Panthers' Rivera: Chicago not just another game
Most NFL coaches and players tend to downplay the significance of returning to the place where they once worked.
Not Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera.
Rivera returns Sunday to Chicago where he spent nine seasons playing linebacker for the Bears and another five as a defensive coach. He makes it clear winning this game means a great deal to him.
''I'm not going to downplay it,'' Rivera said. ''Some people would say it's just another game; no it's not. They're all big, but this has a little personal meaning for me because it's Chicago. It's a great city with a great organization.''
Rivera and his wife raised their kids in Chicago and lived there for 18 years.
''I love the city,'' he said.
Rivera joined the Bears as a second round pick out of Cal in 1984 and spent all nine seasons with the Bears, appearing in 149 games with 62 starts. He won six NFC Central Division titles during that span and was a member of the 1985 Super Bowl championship team, a group made most famous for its cocky swagger and the groundbreaking Super Bowl shuffle video.
Rivera was only in his second season that year, but sensed right away there was something special and unique about that team. But he couldn't have predicted how big of an impact that team would leave on the NFL and the country.
''I've heard people say it was the first rock 'n roll Super Bowl team,'' Rivera said. ''It really kind of splashed onto the scene because there were so many great personalities on that team, starting with the head coach (Mike Ditka) and Buddy Ryan as the coordinator, on down through Walter (Payton) and Jim McMahon and all the other guys.''
Rivera said he never appeared in the Super Bowl shuffle video, but jokes that he wishes he had a nickel for every time he's was asked if he did.
''I was in the background, and I enjoyed it,'' Rivera said.
Rivera keeps in touch with many of his former teammates, but won't be at the White House when the '85 Bears visit there on Oct. 7. He'll be getting the Panthers ready for a critical NFC South division game with New Orleans.
''Unless of course they decide to send Air Force One to pick me up,'' he laughed.
Rivera still draws from those experiences with the Bears and relates them to his coaches and players, although many of the guys who played for him weren't even born when the Bears won that title.
''He gives us the stories about playing with the group that he did and he relates it well with the players, like how they felt about each other as a group and the special camaraderie they had - the type of things we want to build here in Carolina,'' Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. ''He draws a lot on his experiences as a player for the Bears.''
Rivera's NFL career ended in Chicago when Ditka left and incoming Bears coach Dave Wannstedt cut him after the 1992 season, a time when several veteran players were forced out of the league due to the arrival of the NFL salary cap.
After a brief stint in television, Rivera returned to the NFL as the Bears defensive assistant under Wannstedt accepting an unpaid position.
It wasn't long before the Bears hired him full time.
''A lot of times when ex-players get into coaching there are two things they don't realize - first, you don't make much money as an assistant, and second, the hours that we put in are brutal,'' Wannstedt said. ''But Ron was willing to work and the money was not an issue. The work ethic and the hours were not a problem with him.
''Once I determined that, heck, I knew we had to push as hard as we could to make this a full-time paid job.''
Wannstedt said Rivera was able to make the change from player to coach, something that isn't always easy to do.
''A lot of coaches in the NFL want to be best friends with the players and they have a tough time drawing the line in the sand,'' Wannstedt said.
Chicago was also the place where Rivera took an unexpected step back in his coaching career.
The Bears were a highly successful team with Rivera working as defensive coordinator from 2004-06 and he became a hot head coaching prospect, but Bears coach Lovie Smith let him go in favor of bringing in buddy Rod Marinelli.
Rivera wound up taking a job as a linebackers coach for the San Diego Chargers, although it didn't take him long to get promoted to defensive coordinator there.
Now he's fulfilling a longtime dream to be an NFL head coach with the Panthers.
''I'm really looking forward to going there, and I'd love to win this football game,'' Rivera said. ''Coach Smith used to say when he'd play against coach (Tony) Dungy that it was like playing against your brother; you want to beat them, but you just don't want to hurt anybody.''