When Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera thought he had it tough this season, from a two-month winless streak to seeing his house catch on fire Monday, he found perspective in what his older brother was going through.
For the past 15 months, Mickey Rivera has battled pancreatic cancer, a disease that has a five-year survival rate of less than 15 percent even when caught at the earliest stage.
So when the Panthers beat the Cardinals 27-16 in the NFL playoffs and the team presented Ron Rivera with the game ball for his first playoff win as a head coach, he gave it to his brother.
“Knowing what he’s been battling and going through, any of the problems I’ve had – even this fire – seem insignificant,” Rivera said this week leading up to Carolina’s playoff game Saturday against the Seahawks.
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Mickey has remained upbeat since his diagnosis. Even as he lost weight and his appetite, he’s persevered with a promise to not live like he’s on the clock.
“This is probably the best I’ve felt the entire time. I can pretty much eat whatever I want, I can travel if I want. It feels great,” Mickey said by phone this week. “Cancer is an ever-changing thing, and people feel well and then all of a sudden they’re not well. I understand that. But you’ve just got to do what you can with what you have.
“Plus you can’t live your life like you’re dying every day. Then you have no quality of life at all. Things are going to work out one way or the other, and you enjoy your life.”
All four of the Rivera boys – Steven, 58, Mickey, 56, Ron, 53, and John, 51 – were close growing up in California.
Ron got the size, Mickey says in a way that makes it clear he’s used that phrase before. None of the other three brothers is taller than 5-foot-10. Ron was 6-3 and 230 pounds when the Chicago Bears drafted him in 1984 out of the University of California.
“He’s always been real nice. He’s always been real giving. And he’s always been big,” Mickey said. “Even from early on, you could tell Ron was going to be a big boy.”
Mickey played receiver and safety in high school, but that’s as far as his football dreams went. He watched his brother at Cal and then with the Chicago Bears, but he didn’t have time for travel, with work and raising his children.
For 10 years Mickey was an area supervisor for Little Caesars pizza in California. About 10 years ago he took a chance. Little Caesars began franchising more stores, and Mickey took his savings and moved with his wife, Rosemary, to Reno, Nev., to open their own Little Caesars restaurants.
Today, Mickey and Rosemary own three stores, and the Rivera brothers own another one together.
Ron occasionally uses his brother as an example for his players.
“For Mickey to own three restaurants, he had to sell everything in California on a whim and go out in Reno and be successful and try to do that,” Ron Rivera said. “I told the guys it’s about being all in and taking ownership of being all in.”
For Mickey and Rosemary and their 11 children – two together – life was good in late 2013 as the businesses grew. Then came the back pain.
Maybe, Mickey thought, he pulled something in his back while working out and that’s where the pain came from. Heating patches didn’t work, nor did pacing at 2 a.m. when he couldn’t sleep. The hot showers did nothing either.
The doctors ran tests on his back and couldn’t find anything. Soon after, Mickey noticed he had jaundiced eyes and called his doctor’s office.
“I called and the guy got quiet and he said I think you should go to the emergency room,” Mickey recalled. “I didn’t expect anything, so let’s go.”
Tests showed Mickey had Stage II pancreatic cancer, a disease that the American Cancer Society estimates will kill 40,560 people in 2015 while another 48,960 will be diagnosed with it. Mickey’s cancer sits close to where veins converge in the pancreas, which makes surgery too dangerous because doctors may not be able to stop the bleeding.
Doctors came back with good news and bad news. The cancer had not spread, but he’d need chemotherapy to shrink off the cancer from the veins.
The chemo treatments made him weak, and Mickey lost his taste buds. He lost weight and rarely had energy.
“He was in and out of the hospital, and he couldn’t eat. He was really sick,” said his wife, Rosemary, by phone this week, fighting back tears. “It wasn’t until after maybe August or September that he was feeling better and was able to eat. We have really good doctors. They’ve done a great job.
“I say us and we because we’ve been through it together. I feel really good about the doctors here, and it shows because if you would have seen him seven months ago, it’d be different.”
On Wednesday night, Mickey and his wife talked to the Observer by phone for nearly an hour as they sat in a clinic after his five-hour chemo treatment. They’ll watch Carolina’s playoff game against the Seahawks from their Reno home dressed in their Panthers gear.
“What’s interesting about him is, for everything he’s gone through, he doesn’t complain,” Ron Rivera said. “He just keeps working. Family’s very important to Mickey. He’s strong; he really is.”
After the Panthers’ 34-3 victory against Atlanta two weeks ago to clinch a playoff berth, Mickey and Steven planned a trip to Charlotte for the Panthers’ home game against the Cardinals.
They ran their plans by Ron, who welcomed his two older brothers for four nights. Their birthdays are in January and February, so it’d be a pseudo-birthday celebration as well.
Mickey and Rosemary and Steven and his wife, Toni, came to Charlotte and watched the Panthers practice. They dined with Ron and his wife, Stephanie, and exchanged birthday gifts – mostly clothes.
The Panthers beat the injury-plagued Cardinals while setting a postseason record for their defensive stinginess. In the locker room the players presented the game ball to Ron, who had won 17 playoff games as a player or assistant coach but never before in his four years as a head coach.
The brothers and their wives came down from the suite to greet Ron. Mickey, dressed in a black Panthers hat and black Panthers jersey and black Panthers jacket, was happy the team recognized the effort his younger brother puts in each week.
Then Ron turned to Mickey and extended the ball.
“He said, ‘Brother, here’s the game ball. This is for you,’ ” said Rosemary, who admitted she cried when her husband of 22 years got the ball. “It was just happy. We’re not the kind that goes and asks for things all the time. We live far, and we don’t travel that often because we have kids and the business. So just for him to experience that, it was awesome.”
Ron offered to have the ball signed by some of the players, so Mickey agreed to keep it in Charlotte, and Ron would have it shipped to him later.
On Sunday, the brothers watched the other playoff games together as they sat by the gas fireplace. Ron saw his two children off to the airport as they traveled back to the West Coast, and Steven and Mickey joked with their younger brother that they would crash his Monday afternoon news conference and pepper him with questions.
“Ron, is it true you’re going to hire your brothers as assistant coaches?” they teased Ron.
Around 3:30 a.m. Monday, Ron woke up his brothers and their wives and told them they needed to get out quickly. They could smell the smoke more than they could see it, but they grabbed what they needed and went outside to wait for the fire department.
Fifty-six firefighters came to Ron’s house to battle a fire that started in the fireplace. Inside the home, firefighters covered items with blue tarps, hoping to save what they could, and fought the blaze in Rivera’s three-story home while the families stood watching outside.
The Riveras won’t be able to live in their home for another six to eight months, and the master bedroom is destroyed. Estimates put the damage at $500,000.
The Riveras were able to recover wedding albums and other important mementos, though they smelled of smoke.
When the fire department allowed the family back into the house, Mickey saw a blue tarp over items on the bed in their guest bedroom.
Under the tarp was his game ball.