Tress Way is known for being a fun-loving person who likes to crack jokes with a smile on his face. It can be jarring to see him shed a tear.
As players and members of the Washington Commanders' equipment staff filled boxes to the symphony of packing tape being unspooled after a 4-14 season, Way -- the oldest active player on the roster – began to reflect, not just on what transpired over the last four months, but also the events of the last four years. What got him so emotional was a memory of former head coach Ron Rivera, who was relieved of his duties on Monday, helping him with something that had nothing to do with football.
Back in 2020, when Washington was in the middle of a playoff push, Way's father contracted COVID-19 and eventually died from the virus just before the finale against the Philadelphia Eagles, which was a "win-and-in" scenario for the team. Way got a regular call for two weeks: it was Rivera, just to check in on him and see if there was any update on his dad.
"That's just who he is," Way said, visibly emotional.
The players understand Managing Partner Josh Harris' decision to part ways with Rivera. The NFL is a result-based business, and after four seasons of trying to make Washington into a consistent winner, the effort simple wasn't enough. There were no ill feelings towards Rivera from the players, though, and many of them took time to say how much they appreciated him.
"He's a good man, a good coach, was good to me, good to all the players this year," said quarterback **Sam Howell.** "So, I'm definitely thankful for everything he's done for me and the opportunities he's given me for sure."
Rivera, who was first hired by the organization in 2020, faced more than his share of challenges. Where most coaches might have had to deal with one monumental issue during their entire tenure, Rivera had to overcome several. Aside from facing the task of rebuilding a roster during a pandemic that restricted interactions with prospects, he also battled cancer and received treatment while attending every game that season.
There are several other instances that could be mentioned -- most notably, the franchise being sold a week before training camp -- but Rivera endured all of it the best he could while keeping the players focused on their goals. For those who have been with the team since Rivera's first day, it was an effort that they appreciated.
"He doesn't get credit enough for the man he was and is," said safety Jeremy Reaves. "What he's been through and what he's had to weather alone with cancer and COVID and ownership changes and the whole nine yards. And he showed up every day. It inspired me, despite what I was going through in my life, to just continue to show up every day."
The Commanders had a "coach-centric" approach with Rivera at the helm, meaning that he had roster-building responsibilities on top of the ones he had as the head coach. As Harris said in his press conference, both jobs require 80 hours of work per week. And yet, despite the extra workload, he always found time to let players know that he was there for them.
"It was a blessing," Reaves said of his time with Rivera. "I've went through a lot of tough days here. I've probably had tougher days than better days. He's been there. I lost my mom. I've been cut [multiple] times. I've been through everything that you possibly could imagine. And he's been there."
And players knew he they could turn to him.
"He always took what players said into consideration," said receiver **Curtis Samuel.** "You could go talk to him. He's a coach that's easy to talk to. You're not afraid to go talk to him, because he understands, and he's played the game."
He was also there to help push players to improve on the field. Though Quan Martin spent less than a year with Rivera, the rookie felt like he had his best interests in mind. Martin, a second-round pick from Illinois, was one of the players who gradually improved throughout the season. His production jumped in the second half of the season, when Rivera took over duties as the defensive coordinator.
Martin finished the season with 46 tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions.
"He's embraced me with open arms," Martin said. "He was always in my ear just telling me things I could improve and get better at as a player."
Rivera even helped the veterans. Way said he helped him turn into "an energy guy, a fun guy, a leader." Way was named one of the team's captains at the start of the 2023 season.
"I don't think that happens without Coach Ron," Way said.
It wasn't a surprise to the players when it was announced that the franchise was parting ways with Rivera. He needed to win, and for a variety of reasons, the team fell short of that goal with eight straight losses to close out the season. It wasn't good enough, and players and coaches alike know that winning is a necessary part of keeping one's job in the NFL.
They can still appreciate what Rivera did for them.
"Everybody in this building loves Ron Rivera as a person," Charles Leno Jr. said. "But when you're the leader of the ship, somebody has to go down with it. That's the one who gets the call, all the time. It's just a part of the business and how it goes."