Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera on his battle with cancer
No matter which your favorite NFL team is, coach Ron Rivera is easy to root for. Now in his second year with the Washington Football Team, Rivera has already led the franchise from scandal to the playoffs, all while battling cancer.
Correspondent Mola Lenghi asked, "How's your health these days?"
"It's pretty good," Rivera replied. "You know, I'm in the tenth month of my recovery. Doctors are very pleased with my recovery so far."
There's never a good time to have cancer. For Rivera, the timing of his 2020 lymph node cancer diagnosis came as he began his first season with the team.
Asked to describe that year, personally and professionally, Rivera said, "It had its ups. It's had its downs. It had a lot of challenges."
A normal NFL season has a lot of challenges. What Rivera experienced was abnormal and grueling, in the middle of a pandemic, no less.
Before he took the gig, Washington – despite the team's proud football history – had become one of the most difficult and undesirable head coaching jobs in the league, with mounting issues off the field, including a cheerleader sexual harassment scandal, and a decades-long name change controversy finally coming to a head. He still took the job despite all that, convinced by the team's embattled owner Daniel Snyder: "He said, 'Ron, I need to change my culture. And I believe you're the guy that can help.'"
The former linebacker for one of the best defenses on one of the best teams in NFL history, the 1985 Chicago Bears, tackles change with accountability. "It's not gonna happen overnight," he said. "One thing I've always told people is, 'Hey, these shoulders are broad enough. I'll take it.' I mean, if I make a mistake, it's on me. I'll take it, and I'm not afraid of it.'"
In his first year, the Washington Football Team surprised the NFL by making the playoffs … with a losing record.
Lenghi said, "You guys were seven and nine. Would you consider last year a success?"
"Yes, very much so," he replied. "We won five of our last seven down the stretch to get into the playoffs. And that was something I really believe we could build on."
"I tell the players, there are three things you control in your life: your attitude, your preparation, your effort. We can try and influence 'em, but you guys control 'em. You guys make that decision."
The team responded by rallying around their coach's cancer battle, said tight end Logan Thomas: "I think it brought all of us together. Like, he was fully in when everything was going awry, but he wanted to be here, be around us and show that he was for this team."
Rivera lost 30 pounds. Some games he needed intravenous therapy during halftime. But he didn't miss a single game all season.
"You think it sent any message to them that, 'Hey, coach is going through hell right now, but he's still showing up'?" asked Lenghi.
"Yeah," Rivera replied. "The truth is, when we were sitting down talking to the doctors about what I was gonna go through and how should I handle it, one of my questions was, 'Well, should I work?' They both said, 'Oh, absolutely. You gotta work.'
"We all laughed about it later. I said, 'I didn't realize that, you know, missing a few days or a week was an option!'"
"He's tough," said Stephanie Rivera, the coach's wife, who took charge and became his caretaker.
The two started dating when they were students at the University of California. "She was stalking me!" Ron laughed.
"That's the story, he's sticking with it," said Stephanie.
Lenghi asked, "Is Coach Rivera different than Husband Ron or Father Ron? Or are these all kind of the same guy?"
"When it becomes in season, it becomes 'coach speak' a lot," Stephanie laughed. "And also, the expletives come out a little bit more, you know, during football season."
But that "coach speak" was compromised by the proton and chemotherapy targeting the cancer in Rivera's neck.
Lenghi asked, "Is it difficult to be a leader in a locker room when your actual physical voice is not where you need it to be?"
"It is," Rivera said. "Initially, it really didn't hit me till about the middle of the treatments. It kind of got a little hard at times. And so, I really couldn't, you know, bark it out the way I wanted to."
Rivera ultimately regained his voice, but something interesting happened: he began to use it differently. Today, he's more vocal, especially on issues that have touched his life. "Our health care system is broken," he said. "We have very good medical coverage, and I got denied originally. So, that was an eye-opener."
"It seems like politics has its fingerprints on everything," said Lenghi. "It kind of touches everything these days, including the NFL. So, how do you navigate that?"
"The one right now we're dealing with is the vaccine rate in the NFL," said Rivera, who is immune-deficient. "My frustration is just 'cause there's so much false information out there that's allowed to be out there. It's been very difficult in terms of having to deal with COVID. It's been very difficult with some of the stuff that has happened so close to us in Washington, D.C. – everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to the insurrection at the Capitol.
"For whatever reason, we've become the social and moral conscience of the U.S. which befuddles me, to be honest with you!"
"That sports, or that the NFL, has become that conscious?" asked Lenghi.
"That sports has become that influential. And so, I take it very seriously. And believe me, ten years ago, I didn't think this way."
Rivera is an old-school guy, willing to play a new-school game. "When you stop learning, you stop growing," he said. "As you get older, reinvent yourself. So, I try to look at different ways to be better."
When the NFL went through its flag-kneeling controversy, this coach turned to a different kind of playbook: "I read the Constitution again. I read the Bill of Rights. I read the oath of office. It goes to the saying that, 'Help me understand so that I may be understood.'"
Lenghi said, "I think a lot of people might be surprised to hear a football coach say, 'I read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the oath of office in order to try to understand my players and my football team a little better!'"
"I think it's important, especially in today's world, 'cause so much is expected of the players."
Not least of which, is to win. And a victory tomorrow will give his team a winning record so far this year.
When asked what would make this season a success for him, Rivera replied, "What we want to do build a culture and to have this culture be a sustainable winning culture.
"Along the way, it'd be great to win the division, win some playoff games. But to me, it's always about growing and developing and getting better at what you're trying to do."
For Rivera, who received his last cancer treatment a year ago and is cancer-free, the battle off the field is just as important as the one on it.
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