Commentary

Ron Rivera's military bond still strong

Panthers coach, who grew up on Army bases, makes time for soldiers and veterans

Updated: November 8, 2013, 12:55 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cedric King recently had returned from Afghanistan, where he lost his legs and part of his right arm after stepping on a land mine during a half-hour shootout with the Taliban. He was struggling to adjust to his new life -- lost, in a way -- when he got an invitation to meet Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera at the team's hotel in Washington, D.C.

Rivera, a former military brat, had gotten King's name from a member of his staff who knew he was a Carolina fan. After a few minutes of hearing his story, Rivera asked King what motivated him.

"Living!" King told him.

So Rivera asked King, a Sgt. 1st Class with the 82nd Airborne, to share his message with the 1-6 Panthers the day before they faced the Redskins.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera and Cedric King
Courtesy of Cedric KingRon Rivera provides encouragement for Cedric King, who is a source of inspiration for Rivera's Panthers.

The next day, Carolina won.

So did King.

"[Rivera] probably doesn't know it, but that was a big part of my healing process," King said as he recalled that moment from last November. "Him allowing me to share my story with the team, it meant the world to me. It really was great therapy for me."

Rivera has kept in contact with King, 36, who spoke to the Panthers before the 2013 season opener against Seattle. Rivera introduced him to John Falkenbury, president of the North Carolina United Service Organization, who invited King to flip the coin before the Panthers' Nov. 18 Monday night game against the New England Patriots.

Rivera texted King on Monday, the day after Carolina ran its winning streak to four with a 34-10 victory over Atlanta, to check on his progress with his new prosthetic legs as King prepares for a 10-mile run.

"So many people said I wasn't going to be able to do this," King said. "Coach Rivera told me you can do anything you put your mind to. He continues to believe in me and make me believe anything is possible."

Rivera's appreciation for King goes beyond motivational speeches for his team. Rivera grew up on five military bases in three countries as the son of a chief warrant officer in the U.S. Army.

He has a passion for the armed forces that is as deep as his desire to take the Panthers (5-3) to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

He and his wife, Stephanie, are volunteers with the USO in the Carolinas and encourage players to become ambassadors. Last year, Rivera went to Fort Bragg (in North Carolina) on a moment's notice to support a formal event for the U.S. Army Special Forces. He invites wounded warriors to not only speak to his team but also come to practice and be around the players.

The military is in his blood, down to his reading list dominated by the autobiographies and stories of military leaders such as Gen. George S. Patton.

So while Veterans Day on Monday might be just another workday for some NFL coaches, it won't be for Rivera.

It will be a reminder of his father, Eugenio -- now retired and living in California -- and other family members who have served, of childhood memories on bases in Panama and Germany that shaped Rivera into the person he has become.

"I'm very proud of it," Rivera said of family's military history. "It's kind of a neat thing to have been a part of it in my own small way ... so I most certainly have a fondness there."

You don't have to convince King.

"When I needed it the most, he and the Panthers were there leading the way," he said. "He sent me a text after they beat Atlanta, saying, 'We're fighting because you're fighting.' That's a guy right there that understands what's going on."

Subtle reminders

One of the first things you notice when entering Rivera's office at Bank of America Stadium is a whistle on the second shelf to the right of his desk.

It's not a whistle Rivera uses -- or ever has used -- in football practice.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
Zuma Press/Icon SMIThird-year head coach Ron Rivera is focused on leading the Panthers to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

It has nothing to do with football at all.

The whistle, a birthday present from a good friend, belonged to an Army drill sergeant Rivera knew. He keeps it in a prominent place not far from a picture of his father and a few other military collectibles as a reminder of the life that influenced him.

Rivera's desk is orderly and clean, as though he is preparing for the drill sergeant to walk through the door at any moment for a surprise inspection.

His book collection also is a reminder, from "Roosevelt's Centurions: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II" to "The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill."

"I read a lot of it because of the leadership [lessons]," Rivera said.

Rivera doesn't equate being a football coach with being a military leader -- "I would never want to put us on equal footing," he said -- but he sees similarities. "Because you lead men," he said.

He referred to King's first team speech, where the North Carolina native told players, "One of the toughest things you'll ever have to do as a leader is to get men to follow you toward where the bullets are coming from."

King actually compared being in battle to a two-minute drill in football.

"DeAngelo Williams goes, 'What you mean? No way. They're shooting bullets at you guys. Somebody might die. Nobody is going to die if we don't get a two-minute drill done,'" Rivera recounted of his leading rusher's response.

"Cedric paused and said, 'I guess I haven't thought of it that way.'"

Football versus active duty

Rivera was playing linebacker, fullback, tight end and occasionally quarterback during his sophomore year at Seaside High School near Fort Ord in Monterey Bay, Calif., when the starting center went down.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
USA TODAY SportsRon Rivera spent nine years as an NFL linebacker before joining the coaching ranks.

"Coach said, 'You go up and play center,'" Rivera said with a laugh.

"We had a running back named Jerome Smith," Rivera said, recalling a specific play from that game. "He was a track kid, too. So I snapped the ball and pulled right around the corner, and it was me and Jerome Smith."

Rivera blocked the linebacker, then went to the next level and blocked the safety. He and Smith then went side by side another 35 yards or so into the end zone.

A general from the United States Military Academy at West Point happened to be in the stands. At the end of the play, he turned to Rivera's father and said, "Chief, he's going to the Point."

The following Tuesday there was an army recruiter waiting to meet Rivera at school. The next day letters started pouring in from UCLA, California and other universities that had sent recruiters to scout Smith.

Rivera considered going to West Point to pursue a career in the military.

"My dad actually told me, 'Hey, it's a different lifestyle,'" Rivera recalled. "I said, 'Hey, I've been living it my whole life.' He says, 'Well, you can do what you want, but I think there's other things for you out there in this world.'"

Instead, Rivera went to the University of California, where he became an All-American linebacker who broke school records for sacks and career tackles. That led to a nine-year NFL career (1984-92) with the Chicago Bears, who won the Super Bowl in Rivera's second season.

Childhood heroes

Rivera, now 51 years old, had his share of sports heroes during his formative years, but he had more military heroes while growing up on bases such as Fort Ord, about 100 miles south of where the Panthers will take on the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeEugenio Rivera
Courtesy of Ron Rivera Eugenio Rivera, Ron's father, spent 32 years in the U.S. Army.

It is, as Rivera said, hard not to when you live on bases where the streets and living quarters are named after great military leaders such as Marshall, Patton and Bradley.

Rivera's biggest hero was his father, who was drafted into the Army in 1952 and made two tours to Vietnam during his 32-year commitment. Rivera said his worst childhood memory was seeing his dad leave for Vietnam.

"The second time," Rivera said. "I didn't quite understand it the first time. The second time I was a little bit older and I understood. ... I was in the third grade, and I knew it was about war."

One of Rivera's fondest childhood memories was riding with his family to welcome his dad home from Vietnam. "That was pretty doggone exciting," Rivera said.

Years ago, Ron represented his father at a family military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. You can hear the passion -- the respect -- in Rivera's voice when he describes everything from the riderless horse with a boot turned backward in the stirrup, to the way the flag snapped when being folded for presentation to his cousin, who eulogized her husband that day.

"If that doesn't choke you up ... " Rivera said, pausing.

The King's speech

Not long into his introduction to Rivera, King told a story about his time at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington.

King told of a doctor who took him to a ward, pointed to one side of the room and said, "Those are the guys that are waiting to die." The doctor then pointed to the other and said, "Those are the guys that want to live."

King turned his wheelchair and rolled quickly to the side of those who wanted to live.

Rivera asked him how he maintained such a positive daily outlook. King told him he gets up every morning thinking something good is going to happen. Like on that morning, he had no idea he would meet Rivera.

[+] EnlargeCedric King's Panthers shrine
Courtesty of Cedric KingCedric King received a game ball from the Panthers after their victory in Washington on Nov. 4, 2012.

"Then he says, 'Tomorrow I'm going to the game to see you guys win, and Monday I'm getting my new legs,'" Rivera recalled. "I said, 'Wow, you've got to talk to my team.'"

Rivera began the introduction to his players by reminding them that he always talks about opportunities and chances, and how they are what you make of them. He proceeded to call King "a guy whose opportunities have all been changed."

"We talked about pride, we talked about belief, we talked about inspiration, teamwork and leadership," King said. "That was all the principles [Rivera] wanted the team to hear from me."

King went on to share how he was injured, how he decided to live.

"And then he said, 'Tomorrow morning, I'm going to get up and I'm going to go watch you guys win,'" Rivera said. "And we won."

Tears of admiration

When he walked into Bank of America Stadium before this year's opener, King hadn't seen Rivera since the Washington game.

"Ron sat there crying," King said of their reunion. "The last time he saw me I was full of bandages. For him to see me walking on my new legs, it was emotional. Any man that is that intense about football, and then to detach himself from his world of wealth and popularity for somebody like me, it says something about the man."

Rivera called it an "unbelievable moment." In Rivera's three years with the Panthers, only linebacker Thomas Davis vowing to return from a third ACL injury on the same knee has come as close to stirring the coach's emotions.

To this day, Rivera's eyes swell when thinking about King. His players see that. They feel his passion for the military and how it has shaped his life.

"It's evident," quarterback Cam Newton said. "That discipline, that fight for one another, that's what he's tried to get with his players. So when he has guys come to the locker room and speak of effort and attitude and things we can control, you realize the apple don't fall too far from the tree."

Other coaches -- including John Fox, the coach Rivera replaced -- and players have military ties. Few are as passionate about them.

"It's not for show," Falkenbury said. "And if Coach can't make something, Stephanie tries to fill in. We consider our relationship with the Panthers second-to-none."

Rivera's relationship with King epitomizes his passion for the military.

"Sometimes, fame and wealth, they could cloud what's really going on," King said. "If you're famous and wealthy and have nothing to worry about, Americans fighting thousands and thousands of miles away can be swept under the rug.

"For him, to really be there for our American men and women. ... Hey, that's more than money that is talking. Now his heart is in it. That's a different type of person."

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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