Thursday, September 10, 2009
Home runs aren’t supposed to hit Highway 1 from Seaside High’s home plate. Guys standing close to 6 feet aren’t supposed to play center, let alone dominate the paint. And 230-pound linebackers aren’t supposed to kick game-ending field goals from almost 40 yards.
Perhaps the fact that San Diego Charger Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera tackled these supposedly untenable tasks before he turned 18 prepared him for his next assault on normalcy: Setting school records in most everything he did at Cal Berkeley, getting drafted by Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears, playing nine years and then authoring a coaching résumé that’s quickly become guru-grade. After all, the chances of making the NFL – let alone winning a Super Bowl on a team with a healthy bid for the Best of All Time – are about as good as getting rattled by a rogue bolt of lightning. And there’s more anomaly where that came from: When Rivera entered a league still wrestling with racial issues, he became the first ever Puerto Rican-American to do it.
Maybe his old Seaside High football coach Carl Stephenson puts it best: “He does things you can’t teach.”
Now Rivera is the teacher, and one of the most admired minds in the sport, after toiling under and alongside edgy legends like Ditka, Buddy Ryan and Jim Johnson, and after collaborating on several defenses that advanced deep into the playoffs repeatedly.
When a new NFL season kicks in this weekend, the Chargers will visit Oakland to trade paint with the Raiders on Monday Night Football. It will mark the hype-heavy start of Rivera’s first full season as San Diego’s defensive coordinator, in which he’ll trigger a D displaying the qualities with which he carved his own competitive identity: aggressiveness, physicality and intelligence.
It will also reveal how a humble guy – who has made a habit of succeeding wildly – has responded to what appeared to be an unfair and surprising sort of setback.
~ ~ ~
Ron Rivera wasn’t supposed to be a football player.
Or so says his father, Eugenio, who would spend every day in the chopped-low sugar cane fields of rural Puerto Rico, broomstick bat in his hands, waiting for his pitch. In some ways, that’s where this Seaside story starts, because long before Ron could don a football uniform for the Seaside Spartans, sports were swimming in his cytoplasm.
His father gave up baseball only when he joined the Army; the chief warrant officer later married a Mexican-American two-sport athlete from Salinas while stationed in Fort Ord, where Ron was born. The Marina couple still goes to Seaside football games with a consistency only surpassed by their attendance at St. Jude’s Catholic Church. While Ron can gratefully name each and every coach he has had from Pee Wee to pros, he calls his father his “first and best.”
“We kept them busy,” Dolores Rivera says of Ron and his brothers. “They went from one sport into another. With that and school there was not much else they could get into. With four boys we had to.”
“We built a sandlot baseball field before development came to Marina,” says Ron’s little brother John. “Built a backstop with chicken wire and were out there every day growing up. Dad was big into sports, so he built a hoop over the garage. If we weren’t playing baseball, we’d be playing basketball – go again, switch it up. When we were done it was ping pong.”
There was no one John would rather play with than Ron, and not just when they were battling their older brothers.
“There wasn’t anybody else you wanted up to bat with the game on the line and you needed that run driven in,” he says. “On the basketball court, he was only 6 feet 2 inches but when the ball went up, it was his.”
Their dad still swears by baseball, and that it was his second youngest son’s top sport (Ron’s favorite, ironically, is hoops).
“Baseball is my thing; baseball was his best,” Eugenio says. “He would hit the ball so hard it went to the freeway. The paper joked it was picked up at the Fort Ord base as a UFO.”
A military rhythm accompanied the athletics.
“It’s a way of life,” Ron says. “I grew up in the military and my dad was always giving me and my three brothers tasks to do. You’re always working. Whether it was around the house or in the yard or on the base, you were always doing something.”
The sports and chores eased the family’s nomadic Army existence, from Germany to Panama to Maryland and back to Seaside and Marina.
Ron’s coaches at Seaside High picked up on his discipline and desire quickly. “All the Riveras were good, strong, classic Catholic military kids,” says Dave Miller, a longtime SHS coach who gave Ron his first pair of shoulder pads. “‘Yes sir, no sir,’ the right way, none of the hipster dipster stuff.”
“WE WERE HOPING HE’D BE THE FIRST HISPANIC HEAD COACH.”
Rivera’s drive to play was accelerated by the fact he couldn’t compete before sophomore year, a hungry lion denied an antelope.
“I didn’t get to really play play,” says Rivera, who looked on as his uncle starred at Hartnell and his three brothers basked in Pee Wee and high school competition. “I was too big. I couldn’t make weight. I tell you, it made me really want to play tackle football.”
His first year at SHS (then a three-year high school) he was a scout-team center and starting linebacker. “He played with the roughest group of kids,” says current Seaside High Head Coach Alfred Avila, who graduated a few years ahead of Rivera. “Just nasty, like street kids. They beat up on him as a sophomore – he got smacked around. It helped toughen him up.”
Junior year, he was a linebacker, tight end, and long snapper, and the senior-laden team nearly went undefeated. Insiders call it one of the area’s best-ever teams.
When the seniors graduated, though, Seaside fielded just 28 players. According to his head coach, Ron played every position on the field.
“Quarterback, inside linebacker, outside linebacker, punter, and he was the field goal kicker,” Carl Stephenson says. “Anything you wanted him to do he could do. There was nothing he didn’t.”
Miller remembers the staff breaking rules to leverage his talent. “We let him roam on defense, we let him decide, and read the play – and we never do that with high school kids,” he says. “That’s what you do with a stud, you dance with the one you brought.”
“Sometimes he wouldn’t want to call the plays,” Stephenson says, “but he was so good at it that I’d turn my back on the sidelines so he’d have to.
“One linebackers coach told me, ‘I don’t need to coach them. Ron taught them already.’”
Seaside’s JV coach of 44 years, Andy Gray, recalls when Rivera would face Salinas’ vaunted wishbone offense. The difficulty lay in three different defenders remaining disciplined enough to their individual assignments: running back, fullback and quarterback. “Ron used to take care of all three,” he says.
Many remember what he did to lift his skeleton team over rival Monterey in the closing seconds of a 0-0 game: He drove them down the field at QB and crushed a faraway field goal to win it.
Fewer are aware of what happened afterward, when Coach Stephenson awarded Ron helmet stickers for superb play. John, who held on the kick, got one of them: “Ron gave them away, to the snapper, to me for holding, the guys for blocking. That’s how he is: ‘We did this together.’”
But Ron was often without his teammates at lunchtime, when he would sit and study film. “He lived in the film room,” Avila says.
He indexed every player’s responsibility; he came to understand every assignment as his own. When he hit college his film study only expanded – he no longer enjoyed the physical advantage he once did.
“He wasn’t the fastest or strongest any more,” John Rivera says. “He had to know the game that much more.”
The results speak for themselves: Rivera left Cal’s campus an All-American and the school’s all-time leader in sacks (22), tackles (336) and tackles for loss in a single season (26.5 in 1983). He also left with a degree – the elite education was a driving factor in his enrollment decision – and a deep duffle bag of game-changing plays that earned him entry into the Golden Bears Hall of Fame. Those include his favorite: With less than 20 seconds left he tore through the offensive line – and tore out the pigskin heart of a football-crazed state – to win 19-17 in Texas A&M’s home stadium.
The late, great Walter Payton’s best moves were supposed to unfold on field. But for Rivera, they didn’t happen purely while Payton was a Bears teammate who helped earn them a Super Bowl ring (in 1985) and a Grammy nomination (for the “Super Bowl Shuffle”), but after Payton’s Hall of Fame playing days were done: Number 32 was The Sweetness who catalyzed Rivera’s steep-climbing career.
Rivera had been working the sidelines reporting for WGN-TV and SportsChannel Chicago, which, combined with a bout of coaching with one of his two kids, activated the itch to return to the game.
“It was always in the back of my mind – I felt I could coach, I had been a coach on the field,” he says. “There’s a lot of teaching in it. But it didn’t click until I was coaching Pee Wee. I got a big kick out of that. And the sideline stuff made me realize I missed it.”
Payton spoke with the coach and the Bears chairman, Rivera says, and he was named “quality control” coach, code for entry level lackey. Regardless of his position, one thing was clear. “Some things just come natural,” Rivera says. “They feel real good, real comfortable.”
He impressed immediately, as he would at each stop from there. He spent five seasons as the linebackers coach under Philadelphia’s Jim Johnson, a gunslinger of a field general as lauded for the creativity of his blitz packages as their relentlessness. Rivera’s linebacking corps and All-Pro middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter anchored the Eagles, who in 2001 held all 16 of its opponents under 21 points, becoming one of only four teams in NFL history to do so. The squad swooped to the NFC Championship Game in each of Rivera’s final three seasons there.
“RON’S PUTTING US IN BETTER POSITIONS TO ATTACK THE QUARTERBACK.”
A promotion to defensive coordinator in Chicago beckoned, and Rivera was soon directing a defense to the third-best scoring average in the league, an NFL-high 44 takeaways and a berth in Super Bowl XLI.
“He has absolutely great experience,” says Charger Head Coach Norv Turner.
While Rivera’s understanding now dipped deeply into many of the revered reservoirs of modern football strategy – Buddy Ryan’s 46, Johnson’s blitzes, Chicago’s Tampa 2 – his reputation remained as spotless as his Seaside High coaches and teachers recall.
After the ’06 season, when several top spots opened, including San Diego’s and Pittsburgh’s, his name flew. But when the ultimate decision was made, Rivera was left to twist in the increasingly cold Chicago wind. Citing philosophical differences, the Bears didn’t re-sign him – their defensive dominance fractured soon after – and suddenly a popular prospect for a head coaching gig was out of a job altogether.
Rivera is candid about his disappointment. “My goal and hope is always be at the top, at the peak, the pinnacle,” he says. “In my profession, that’s a head coach who won a Super Bowl.”
But he’s also quick to contextualize. “You learn from everything that you go through,” he says. “Yes, sure we have some disappointments but they are only as big as you let it be. I’ve always tried to keep going forward and wait for the next opportunity. I try not to dwell on it.”
Those who know him are less diplomatic.
“I don’t know what else he needs to do to earn that opportunity,” Seaside Head Coach Avila says.
“We were hoping he’d be the first Hispanic head coach,” his mother adds. “We’re still waiting.”
~ ~ ~
The Charger defense wasn’t supposed to be this offensive to look at. Yet midway last season, it was avert-your-eyes ugly: 25th in total defense, 23rd in points allowed and dead last in pass defense. Worse yet: While the points piled on their heads made the weight of preseason Super Bowl expectations only heavier, the embarrassing burden of the finger-pointing that followed threatened to crush them altogether.
Lowly 3-5 San Diego needed a savior. By most accounts, the man who would save the defense and the season wasn’t supposed to be there. Fortunately, as Sam Farmer of the L.A. Times reported last season, “To hear Rivera describe it, he had to take a step backward to move forward with his career.” He came to S.D. to coach linebackers, a downward move that had experts scratching their heads, but Charger players psyched to tap his experience.
“We all kind of looked at it as we were incredibly lucky to be getting that type of talent as a position coach,” defensive tackle Luis Castillo told the Times.
Empowered to run the whole defense at mid season, Rivera set about systematically applying the traits that shape him: militaristic attention to detail that generates feedback after every snap (“I’m a nitpicker,” Rivera admits); endless film study (“Our guys learned what to do in every situation,” he adds); accountability (“Rivera’s mentality was right for us,” Turner says); and a battalion of blitzes (“We love playing for Ron” is a Charger chorus).
The team’s porous pass D leapt from worst to 11th best. Suddenly their squad was surrendering the eighth-fewest points. A team that fell four games under .500 rattled off four straight to claim a weak NFC West in the last week of the season.
In the playoffs, facing perennial AFC power Indianapolis, the Chargers were down a field goal late. If all-world playcaller Peyton Manning could nip just two yards, the game was done. Rivera bet on a blitz.
“We had to keep them down [near their own goal line] to have a chance,” he says. “The one thing I thought we could do is bring pressure – I thought our players could handle it.”
After the Chargers adjusted seamlessly to an audible, Manning had to pump at his tied-up tight end and linebacker Tim Dobbins slipped around the end to splatter Manning on the grass.
As the Charger beat writer for the San Diego Union Tribune, Kevin Acee studies the team’s every snap count and unscheduled sneeze. “The Dobbins sack,” he says. “That’s the signature Ron Rivera play.”
Granted great field position, the Bolts pushed the game to overtime, where they won going away. The next week they were a few breaks away from toppling eventual Superbowl champ Pittsburgh at Heinz Field – without their best defender or MVP running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
~ ~ ~
Football isn’t supposed to be funny. But the talented San Diego linebacking corps booms with both their hits and spontaneous quips. As they fly through agility drills – men the size of forklifts moving like foxes in the arriving San Diego dusk – one quizzes a nearby cameraman: “You shoot porn with that?”
When Rivera jogs past to look in on another group, All Pro Shaun Phillips shouts, “I see you, coach! Running for the border.”
Rivera shakes his head and smiles wide – he’ll take the razzing if his guys stay hungry.
“It’s been a very quiet camp,” he says as he reclines in the immaculate offices of the Charger headquarters three miles from Qualcomm Stadium. “Guys seem to be focused – knock on wood – no distractions, problems.”
Quiet is good. Quiet means study. His new staff has sorted through the entire ’08 season on film, one play at a time, hundreds of situations all told. (And, as of Labor Day weekend, quiet was fleeting, as three-time Pro Bowler Shawne Merriman was charged with assaulting reality star Tila Tequila. Citing several witnesses, Merriman has refuted her account.)
“What we’re doing now, as opposed to last year, is helping players,” Rivera says. “It’s about information, giving them enough information and answers for every tough situation on field. We want them to be more aggressive, more physical, but smarter.”
Leading tackler and middle linebacker Steven Cooper – a barrel of a baller Rivera describes as most like himself in his playing days – says he’s on the same page as his coach: “It starts in the classroom. We have to be really good with details.”
Rivera has reshuffled his assistants, bringing in two of his Chicago stalwarts, and progressively padded the playbook with more pages.
“The Chargers,” Acee says, “will go as far as this defense can take it.”
“Ron’s putting us in better positions to attack the quarterback,” Merriman says. “Teams that came to play us last year didn’t fear us. We’re getting our identity back.”
“We feel really good about the group we have leading us,” end Luis Castillo told Acee. “We like the continuity on our defense. We like [Rivera’s] style of coaching.”
That style demands Castillo and company focus on equipping themselves for a fearsome first four games – they draw Miami, Baltimore and Pittsburgh in successive weeks after Oakland – rather than the hype rising like summer heat from the SoCal practice surface. Fans are buzzing at Merriman’s return after a season-stealing injury, the big-play ability of free agent linebacker Kevin Burnett, the tantalizing talent of first-round draft pick Larry English and, most significantly, Rivera’s chance to apply a full preseason of preparation one 7am-11pm day at a time.
“We talk about how great we can be, great if we do specific things,” he says, “but we’re not there by any stretch of imagination. The players have to understand that as soon as you feel like you’re there, you’re not even close.”
Acee has been at every single day of spring training at Charger Park, as he has been for several years, and he’s heard this from coaches before.
“They’ve been saying it for so many years,” Acee says. “The difference this year is the players finally believe it. They have something to prove.”
So does Rivera – which is how it’s supposed to be.