Carolina Panthers players woke up Monday morning to voicemails and text messages from teammates and family members, informing them coach Ron Rivera’s south Charlotte home had caught fire overnight.
While Rivera and his family escaped unharmed, the fire was the latest instance of real life intersecting with the Panthers’ playoff season.
Rivera’s house fire, which he believes began in a gas fireplace, came about a month after quarterback Cam Newton totaled his truck in a two-vehicle accident in uptown that sent him to the hospital with two small fractures in his lower back.
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Before the season, Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy was inside a Mecklenburg County courtroom testifying in a domestic violence trial that ended with a district judge finding him guilty, a verdict he has appealed.
Tight end Greg Olsen said it’s not the narrative he would have written for the 2014 season, but he’s thankful his coach and teammate avoided serious injury.
“Every year has its own story. Every year has its own series of events that it’s hard to predict. But car accidents with your starting quarterback and your head coach’s house catching fire, those are things that I don’t think anyone ever anticipates being a part of your story,” Olsen said.
“For whatever reason, this has just been our year. It’s been out-of-ordinary things that are taking place. Fortunately, we’ve escaped both of them, relatively speaking, without anyone getting injured and people being OK.”
The fire caused significant damage to Rivera’s three-story, brick home and will force him and wife, Stephanie, to find temporary housing for the next six to eight months.
Rivera missed a team meeting at Bank of America Stadium but sent a message through secondary coach Steve Wilks letting players know everyone was OK and it would be “business as usual” as the Panthers (8-8-1) began preparations for Saturday’s NFC divisional-round game at Seattle.
“Most of the stress will be at home. This is easy,” Rivera said during an afternoon news conference. “This will be a great way for me to take my mind off of it, just for a little bit.”
Rivera said his assistants began preparing for the Seahawks (12-4) on Sunday and joked he was the only coach who had to catch up.
“Ron is resilient, just like the team. And it’s just the next blip on the radar, really,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “Ron would want us all to remain focused, as I’m sure he is. We’ve got a game to play, and that’s what we plan on doing.”
Rivera said the work of dealing with insurance adjusters and home restoration experts will fall on Stephanie, a former WNBA assistant coach who met Rivera in college when both were athletes at Cal.
“She’s a very strong woman,” Rivera said. “Through this whole process, starting this morning, she’s right on top of things.”
During his remarks to the media, Rivera twice referenced the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” regarding his appreciation for the friends and neighbors who brought food and offered assistance Monday morning.
“A lot of Panthers fans,” Rivera said, smiling. “That was huge.”
“This could’ve been worse, like Cam’s situation could’ve been worse. But it wasn’t. So we’re very fortunate.”
Newton was hospitalized for a night after his accident and missed a game with the back injury. But he returned to play the final two regular-season games and won his first playoff game last week when the Panthers eliminated Arizona 27-16 in the wild-card round.
“It has been different. You can’t make this stuff up,” Rivera said. “But you learn how to deal with these things and cope with these things. If you can keep your focus, you’ve got a chance.”
The Panthers have had to overcome on-the-field obstacles, as well. Injuries and inconsistent play along their offensive line forced them to use six line combinations during a six-game losing streak that would have doomed their playoff hopes had they played in any division other than the NFC South.
They joined the 2010 Seahawks as the only teams since the NFL’s 2002 realignment to win their division and host a playoff game despite finishing the regular season with a losing record.
But with a dominant defensive performance against the Cardinals, the Panthers advanced and extended their turbulent season by another week.
“Definitely not what I was thinking of. But we are where we wanted to be at this point in the year,” veteran safety Roman Harper said. “It ain’t the prettiest thing. But we’ve got a date to the prom. We’re here. She’s probably not the best-looking one. She’s not going to win prom queen. But we’re having a good time.
“We’re going to continue to enjoy ourselves and enjoy the opportunity where we are.”