Opinion: Ron Rivera’s determination to beat cancer fueled Washington’s run to NFL playoff

Ron Rivera stood in the shower, tipped back his head and let the water run down his neck. 

The warmth soothed the internal and external sores developed from radiation and chemotherapy for squamous cell cancer in his lymph nodes. The water also had a calming effect. And before long, the football coach felt regeneration following one of his life’s hardest days. 

Tuesday, Oct. 13’s round of cancer treatments incapacitated Rivera. He couldn’t stand on his own, lost his desire to eat and felt incapable of fighting.

But Rivera found a way. Fueled by the admonishment of his doctor and his wife, the pleadings of his daughter and even the urging of his dogs, he mustered strength and achieved a breakthrough. The day after, during that early morning shower, Rivera regained his resolve.

Now three months later, fully restored physically and mentally, he aims to continue another improbable quest.

Saturday, Rivera and the Washington Football Team, winners of the NFC East, host Tampa Bay in the wild-card round of the NFL postseason.

Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera who led his team to an improbable division championship. (Photo: Duane Burleson, AP)

Few envisioned this for Washington after its dismal start and considering the seemingly never-ending turmoil that looms over the franchise because of the sexual misconduct allegations leveled against team officials by former employees, and owner Daniel Snyder’s legal battle with fellow owners. But Rivera has brought stability to the football side and enabled his players to block out distractions.

Washington reached this point because, as an eternal optimist, the coach refused to surrender to cancer. In so doing, he inspired his players. 

“Seeing everything he has endured and overcome since the start of the season, seeing his football schemes completely turn it around from being 2-7 to the position we’re in to host a playoff game is nothing short of a miracle,” Washington linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. told USA TODAY Sports. “Coach Rivera, he’s a guy that’s a little different. Former player, real tough. … He’s a guy that survives and perseveres through it all.”

Davis played for Rivera for eight seasons in Carolina, then followed him to Washington this past year. He wanted to end his career playing for the “father figure.” 

Davis, his teammates and Rivera’s associates all know the 59-year-old former linebacker for his positivity and resolve. It’s how he’s wired.

“My father, even though he was in the military, he was an optimistic dude. He always found the good in things and circumstances,” Rivera told USA TODAY Sports of Eugenio Rivera. And of his mother, Delores, he said, “My mother wanted to bring out the good to the point where she believed practice makes better. Even when my dad was in Vietnam, if any or all of us were struggling in a sport, we’d come home from practice,  and Mom would throw batting practice for us. She got up on the mound and the four boys would be out there. … It was just the way she did things. If something was bad, we worked to make it better.” 

That’s the mindset Rivera applied during a nine-year playing career with the Chicago Bears (winning the Super Bowl in 1985) and during 23 seasons as a coach.

He remained undaunted by the challenge of taking over a team during the pandemic. And even upon receiving his cancer diagnosis, Rivera maintained every intention of coaching as much as possible. (He wound up missing just three days of work and coached every game despite having to receive IVs during halftime while in cancer treatment.)

For Rivera and Washington, the 2020 season originally was to center on development. So a 1-3 start surprised no one. But when Rivera benched 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins entering Week 5 and declared intentions of chasing the NFC East title, the coach came off as unreasonably optimistic. 

But Rivera is known for rosy outlooks.

As an assistant in Philadelphia, Rivera once got pulled aside by Andy Reid to discuss the way he evaluated players compared with the other coaches. The young assistant explained that he always graded with an eye for positivity and that he believed everyone else graded too harshly.

“He looked at me and said, ‘OK. I get it.’ ” Rivera chuckled. “He always took my grades with a grain of salt because my grades were always going to be a little higher.”

Rivera conducted his assessment of Washington in similar fashion. He focused and coached on potential. Despite the team’s slow start, he drew encouragement from the cohesion of the offensive line, the growth of the young running backs and wide receivers, the budding dominance of the defensive front. And as he considered the rampant injuries in Dallas, the growing pains of the Giants and the unexpected struggles in Philadelphia, Rivera deemed his team’s issues quite manageable.

Just before Rivera publicized his ambitious outlook for his team, his battle with cancer reached its fiercest point.

On that morning of Oct. 13, Rivera woke at 5:30 as always and received proton and chemo treatments by 7:30 a.m. He had blood drawn and learned his white cells and other markers were extremely low.

Fans sit in the stands behind cutouts placed in the #RiveraStrong section honoring Washington coach Ron Rivera for his fight against cancer. (Photo: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY Sports)

From the hospital, Rivera’s wife, Stephanie, drove him to Washington team headquarters where he intravenously received two bags of fluids to help him recover from the cancer treatments. But he was so weak he couldn’t get himself out of the car. Washington trainer Ryan Vermillion helped lift the coach to his feet. With one arm draped over the trainer’s shoulder, and the other over his wife’s, the 6-foot-3 Rivera staggered to the training room, where a number of players received treatment for injuries and witnessed their coach like never before.

“Just to see him like that, man, was definitely humbling knowing how strong a person that he is and how much Coach Rivera continues to put on a smiling face each and every day regardless of what he’s been through,” Davis said. “I’ve been around him nine years, I’ve never seen him down like that and needing help."

Back at home, the coach crawled into bed, refusing breakfast and lunch. By evening, with Rivera declining to eat, his wife called team doctor Anthony Casolaro, who sternly told the coach he had to eat.

Stephanie Rivera then followed up with forceful prodding of her own.

“Stephanie got on me about eating, she said, ‘I’ve got dinner. It’s chicken noodle soup. It’s what you wanted. I’ve got some toast for you. Let’s get downstairs. Let’s go.’ So she helps me, and I sit down.”

Rivera recalls the dizziness and nausea he felt. He also remembers his daughter Courtney tearfully begging him to try to eat. 

“Even my dogs, both of them knew I was in trouble. My big one, the golden retriever walked up and nudged me, like ‘C’mon, you’ve got to eat.’ … I was sitting there and started to try to eat, and as I started to eat it was hard to swallow. You develop these sores from the chemo and radiation. To swallow was hard, but I kept eating. … I kept swallowing and it kept hurting, but I finished the whole bowl of soup. I ate the rest of the toast. I drank all my root beer. And I went back upstairs and crawled into bed and went to sleep. It was 8:30 when I went to bed and I slept all the way until 5:30, so almost nine hours of sleep. I got up, I weighed myself. … I went to bed at 240 and I think I woke up right around 232.”

In the shower, Rivera reflected on the agony of the prior day. But as the water ran over his throat and body, he felt strength returning. The next several days and weeks, Rivera continued to force himself to eat. He’d start a day with a protein shake, then go to treatment, have a waffle or pancakes at team headquarters, washing them down with “probably two cups of syrup and a Mountain Dew, just to help me get it down.”

Improvement came at a gradual yet steady pace.

Rivera had his last round of treatment Oct. 26, the day after Washington snapped a five-game losing streak.

From there, Davis said players observed their coach’s strength improve along with the effectiveness of his coaching. Fueled by Rivera’s resilience, the steady and inspiring play of quarterback Alex Smith and continued development of young talent, Washington won five of its final nine games to eke out the division title at 7-9. Just like Rivera envisioned.

“Coach Rivera is teaching us how to win,” rookie safety Kamren Curl said.

Davis explained, “As players, when you go through things throughout the season and you see your head coach going through cancer treatments and fighting for his life, it puts things into perspective. … You keep fighting, you persevere and keep going because you want to be there for him.”

Rivera knows Washington faces long odds to defeat a Tampa Bay team that drew preseason Super Bowl contender votes. But he’s certainly not conceding defeat

“You never know,” he said with a smile. “That’s why you show up and play.”

It’s the only outlook Rivera knows.

“Maybe I look at everything with rose-colored glasses,” he acknowledged. “But I just think that I prefer the optimistic approach. I’m going to find something positive for me to coach off of, to preach. And if you ever hear me say, ‘We suck. We are effin’ terrible,’ then it’s time for me to go, because I will not do that. I will always look at things in a positive fashion, and I will say, on a personal note, that’s what helped me through my cancer treatments this year.” 

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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