His house caught on fire and he and his family had to move out. His star quarterback got into a wreck in December and a fight in August. His team didn’t win a game for two months during the 2014 season.
But for Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, the most difficult part of the past year was not any of those things. It was watching his older brother Mickey pass away from pancreatic cancer.
“I said this at his eulogy,” Rivera said, settling back into a couch at Wofford College during a break from training camp. “Mickey was so selfless. He always worried about everybody else. I asked him once, ‘How are you doing? It must be tough.’ And he said, ‘I really just hope people don’t feel sorry for me. Ron, when I go get my chemotherapy, I see young kids in there, and I know some of them don’t have a future. Some of them will never get to live a life like I have. I’ve lived a good life.’”
Mickey Rivera, 57, died on July 28, in Reno, Nev. He was the second of the four Rivera brothers; Ron is the third. The oldest brother, Steve, called Ron in Charlotte with the news. Rivera flew back West and missed two of the Panthers’ first three training-camp practices to go to Mickey’s funeral.
Rivera reminisced about his brother last week in our one-on-one interview. The coach wore a white T-shirt with a purple design inspired by a drawing from his daughter, Courtney, who just graduated from UCLA.
The T-shirt had the words “Mickey Rivera,” along with angel wings, a purple ribbon and a halo. Rivera bought one for everybody who will attend his brother’s upcoming memorial service in California.
Saying no to marijuana
When Mickey Rivera was diagnosed with cancer, doctors told him he might only have about six months to live. Instead, he lasted 22 months and lived life on his own terms until the end.
“Mickey really lost his appetite,” Rivera said. “And so he was eligible for and could have gotten a prescription for medical marijuana to help his appetite. But he wouldn’t take it.
“My brother Steve asked him to do it. I asked him, too. But Mickey said he didn’t want his kids to see that it was OK. He refused to do it. My oldest brother was a police officer. He told Mickey, ‘Hey, if you want, I’ll smoke it with you so you’ll get an appetite.’ Even my Dad said I’ll do it with you. But he wouldn’t do it.”
Of the four Rivera brothers, three never grew to more than 5-foot-10. Then there was Ron – 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds when the Chicago Bears drafted him in 1984. All four were raised by Eugenio and Dolores Rivera. Eugenio Rivera was Puerto Rico-born and served 32 years in the U.S. Army, with the boys growing up mostly in California.
“After Mickey passed, I was talking to my mom on the phone,” Rivera said. “She was talking about how we were such good brothers and we were so close. And I said, ‘Mom, think about how we were raised. We were a military family. And in a military family, because you move around so much, your best friends and your first teammates are your brothers or your sisters.’”
Rivera often uses Mickey’s personal story to illustrate the art of commitment. Mickey was the only one of the Rivera brothers to own his own business (besides Ron and Steve, youngest brother John works as a butcher for a grocery chain in Los Angeles).
“Mickey got the chance to own some Little Caesars franchises, but they were living in California at the time in the Monterey Bay area,” Rivera said. “The opportunity was in Reno. They sold everything they had (in 2005) and moved their entire family up there for a chance, and they were totally committed. And I use that as an example to our players. If you want to do something in life, be totally committed.”
Mickey is also survived by his parents, his wife, Rosemary, and the dozen children in their blended family.
Knowing the end was likely near, Ron and Stephanie Rivera spent a month in the Reno/Lake Tahoe area during the Panthers’ summer break. They wanted to see Mickey and his family as much as they could. The big event was a reunion that included 70 members of the extended Rivera clan.
“Mickey had an episode right before the reunion and was in the hospital,” Rivera said. “We didn’t know if he was going to get out, and I told Mickey that maybe we could postpone it. He said, ‘No, I’m going to be out by then.’ And he was. We had that reunion, and he looked great.”
‘Enjoy your life’
Rivera was given a game ball by his Carolina players in January after the Panthers won their first playoff game in nine seasons – a 27-16 home victory over Arizona. Minutes later, he would quietly hand off that game ball to Mickey, who had attended the game in Charlotte.
Shortly after that gesture – and about six months before he would pass away – Mickey Rivera talked to the Observer’s Jonathan Jones by phone.
“You can’t live your life like you’re dying every day,” Mickey Rivera said during that interview. “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.”