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The Player That Made Ron Rivera
Before he was known as "Riverboat Ron," he was a linebacker for the Chicago Bears nicknamed "Chico." Known for his intelligence and versatility, his experience in the NFL molded him into the coach he is today.
By Zach Selby Mar 03, 2020

There were hundreds of people packed into the conference room at Redskins Park, but the event that was about to transpire had the attention of millions.

Only four days had passed since the Redskins' season ended in Dallas, and Ron Rivera was about to be announced as the team's next head coach. The deal was already written in ink; Rivera had officially signed on New Year's Day after days of every sign pointing towards that partnership.

But this was Rivera's coronation, the moment when he'd stand in front of the entire organization, and indirectly, the entire fanbase, and explain his plan to resurrect the franchise.

Rivera was resolute as Redskins owner Dan Snyder gave his opening statement; he grinned at Snyder's "Happy Thanksgiving!" joke and listened while Snyder laid out how the 58-year-old known as "Riverboat Ron" was the right man for the job.

"What the Redskins have needed is a culture change, someone that can bring a winning culture to our organization," Snyder said. "It all starts and ends with our head coach. When looking for that man, I looked for a class act. That's how you describe Coach Rivera."

Growing that kind of reputation takes time. It goes back long before he first arrived in Ashburn, Virginia, and even before he earned the "Riverboat" nickname. It actually began when he was known by another name: Chico.


It was commonplace for Chicago Bears players in the 1980s and 1990s to have nicknames. There was Walter "Sweetness" Payton, William "The Fridge" Perry and Steve "Mongo" McMichael. Even head coach Mike Ditka was sometimes known as "The Doctor." Rivera was called "Chico" because he reminded defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan of actor Freddy Prince from his favorite television show, "Chico and The Man."

His teammates knew him as something much more than an actor's doppelganger, though.

Rivera was known for his toughness on a tenacious defense. He could play any of the three linebacker positions and often did so before becoming a permanent starter in 1988. He would do anything for his teammates with no desire for any special recognition.

And, of course, there was his intelligence.

"He was one of the smartest players I ever coached," said former Bears' linebackers coach Dave McGinnis.

Rivera has always been the same person, but his start towards earning that stellar league-wide reputation began more than three decades ago in Chicago. In many ways, the Riverboat of today was molded out of the player of seasons past.

A tough, slow son-in-law

"Well, Buddy, you've had three days to look at your first- and second-round picks. What are your impressions?"

That's what Bears Hall of Fame defensive end Dan " The King" Hampton remembers as one of the first questions the Chicago media asked Ryan ahead of his sixth year in the NFL.

It was 1984, and the Bears were just one season away from history. Mike Ditka was entering his third season as the head coach, and many of the pieces that made up the legendary 1985 Bears defense were already in place. There was Hampton, Singletary and Otis Wilson, though none of them were the legends they eventually became in later years.

After finishing the past two seasons with a combined record of 11-14, the Bears were ready to make a playoff push. They started by drafting linebackers in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.

With their first pick at No. 11 overall, the Bears chose Wilber "Phenom" Marshall out of the University of Florida. At 6-foot-1 and 231 pounds, Marshall was exactly what Ryan and Ditka wanted out of a linebacker. He was quick for his size and fit right in with the Bears' culture.

"He was the most unbelievable athlete I've ever been around," Rivera said.

The Bears then drafted Rivera 44th overall. He was two inches taller than Marshall, but eight pounds heavier. He wasn't as fast, either; in fact, Hampton said it looked like Rivera was "tied to a sled" whenever he and Marshall ran next to each other.

Ryan was not one to mince words, so when the media asked him about his two new linebackers, he was blunt.

"Well, Will could be a superstar. Rivera is one of those kids who would make a great son-in-law, but he can't run."

If that bothered Rivera, he never showed it. In fact, it motivated him. Instead of getting angry, Rivera worked even harder.

"He obviously didn't start, but he became a very integral part of our special teams, and hey, that's great," Hampton said. "Not everybody can start. Not everybody can go to the Pro Bowl."

Rivera's mental and physical toughness did not stick out to Hampton, if only because many of his teammates possessed the same qualities.

But for those in Rivera's position group like Jim "Smails" Morrissey, he certainly fit the bill.

"He was definitely tough," Morrissey said. "He was always in the right place at the right time. We took pride in not having too many mistakes on the football field, [whether that was] mental mistakes or just getting beat physically. We were very competitive in that regard."


Morrissey likely wouldn't have been on the team had it not been for Rivera. Rivera was only in his second year when Morrissey was drafted, and both of them ended up on special teams. Morrissey was released before the season, but Rivera's feet got accidentally tangled up with another linebacker -- Brian Kabral -- on one of the kickoffs in the season opener.

Kabral blew out his knee and was done for the year, so the Bears brought Morrissey back the next day.

The two bonded quickly with Rivera at strongside linebacker and Morrissey playing on the weak side. They mostly were on special teams in the beginning of their careers, although Rivera did get some playing time during the Bears' Super Bowl run in 1985. They played together for eight seasons before Rivera retired in 1992.

Hampton was the ringleader of the group. He would often tell stories to large crowds at local bars; he called it "holding court." If there were 100 people at the bar, 90 of them would be crowded around Hampton. As a result, he earned the nickname, "The King," and since Rivera and Morrissey were always around him, those two were called his court jesters.

"We followed him around like a couple of puppies," Rivera said. "We just had a great time. It was a great relationship."

Rivera started playing more during his third season in 1986. He also got a new linebackers coach in McGinnis, who made his NFL coaching debut after spending 12 seasons in college.

And when McGinnis finally met Rivera, he noticed everything his teammates had already seen: an intelligent, obedient player with a strong work ethic.

There was also that toughness that was impossible to ignore.

"He was a very physical player," McGinnis said. "He was a relentless player. You couldn't fit into that Bears' locker room or that football team without being a tough, physical player. You can't fake physical toughness in the National Football League. You either are, or you aren't."

A 'damn good' player who did it all

"Hey, 59!" Ryan yelled. "Come here."

Ryan never called players by their name; it was always by their numbers.

Any player who wanted to be a part of the Bears' defense in the 1980s had to know all about the 46 defense, otherwise known as the "Bear" defense.

Ryan designed it himself; he knew his defense wasn't good enough to stop offenses with a three-man rush, so his solution was to put eight players in the box. If quarterbacks were able to complete passes against that, fine; but he wasn't going to make it easy.

It was the middle of Rivera's rookie year when he was called over by Ryan, who always stood about 40 yards behind the defense to watch the plays. For about 10 plays, the two were silent as practice progressed. Suddenly, Ryan began to question Rivera.

"'What's happening on this?'" Rivera remembers Ryan asking him. "What should we do on that? Why did he do that? What are we looking at?'"

It became a daily ritual between the two, and Ryan would often question Rivera with his infamous intensity.

"Why am I calling that?" Ryan would say.

"Because you want to take the outside linebacker and put him in position so he can get his hands on the tight end so he can read what's going on and he can get to the flat," Rivera would reply.

It was during those sessions that Rivera truly started to understand how NFL defenses worked and, more importantly, the reasoning behind Ryan's decisions.

"He really understood how to game plan and attack an opponent," Rivera said. "That's where I learned. I learned it from him. That's when I really started to understand football. I'm watching players and seeing who's making mistakes and who's doing it right. I'm watching how the offense is attacking the defense and then I'm listening to why he's doing the things he's doing."

In Rivera's rookie season, it was Singletary, Otis Wilson and Al Harris as the starting linebackers. Rivera's job in his second year was to shadow Singletary, but he wasn't limited to middle linebacker. He could play all three spots.

"He was willing to do everything and understood exactly what he needed to do," McGinnis said.


Rivera didn't become a consistent starter until later in his career, but he still became a valuable piece on defense, especially in practice. There weren't as many players on NFL rosters back then as there are today, so he often played on the scout team where he lined up against Payton and Jim "Punky QB" McMahon.

"He was giving it his best shot and working just as hard as anybody out there," Morrissey said. "He definitely stood out whenever it came time to talk football strategy."

Rivera was always accountable, always doing his job and always ready to jump in with the starting defense, both when players didn't want to practice or missed games due to injury.

"It was almost an easy segway to say, 'Hey, big deal. You don't want to play? I got guys that do,'" Hampton said.

That's what happened in 1986 when Singletary missed two games. And as crazy as it sounds, Singletary was afraid Rivera might take his job.

Singletary had pulled his hamstring earlier in the season, but Rivera didn't believe Singletary would miss any time. After all, Singletary took all the starting reps in practice with Rivera backing him up.

But then Ditka approached Rivera at his locker as he was getting ready for special teams.

"Hey kid, you're starting at Mike [linebacker]. Don't screw up."

Then Ditka walked away.


"I always looked to [Rivera] as well as Singletary," Morrissey said. "I looked for his leadership as well as [Singletary's]. Ron was always one of the guys that was high character."

Rivera led the team in tackles against the Detroit Lions and was nominated for the NFC Defensive Player of the Week. He even got a game ball from Ditka.

"[Rivera] says we were so good up front that nobody even blocked him," Hampton chuckled. "He just went out there and made the tackle."

Then the playful chirping came Singletary's way.

"Well, maybe it's not the linebacker, but the defensive line in front of him," Rivera remembers Steven McMichael saying.

"Yeah, maybe we'll make ole' Chico an All-Pro instead of Singletary this year," Hampton said.

The fact that Rivera was playing so well didn't help things, either. He made 22 tackles the next week, which earned him another nomination and game ball from Ditka.

Singletary was supposed to miss another two weeks, but he had seen enough. He was coming back the next week against the Rams.

That was fine with Rivera.

"He was kind of the glue, the fiber that keeps everything together," Hampton said. "He was just a damn good football player."

Good roommate, better person

Morrissey liked to sleep. It was part of he and Rivera's routine whenever they traveled for road games. Morrissey would sleep in, and Rivera would get up early. One wouldn't imagine it to be the ideal setup for roommates, but it worked out well enough.

That was especially true for Morrissey, who would wake up to the pancakes, sausage and eggs that Rivera had gotten for him.

"Good roomy," Morrissey said. "He was a great teammate, and that's all you can ask for. Obviously he knows the game of football and knew the game of football, and with his personality and being a likable person, he's got the whole package."

As good as Rivera was on the football field, he was known for being an even better person off of it. He was a man who everybody on the team counted on, looked up to and wanted to be around. That's part of the reason he was nominated as the team's Man of the Year and Ed Block Courage Award recipient.

"He was a big brother everybody loved to have," Hampton said. "I've played with some 300 different guys, and he was exemplary in so many ways."


Rivera's teammates said he was never what they referred to as a "political guy." He was never a player who had an agenda or trying to make everything about him.

"The person that [he] is, he's been that person his whole life," McGinnis said. "He's going to be his own man, but he's a guy that would listen and learn."

McGinnis is sure that winning those awards for his character meant something to Rivera, but he was never a player who wanted individual accolades.

"He was always all about the team and that's why he was respected so much."

Hampton remembers Rivera as a man who would always go out of his way to help his teammates. The two were part of a group that helped Morrissey lay down sod at his new house during the season on their only day off of the week.

"That's just the guy he is," Hampton said.


Another story came around the time Hampton had retired in 1990. By his own admission, Hampton had become real "cantankerous" in his final season and even compared himself to John Wayne's character in the 1948 movie "Red River" He was all about "finishing the job" and would give everyone a hard time.

No one really wanted anything to do with Hampton, but it was known that he had taken up golf. He was always stealing Ditka's golf cart.

So, while Hampton spent most of the year in a bad mood, Rivera started raising money to give him a surprise retirement gift.

"He was like my plea agent," Hampton said. "He was the one that got everybody to pony up."

By the end, Rivera had raised enough to get Hampton a golf cart of his own. It was painted in the Bears' colors of orange and blue with his name, number and nickname on it. It even had a stereo and a built-in cooler.

The team waited until after practice for the final home game of his career to give it to him. Once practice was over, Ditka drove the cart out of a storage shed while Hampton's back was turned.

"'I don't know if we should give this to you,'" Rivera remembers McMichael saying to Hampton in jest. "'But Chico and the boys felt you deserved this, so this is for you."

The right man to flip it

"You know as they say, 'Hail to the Redskins.' Let's go, man. Let's roll."

Rivera had finished his opening statement as the Redskins' new head coach and held up a burgundy helmet for all to see. The cameras flashed as Rivera smiled and the audience applauded.

It was no surprise to any of his teammates that Rivera would get into coaching. Thanks to all those meetings with Ryan, he was always wondering about the "how" and the "why" of every play. He always talked about getting into the profession.

"He was determined to get back in the game and he did it right," Morrissey said. "He did it the right way."

Rivera worked his way from defensive quality control coach with the Bears in 1987 to other coaching jobs with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bears again in 2004 and the San Diego Charges. In 2011, he was named the head coach of the Carolina Panthers.

He held the position for nine years, and in that time frame he led his team to four playoff appearances, three NFC South Division titles and an appearance in Super Bowl 50. He was also named the Associated Press Coach of the Year in 2013 and 2015, making him one of 10 coaches in NFL history to win the award twice.

All that has given his old teammates something to be proud of when seeing how the player they knew grew to become Rivera, the head coach.

"Ron and I used to talk about one day becoming NFL coaches] all the time,” **[Singletary told ESPN in 2016.** "I always told him he was going to be a coach. And he would tell me that I was going to be a coach. He always found a way to make a difference on the sidelines and not pout about not playing. He made the most of it."

McGinnis, who coached in the NFL for three decades, still considers Rivera to be one of his all-time favorite players. He and Singletary were two of the brightest players he ever coached, so it does not surprise him that Rivera had excelled on the sidelines.

"Ron Rivera has exactly what this league needs, and I'm very happy for his success as a head coach. Washington made a great hire."

Rivera now inherits a franchise in need of change. The Redskins have only been to the playoffs twice in 10 seasons, and the fans are looking for a new culture.

Rivera seemed to gain the fans' approval almost as soon as he was officially hired. The organization likes his vision, and they're willing to let him lead them to the ultimate goal of eventually winning a Super Bowl.

The only thing left for Rivera to do now is to set that plan in motion. Thanks to Chico, Rivera is up to the task.

"If they're patient and give him time, he'll get it flipped," McGinnis said, "because he is the right person."

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