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HomeSportsWashington’s Ron Rivera on vaccines, cancer and the 1985 Bears

Washington’s Ron Rivera on vaccines, cancer and the 1985 Bears


Before his Washington Football Team gets ready to take on the Giants on Thursday night, Ron Rivera — a Super Bowl champion with the Bears, a Super Bowl coach with the Panthers and a cancer survivor — fielded some questions from The Post’s Steve Serby:

Q: How would you sum up the challenge of getting your team vaccinated has presented, to you and to the NFL?

A: I think the big thing for us as an organization, it did present a challenge. It did change the way we had to do things. But what it also did though, because we were the No. 1 team last year against COVID, we only had two infections, and both those infections were non-53 members of our team — one was an IR player and the other one’s a practice-squad guy. So, we’re very diligent with following the protocols and avoiding COVID here in our facility. A lot of focus was put on what our protocols had to be. I think it really helped our team learn and understand just how important paying attention to the little things, to the details, are. I think as a league, and I think how it helped with society, is that we showed that you could go back to work, we showed that you could do these things.

Q: Do you understand the anti-vaxxer philosophy?

A: No. I struggle with that. Especially in my circumstances, my situations. I got my cancer through no control of my own. And what really kinda tweaks me is I got it from a virus, and back in the day, there was not a vaccine that could help prevent this virus. Today, there is a vaccine that could prevent the HPV virus. … I didn’t have that option.

Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera, center, watches an NFL football practice.
Ron Rivera has worked hard to get his Washington players
AP Photo

Now, there’s a virus out there that’s killing people, and killing people worldwide, OK?. And infecting people right now at an alarming rate, and we have a vaccine that can slow it down. It’s not gonna prevent it. But it can protect you, and keep you from going to the hospital, and keep you from potentially if you are in the hospital, getting deathly ill, and can help prevent you from dying. And yet people shun it, and not because they’re listening to the science, but they’re listening to people who have no qualifications, or have a political agenda, and have decided they’re gonna stump for it.

And that befuddles me that people don’t listen to the people that have “Dr. Ph.D” in their title. That to me is maddening, I don’t understand it, I really, truly don’t. If you have something that could help slow it down, and it’s been proven to slow it down. And I’ll say this too: The thing that bothers me politically is that getting this vaccine to where it is today took both political parties. It took the former administration to Warp Speed it, to get it through all the red tape, and put it literally on the one-yard line. And then the current administration carried the ball across the goal line, OK? And yet now, we fight about it, which is [B.S]. It absolutely infuriates me that people don’t realize that it took both political parties to get it to where it is today, and neither one of ’em want to acknowledge that both of ’em had something to do with it. That’s [B.S.] too.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

A: I kind of take it from the old saying: If you’re gonna lead, when five things are good, lead from behind, and when things are tough, lead from the front. I think it’s about just trying to extend the situation, lead things off of that. … I think by example, is probably the biggest thing, I would say. You hold people accountable, you gotta start with yourself.

One thing my father told me about being a leader, and I’ve always remembered this, is that when all hell’s breaking loose and things are going crazy, everybody’s gonna look to you, and you have the discipline to carry yourself as the leader that will get them through it.

Q: Do you have any other favorite motivational or inspirational sayings?

A: Oh yeah. Are you kiddin’ (laugh)? One of my favorites I got from Doctor Kevin Elko. It’s be where your feet are. I have one of my own, I basically call it control your inner APE — your Attitude, your Preparation, your Effort. I tell guys it’s the one thing that you control completely. The one thing that stuck in my mind when I was going through my cancer treatments last year, a lot of my former players that I used to always harp on about that, a lot of them texted me and told me, “Coach, remember now, you control it.” So that really did stick with me. I can go on and on — like we see many things, but we only remember what we focus on, so focus on the objective, not the distraction. … It’s never gonna be about what you accomplished until you realize it’s about how you play. … The easiest things are rarely rewarding, the rewarding things are rarely easy. These are things I share with our players, ’cause I try to get them to understand that this doesn’t just impact your football career, it impacts your daily lives. It’s like if we don’t have time to do it right, then will we have time to do it again?

Head coach Ron Rivera of the Washington Football Team reacts
Ron Rivera guides his Washington Football Team against the Giants on Thursday.
Getty Images

Q: The biggest thing you learned about yourself and about life during your cancer battle.

A: Before I knew I ever had cancer, the big thing was how much work we had to do here to get things turned around, and how much we were dealing with. And then when I found out I had cancer, and getting ready to deal with it, all of a sudden my real focus became obviously my own health. But what I learned was to compartmentalize my situations because part of it was I had to be where my feet are. So if I was getting treatment, my entire focus was about me getting through my treatment. When I got to the facility, I tried to do everything I could to focus on football. When I went home, it was again about my treatment and about my family. I really did focus on being where my feet were. That really helped me, and one thing that I learned and like I said, I preach about Attitude, Preparation and Effort.

There was a certain point when I was getting my radiation treatment that I actually had a panic attack, just before they started. And I had to take a step back, I wasn’t gonna get my treatment initially, so I went and saw my oncologist and my radiologist and they both told me, “You have to get through this, you can’t stop. And you can’t miss a day. You have to focus.” So, when I went back that morning to get my treatment, and as they were clicking me in, I had to wear a mask, they have to immobilize me …. you feel claustrophobic. My throat tightened up, I was having trouble breathing. But I had to talk myself through it. Basically, it’s about controlling your attitude. So when they strapped me in and they lock you in now, my first thought and my only thought was, “All right, Motherf—-r, you gotta get through this.” And so I had to psych myself out to prepare myself for the next 25 minutes of treatment basically being immobilized trying to fight through a panic attack. I had to learn to control and focus myself on what was happening during my treatments. And then afterwards, once I got through it during my recovery phase, it really truly became a true appreciation of a lot of things. And the little things in my life really were important too. Sometimes if things are going well, you tend to skip certain steps, and I’m trying to make sure I really understand just how important all those little things are.

Q: Are you anywhere close to 100 percent now?

A: I feel very healthy. During the recovery, the hardest thing obviously has been rebuilding the stamina, to continue the pace. Because I get wore down pretty quickly, I really do. Going through meetings, going to practice, handling my responsibilities that at some point during the day I have to find 30 minutes, 35 minutes, 40 minutes to just take a break. But all my appointments and all my doctor checkups, all my scans, everything has been good for me, so that’s been the positive.

Q: The difference in emotions walking off the field a Super Bowl winner (’85 Bears as a player) and a Super Bowl loser (2006 Bears as defensive coordinator, 2015 Panthers as head coach).

A: I did it as a player, and that’s a whole different set of emotions compared to being a coach. As an assistant coach, the disappointment obviously was strong, but walking off as a head coach, it was devastating, but the thing for me though was I had to realize right away that it was about recapturing the positive with the players and the families. Everybody plans a postgame party, so when we went to the postgame party, it really was like a wake. To have to get up there in front of everybody and speak — try and get everybody … “Hey, just ’cause this happened doesn’t mean we’re not coming back, doesn’t mean we don’t have a chance next year. That’s gonna be the goal, take everything we learned and hopefully we can use it to help improve us.”

Q: Chase Young?

A: The potential’s there, and not because he’s just a great football player and can have potential to be one of the really, really, really good ones, but he’s a real good person.

Chase Young #99 of the Washington Football Team rushes the passer
Chase Young has seemingly impressed coach Ron Rivera off the field as well.
Getty Images

Q: Does he remind you of anybody?

A: As good a person as he is, he reminds me of Thomas Davis-type guy. Very community-oriented, with a tremendous amount of athletic ability.

Q: Landon Collins?

A: Landon is driven.

Q: (Assistant RB coach and first black woman full-time assistant coach) Jennifer King.

A: Trailblazer. And the thing about Jennifer more so than anything else is she truly wants it, it’s what her passion is, she wants to be involved at the highest level of coaching and coaching in the NFL. She’s very persistent. She’s very eager, very curious. … She’s learning to be more expressive. I think there’s a little bit of hesitancy because of where she is, but I think she’s learning and she’s helping to break down these barriers.

Q: Are you any closer to a name change for the team?

A: I think we are. My understanding is we’re down to three. They’ve asked me my opinion, I’ve given it.

Q: What do you like best about your current team?

A: They’re young, they’re open-minded, they want to learn, they want to grow. We’ve got some key veterans in some key spots, a great example is Ryan Fitzpatrick. You could see him helping the young guys develop and grow, you see the relationship he develops with the other guys on the team. And then you see the youthful enthusiasm of wanting to do things right, wanting to learn. We are a young team, we have 25 guys on our roster that are either rookies, second- or third-year players. And several of ’em will start for us.

Q: Cam Newton?

A: He was an athlete and entertainer. He was all that rolled into one. One of the greatest athletes I’ve ever seen and an entertainer. And a tremendously fierce competitor. He hated to lose.

Q: Dave Gettleman?

A: Thinker.

Q: How so?

A: He was always trying to map out and plan out and try to stay ahead. A conservative thinker.

Q: Luke Kuechly could have played for your ’85 Bears, right?

A: He could have played in any era.

Q: The Odell Beckham Jr.-Josh Norman brouhaha.

A: I would say two overly competitive guys just going after each other. About one-upmanship — I’m not gonna let him get the best of me. It’s too bad because at the time they were two of the best young players, and if we could have kept that from happening — we saw some really good football from ‘em but, I think it was overshadowed by them going at each other.

Q: Are you still Riverboat Ron?

A: Well, it just depends — on the days that I go for it, I am, on the days that I don’t, I become Calculator Ron.

Q: The impact (former Bears DC) Buddy Ryan had on you?

A: When I was a player, Buddy Ryan used to stand behind and watch practice. So what Buddy used to do was he would watch the defense and signal in the defense from about 40 yards behind. And so my rookie year, third or fourth week, he calls me, my nickname was Chico, he says, “Chico, come here.” So I run back there and he and I are standing behind the offense and defense watching the defense. As things are going, he’s signaling and he’s watching plays and finally he turns to me and says, “Hey what’s happening on this play?” and so I explained it to him. … What was happening was he was teaching me ’cause I was Mike Singletary’s backup at the time. I just realized it ’til a little bit later that he was constantly teaching me and testing me. I watched how he developed relationships with his players, and how he handled situations and circumstances; how he was a guy that championed us. You really learned that for as hard as he was — and he pushed you too, he challenged you — he’d be your friend on one hand, and then he’d MF you in a second when you screwed up to make sure you understand how important it was to him that you did it right. I learned a lot from Buddy.

Q: What adjectives would you use to describe the ’85 Bears defense?

A: A bunch of junkyard dogs, that was kind of who we were trying to tag ourselves as. I would say driven … I would say loving, ’cause the guys loved everything about the game. They loved everything about being a dominant defense. They loved everything about winning. They loved everything about the guys in the room. They loved everything about the coaches that were coaching us. They loved the adulation.

Ron Rivera #59 of the Chicago Bears plays defense against the Minnesota Vikings during game action at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois in September 1990.
Ron Rivera plays defense for the Bears during the 1990 season.
Getty Images

Q: Whatever comes to mind? Mike Ditka.

A: Bear. In every sense of the word, bear. The dude was a bear. He was tough, he was possessive, he was protective, he was aggressive. I see a grizzly bear.

Q: Mike Singletary.

A: Mike’s nickname was Samurai. He kind of epitomized what we know as the Samurai way of life. Mike was very direct, very calculated.

Q: Walter Payton.

A: Sweetness. Walter’s one of the really good people that was in professional football. He’s a guy that’s responsible for me being a coach in the NFL.

Q: Refrigerator Perry.

A: A big, jolly fun person.

Q: Dave Duerson’s suicide.

A: I know he had some issues unfortunately, the brain stuff, but gosh, you just wish he would have reached out to somebody.

Q: Jim McMahon.

A: He was a great teammate, the way he stood up for us. He wanted us to win, but he wanted us to have fun doing it. And it’s kind of one of the things that I’ve kind of kept, I use it with our players eventually, at some point I’ll say it: Keep your personality. And that’s what Jimmy Mac did, he kept his personality and attitude, and the way he stood up to Coach Ditka for us about things, in a good way.

Q: How good were the ’86 Giants?

A: They were very good. There were four teams back then that I really recall and really do think about, and that was the Giants, the Washington Football Team, the San Francisco 49ers and the Chicago Bears. And the disappointing part is we were the only ones that only won one Super Bowl. And we were the youngest team at that time too, and that’s what was disappointing.

Q: Is Eli Manning a Hall of Famer?

A: Yes.

Q: Why?

A: Because when it came clutch time, big time, he showed up. When it really counted, when it had to be done, he showed up.

Q: (Former longtime DC) Jim Johnson.

A: Jim was just a mad scientist, but like Buddy. … My third year with him, he started questioning me about game-planning, and started showing me how his thought process was. In my last year with him, he had me write some stuff down for him as far as game-planning was and preparing the sheets for him. So he really, like Buddy, kind of started to tutor me and mentor me and show me how to do things.

Q: Andy Reid?

 Andy Reid during the game
Chiefs coach Andy Reid has a fan in Ron Rivera.
Joseph E. Amaturo

A: One of the all-time good people in this league. He and (wife) Tammy are I think the perfect NFL coaching couple. Andy’s been a mentor. A lot of things that I do I got from Andy. I have a picture in my office, and in this picture is all of us coaches that were on the original staff with Andy. And as I count ’em — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 — eight of the nine guys in this picture are head coaches in the NFL right now, or have been head coaches in the NFL.

Q: Describe the traits of the ideal Ron Rivera football player.

A: Smart — and not just book smart, but common sense smart, savvy — has to have a good size, but yet coordinated with athletic ability. And then be the right kind of person.

Q: What is your fascination with Winston Churchill?

A: Just the fact that he was a tremendous leader. A great orator. I’ve read several of his speeches. He’s a guy that had a lot of successes, but probably more impressively is he had numerous failures, but yet he rose from those failures to be the man that he was.

Q: Was he an inspiration to you when you interviewed eight times for a head coaching job before you finally got one with Carolina?

A: Oh yeah. One of my favorite things that he says is about if you don’t study and learn from history you’re doomed to repeat it.

Q: How frustrating was that for you?

A: It was frustrating. I don’t think it was one of those all-consuming frustrations, ’cause I knew it eventually would. I did like I think it was five or six interviews in a week. It was during the year we went to the Super Bowl when I was with the Bears, the 2006 season, and it was January 2007 when I was allowed to on the bye week. And so, it’s not like it was year after year after year. I guess one of the only real satisfactions about it is that the three-year span that I didn’t get a job, there’s only one coach still coaching at the place that he interviewed over me — Mike Tomlin.

Q: The 17-game schedule?

A: I get it too because it’s about entertainment and it’s also about money, ’cause it’s business. If the way we’re doing things today and trying to do things the right way in terms of taking care of the players, not just financially but physically and mentally, if we can do it the right way, why not? Because again, no matter how you look at it, you’re playing a minimum of 20 games.

Q: Coaches outside of football you admire?

A: Tony LaRussa, Jerry West.

Q: Boyhood idol?

A: Anything that had anything to do with being a linebacker, that was somebody I favored — Dick Butkus, Chris Hanburger, Robert Brazille. But then, probably my biggest one, was Roberto Clemente. My father, being of Puerto-Rican descent, took a lot of pride in who he was.

Q: Your wife, Stephanie?

A: I’m speechless when it comes to her. She’s everything for me. She’s my best friend. When you get married, and you do your vows, you always wonder just how sacred they really, truly are. But when I got sick … she was there. It’s an emotional thing, because you see it. It’s phenomenal. I mean, everything that you would hope for and want in your relationship, your marriage, your best friend … she was there. She sacrificed a lot, as did my daughter and son. But with my wife, man, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Q: Phil Mickelson?

A: He’s showing us old guys that we can do it. I had the great fortune of getting to play in a pro-am with him. He’s a great pro-am partner, and the thing I learned is that that week, wherever he is, all the way up until Thursday morning, he’s there to help the fans enjoy it, he’s there to help the sponsors, he’s there to help those of us that play in the pro-am … but when it comes to Thursday, when it’s go time, he’s all business. And also know this, he loves football. He’s a tremendous football fan.

Q: Three dinner guests?

A: Winston Churchill; Martin Luther King; Benjamin Franklin, or Thomas Jefferson or Teddy Roosevelt, one of those three. Because Benjamin Franklin had such an outlook on life, and such a creative mind, such a thinker. … Teddy Roosevelt because he really saw the importance of government, and he has a great saying, it’s one of my favorite sayings, and I have it up in my office. It basically says, “Patriotism says we will stand by the country. You’re not gonna stand by the president. You’re gonna stand by the country.” And I’ve had that up in my office for a long time. I had it up in my office in Carolina, I have it up in my office here. And I keep it up. I have Thomas Jefferson up ’cause he has a quote basically saying, “When the people are afraid of government, that’s tyranny. But when the government is afraid of the people, that’s democracy.”

Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera greeting his players on the field during pregame warmups
Ron Rivera’s cancer battle showed how many of his players — including former ones — love him.
AP Photo

Q: Where were you on Jan. 6?

A: I was in my office, I was here at the facility getting ready for the playoffs. And I was thoroughly disgusted … disappointed. I continue to be disappointed, because we as a government cannot come together and say that this was what it was, an insurrection, it was an assault on democracy, on our way of government, and we should do something about it so people understand that you don’t do this kinda crap.

Q: Favorite movies?

A: “Miracle on 34th Street” and “The Quiet Man.”

Q: Favorite actor?

A: Denzel Washington.

Q: Favorite singer/entertainer?

A: Bruce Springsteen; Ed Sheeran.

Q: Favorite meal.?

A: My wife will make different kinds of Mexican food, she learned from my mom. Taco Tuesday is our favorite meal.

Q: What drives you?

A: I want to win, but I want to share it with the people around me. And I want to win doing it the right way for the people around us. I’ve had my victory, I really have — ’85, I’ll always cherish that memory. I would love to win one as a coach, but not because it’s for me, but because it’s for our team, it’s for our organization, it’s for our people that are involved with us, that’s why I want to win.

Q: If you’re fortunate enough to lead this current team to a Super Bowl, would you participate in a Super Bowl Shuffle?

A: (Laugh) I would. I didn’t in ’85, mostly because we got home at like 3 or 4 in the morning, whatever it was, and I just went home, went to bed. But if we did something like that now, I’d do it.



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