The first time I experienced the power of Ron Rivera, I was a UC Berkeley freshman lying flat on my back in a musty dorm lounge, trying to contemplate the nonsensical cruelty of our universe.
A few weeks clear of my 18th birthday, having just headed north from L.A. to attend my dream school, the promise of the 1983 college football season had morphed into a metaphorical kick in the groin. Coming off the insanity of The Play -- the epic five-lateral kickoff return through the Stanford band that remains the greatest finish in football history -- the Cal community was hopeful that this could be the year that the Golden Bears would end a Rose Bowl drought dating back a quarter century. Opening the season at Texas A&M, Cal had charged to a 17-0 lead, blown all of it… and then, nauseatingly, fumbled just shy of the Aggies' goal line with a minute and change remaining -- after Bears head coach Joe Kapp had accepted a penalty on a field goal and taken the would-be winning points off the board.
While the rest of my Third Floor, Griffiths Hall crew watched the end of what would surely end up as one of the most painful ties in memory -- yes, they had tie games back then; and yes, I had a rotary phone on my dorm-room wall -- I lay behind the TV, exhausted and disconsolate and done with it all.
One man, however, wasn't having it.
Reading an A&M 'Toss Right' like me devouring the L.A. Times sports section during my childhood and bursting into the backfield like a fan rushing the stage at a Prince concert, Rivera annihilated the stunned Aggie running back and saved the day with a game-winning safety. And yes, after seeing my dorm-mates leap off the couch in celebration and watching the glorious replay, I was a believer.
It turned out Cal had a typically mediocre team that season, but Rivera, who I'd liken to Jefferson in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, was a supernova among meteors. After a nine-year career with the Chicago Bears, where he was part of one of the greatest defensive units the sport has known -- and a quick stint as a title-insurance salesman that led his wife, Stephanie, to conclude that he was ill-suited to “civilian life” -- Rivera became an even bigger difference-maker in the coaching profession. Because I had also grinded my way to the upper echelons of my field -- earning a Newsday internship after my time at the Daily Californian, followed by stints at the (now-defunct) Sacramento Union and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and, in 1994, that pinch-me call from Sports Illustrated -- I was able to get to know the onetime Big Man on Campus as he became one of the NFL's most highly regarded assistant coaches.
What I came to understand, as he battled through professional slights (not uncommon to minority coaches in the NFL ranks) and rampant mischaracterizations of his personality, is that Rivera has an astonishing aptitude for blocking out the noise, fighting through adversity and elevating those around him. And the key to all of it is an unshakeable faith in his core values and principles -- and the serenity that comes from knowing he'd rather fail doing things the right way than succeed by any means necessary.
As fans of this storied franchise, you all got a very, very potent taste of this in 2020, when Rivera encountered more adversity than any NFL coach ever has in any single campaign, and somehow galvanized a team that had Tom Brady shook in January before the Bucs won a one-possession playoff game at FedExField.
You surely don't need an NFL Network analyst to tell any of you this, but I like doing it, so please indulge me for a moment: After taking over on the last day of 2019, Rivera was confronted with residual organizational turmoil resulting in an investigation into workplace sexual harassment. There was renewed furor, in the wake of nationwide protests against racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd, over the franchise's nickname, ultimately resulting in its retirement. All of this occurred during a global pandemic that wiped out the offseason and preseason, making it difficult for Rivera to implement his desired culture change and triggering strict protocols for games, travel and practices. As the season commenced, there was upheaval at the sport's most important position, with young franchise quarterback Dwayne Haskins losing his starting spot (and, ultimately, his roster spot) due to immaturity and ineffectiveness. And even as veteran Alex Smith stepped in and put together one of the most stirring comeback stories in NFL history, he was sidelined come playoff time, leaving previously anonymous fourth-stringer Taylor Heinicke to make his first career start in the franchise's biggest game in at least five seasons.
Oh, and there was cancer.
Last February, I spent a couple of days with Rivera and his family at their offseason home in Monterey, Calif., and they recounted the challenges -- physically, mentally, emotionally and professionally -- that he faced as he underwent intensive treatment for squamous-cell carcinoma. I may share some of those details in future writings, but for now I'll just give you my main takeaway: Rivera is a strong, stubborn and resilient man who is not prone to complaint or self-pity; this illness (and treatment) absolutely walloped him, and in retrospect the fact that he coached through it seems somewhat insane.
All of this brings me to the reason I'm writing this column, and will be writing regularly for this site, along with joining the broadcast team for preseason games and paying special attention to the Washington Football Team: The simple answer is, Ron Rivera asked me to come aboard, and there's no one I'd rather follow.
It certainly doesn't hurt that this is a franchise steeped in history, some of which I've been fortunate enough to witness first-hand. I'll never forget my first trip to RFK Stadium -- for a Monday Night showdown between the Bill Walsh-coached 49ers and the Joe Gibbs-coached defending Super Bowl champs -- on Nov. 21, 1988. Both teams were a disappointing 6-5 coming in, and I freelanced a sidebar on the Niners' 37-21 victory for the San Francisco Chronicle. (A couple of weeks later I moved from Long Island, where I'd been covering preps for Newsday following my summer internship, to The District., renting a room in a group house on Taylor and 14th N.W., just off the Piney Branch Parkway. I did temp work by day and hustled for freelance journalism assignments on the side while spending time with my college girlfriend, with whom I just celebrated a 30th wedding anniversary. That's one thing Ron and I have in common: We got to Cal, overachieved in the girlfriend department and had the good sense to lock it down in perpetuity.)
Speaking of married couples I adore, Gus and Ann Frerotte welcomed me into their Great Falls home in 1997 for an infamous night of amaretto-shot indulgence, as immortalized in the pages of SI. A year later Frerotte's embattled head coach, Norv Turner, blew off some steam in his office as we discussed his job security. He was still standing at the start of the 2000 season after the team’s spending spree ramped up expectations.
Things were much more pleasant four years later when Gibbs, after a dramatic return to the head coaching ranks, treated me to a night of great food and even better war stories at Morton's in Reston Town Center.
After leaving SI for Yahoo! Sports in 2007, I still found plenty of excuses to cover the burgundy and gold, including Donovan McNabb’s revenge victory over the Eagles in 2010 (note the supportive Mike Shanahan quote). And I enjoyed getting to know members of Shanahan's offensive coaching staff which in retrospect was an incubator for some of the sport's most fertile young minds.
Bottom line: The Washington Football Team is one of the most important franchises in the history of American sports, and it represents a wonderful city and region, fueled by a passionate and loyal fan base.
Certainly, things have been far from perfect, as underscored by the recent fallout from the NFL’s workplace review, of the organization, and the accompanying punishment. The Washington Football Team has to do better, and I believe it can and will.
I'm excited by the presence of team president Jason Wright and optimistic that co-CEO Tanya Snyder, in assuming control of day-to-day operations, will adapt well to her new role. I'm pumped that senior vice president of media and content Julie Donaldson is trusting me to be part of her team and I'm confident that she will continue to exude excellence and integrity.
And, of course, I have a ton of faith in Rivera, whose mantra has been "Don't judge us on where we've been; judge us on where we're going."
The man known as Riverboat Ron -- a nickname that coalesced nicely with my move to NFL Network and NFL.com in 2013 -- may take some gambles on the sideline, but there's nothing capricious about his leadership style. He knows what he believes in, and he believes in himself, and most of the people who coach and play for him swear by him as a man and as a leader.
Ron and I both bleed blue and gold, and neither of us is shy about shouting out our alma mater, even when we’re pitted against one another in a mythical bracket designed to confer Cal royalty. The Golden Bears still haven't been to the Rose Bowl since 1959, but each of us will go into the 2021 (and every) season clinging to the dream until they're mathematically eliminated -- sorry not sorry.
We also share another belief: That Rivera will win a Super Bowl as a head coach. I'm not saying it will happen next February in L.A., but I'm not writing off the possibility, either.
As I learned nearly four decades ago, this dude should never be counted out.