $10 per shirt for its programs.
▪ The ordering deadline is Friday, Oct. 14. Orders placed by Sept. 30 will be shipped Oct. 14, while the remaining orders will be shipped Oct. 28.
▪ Adult sizes run from Small through XXXL. Youth sizes aren’t available, unfortunately.