Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Alex Smith virtually sat down with patients from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Tuesday afternoon as part of the NFL's Salute to Service Month.
Rivera and Smith, both of whom have ties to the military, spoke to service members from the Military Advanced Training Center (MATC), Murtha's Cancer Center and In-Patient Care Unit. The hour-long event, which was hosted by Washington Football personality and former cheerleader GeNienne Samuels, included a lengthy discussion with Rivera and a Q&A session with Smith, who will make his first start in nearly two years Sunday against the Lions.
Rivera and Smith have had long, successful NFL careers, but their strength and perseverance through distressful situations allows them to relate to those who have made sacrifices to protect our country.
Rivera, who grew up in a military family, recently finished treatment for squamous cell carcinoma, which is a form of skin cancer. Going through 35 proton radiation treatments and three chemotherapy cycles was tough, Rivera said, but he kept telling himself "I've got this" throughout the process. That mindset allowed him to take care of himself while developing a young and promising football team. In fact, Rivera only missed two practices and coached every game.
Just as Rivera can relate to patients at Murtha's Cancer Center, Smith went through a similar recovery process as those rehabbing at the Military Advanced Training Center (MATC).
"We actually use a Sports Medicine Rehabilitation model for a lot of our injured troops," said Steve Springer, a registered nurse in the department. "On average, they tend to be in their mid-20s. A lot of them were very active prior to injury, and we really focus on getting them back to maximum function and we focus on not what they're missing...but actually what they can do, and we try to return them to sports, active duty, whatever they really want to continue on with the rest of their life."
Springer said they primarily take care of amputees, and that was almost Smith's fate after suffering a gruesome broken leg and subsequent infection in 2018. His injury was deemed "warlike enough" that he received clearance from the Secretary of Defense to rehab at a military center. Over the next two years, Smith traveled to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio on three separate occasions for consultation about his healing process. While there, he paid his respects to amputees and burn victims at the Center for the Intrepid.
"It was amazing and humbling to get to go down there," Smith said, "and certainly I benefited so much from their knowledge and expertise in the field. I probably wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for the center down there."
Throughout his remarkable recovery, Smith followed the mantra "Just live," which is about embracing everything life brings -- the good, bad and in between -- and being present in those moments. It can be easy to shy away from tough times, Smith said, but being able to push through those adversities can lead to miraculous progress.
Rivera sees that resiliency in wounded warriors, which is why he cannot wait to visit them around the Washington Metropolitan Area once everything goes back to normal. Rivera interacted with a lot of wounded warriors in his eight-plus seasons in Carolina, including one who was particularly inspiring.
Rivera first learned about then Sgt. First Class Cedric King through his military and coaching connections in 2012. It just so happened the Carolina Panthers were playing in Washington that season and King was a Walter Reed patient, so before the game, Rivera invited King to speak to his players at the team hotel. King, who lost both legs in Afghanistan, was a month removed from being in a coma.
"During Salute to Service month, we had Cedric come [to Carolina] and he banged on the ["Keep Pounding"] drum for us," said Rivera, who has a large framed photo of the moment in his office. "It really is one of my favorite moments with the Salute to Service -- it really, truly is -- because he's such a neat man, he really is. Like I said, we've become friends and we text and visit and talk on the phone and he comes and sees us at practice and he'll speak to the team. That's one of the things that I really, truly do look forward to."
That conversation changed the fortunes of both King and the Panthers. Now a retired Master Sgt., King has run the Boston Marathon several times and completed numerous half marathons. The Panthers, meanwhile, won three straight division titles and appeared in Super Bowl 50.
Rivera is striving to build a similar culture with Washington, and honoring the military will be a significant part of doing so.
"To me it's very special, and if there's any opportunity for us to recognize our military folks, and not just the men and women who serve but the spouses and the dependents because from my perspective, just knowing what it can mean to a child, knowing that your parent in the military, that's really big," Rivera said. "I try to make sure that if there's an opportunity to do something to give back, I most certainly want to be there to show our support."