Watching your house go up in flames at 4 a.m. will give anyone a good jolt of perspective, and so it was Monday morning with Carolina coach Ron Rivera.
Awakened by the smell of smoke and the piercing scream of a smoke detector, Rivera; his wife, Stephanie; along with four relatives and two dogs; all made it safely out of the Riveras’ house in south Charlotte. Then 56 Charlotte firefighters poured in – with Rivera looking on, admiring the professionalism of a far different type of team than the kind he is used to coaching.
Surreal? Oh, yeah.
“Surreal” has become the watchword for the Panthers’ 20th season, which also has included the Pro Bowl defensive end playing only one game because of a domestic-violence conviction, a six-game midseason losing streak, the star quarterback getting involved in a two-car crash where his truck flipped over and a five-game winning streak that has pushed the Panthers into the NFL’s playoff quarterfinals.
Rivera was the team’s rock during all of that.
On Monday, he found himself smack in the middle of his own personal crisis. Less than a week before he coaches the biggest game of his career – a Saturday night playoff road game at Seattle – an accidental fire was causing all sorts of havoc. It also was showing Rivera how many good friends he and his wife have made during their four years in Charlotte.
One set of neighbors took all the Riveras in and made coffee and breakfast. Others offered to help however they could.
When the coach was finally driving into Bank of America Stadium on Monday – hours late, mind broadened – Rivera started thinking of the old holiday movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“When things get a little bit hairy, a little bit tough, all of a sudden you realize the friends that you have,” Rivera said.
And later, after again referencing the 1946 movie in which an angel shows Jimmy Stewart’s character what would happen if he had never been born, the coach said: “You see things through a different set of eyes now.”
Rivera tried to use his news conference Monday afternoon for the good, repeatedly praising the firefighters and advocating home safety to everyone within earshot.
“If you don’t have an alarm system, folks, at least make sure you have smoke detectors,” he said.
It was a strange news conference – far different from the ones being held in the other seven NFL playoff cities early this week. Sportswriters are always saying somebody’s season went up in flames. It’s not supposed to be literal.
“I tell you, it has been different,” Rivera said of what he has called the strangest season of his NFL career – and that was before the fire. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
What will the fire’s impact on the playoff game Saturday be? Hardly any, I would say. As Rivera pointed out, he’s the only one in the building who has to catch up on his work. By Saturday – and likely well before that, given Rivera’s work ethic – I’m sure he will be.
The fire was likely caused by a first-floor gas fireplace, the coach believes. Rivera said his two brothers had been using the fireplace much of Sunday while viewing the NFL playoffs.
“They’re football junkies,” Rivera said, “and they were watching football all day. They had the fireplace on for quite a few hours. When we got done that night and when I got home and watched the end of the game and shut it down and went to bed, it somehow just smoldered and kicked into high gear later on.”
Rivera said he and Stephanie may be out of the house at least six to eight months while it is rebuilt. The fire department helped them get a lot of their personal items out of the house, including wedding and family photos, but the master bedroom and living room are close to “destroyed,” as Rivera said, and there is lots of smoke and water damage.
But, as linebacker Thomas Davis said, “We’re just very thankful no one got hurt. A house is a materialistic thing. They can be replaced. But when you lose a life or someone gets injured, you can’t replace that.”
Rivera would echo that. Like Newton’s car accident, this qualifies as a near miss – and a reminder of how lucky so many of us are.