ASHBURN, Va. — Washington coach Ron Rivera gathered his players after practice Saturday and delivered a five-minute sermon, his voice rising throughout, on what it takes to win. It was a much different post-practice talk than he had with his players Thursday night, when he told them about his squamous cell cancer diagnosis, a conversation that left them silenced.
But his message Saturday was necessary — a reminder that, no matter what he’s enduring, the show must go on. It also felt normal for Rivera and the players. However, Rivera wants to hammer home certain themes to help carry the team through days when he might not be able to attend practice.
“I’m not being rosy about this,” he said. “I’m being honest. I know I’m going to struggle, so on days I do, I ask the coaches to step up and the players to step up and take ownership. I understand the significance of what I’m going through and I understand how tough it’s going to be. Those days I can be on the field, I will be on the field. If I’m there, we’ll be business as usual. If not, Plan B. I don’t expect that to happen. I hope it doesn’t happen. I hope I can make every practice. The prognosis is good, so I’m fairly confident. I can’t wait to get started and get it over with.”
Rivera reiterated that doctors caught his cancer early and the prognosis is good. He will undergo five treatments per week — a mixture of chemotherapy and proton therapy — for seven weeks. But he knows there might be days when he’s too fatigued to handle practice. Rivera said Jack Del Rio, who has 12 years of NFL head-coaching experience with the Jaguars and Raiders, would take over whenever needed. Del Rio was an interim coach in Denver seven years ago when coach John Fox missed four weeks with a heart issue.
Rivera said he did not have a former head coach on his staff in Carolina. He made it a priority to hire one in Washington, wanting someone with experience he could turn to. Del Rio already has given him suggestions that he has implemented, Rivera said.
“I have a great saying that I really do appreciate. It’s called don’t draw me a map unless you’ve been there,” Rivera said. “Jack has been there and has been very helpful. … It shows you the importance of having that kind of guy around. Now in the circumstances we have, his value for us is even more so.”
Rivera, 58, didn’t want to divulge more details about whether or not he’d need surgery or if there would be extra precautions taken because of COVID-19. All he knows is that he will keep working.
“That’s one thing the doctors talk about, when you can work focus on that because it distracts from other things going on,” Rivera said. “A lot of times that helps people get through situations and circumstances.
“For me, it’s another challenge, a challenge I accept. I’ve got to continue to be the person I am and be disciplined about it. More importantly, the doctor said at some point you have to be selfish and take care of you.”
Rivera told his players about his diagnosis following a walk-through in their practice bubble. Some said they were shocked by what they heard. They also said Rivera delivered the news in a calm tone and in a straightforward manner. He told them he had some tough news; he told them it would take a couple of months of treatments and not to worry about him.
“It was definitely just silence,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “Everyone was intent and listening. You just pray for him. That’s a serious diagnosis. His mood said a lot. He was very confident he was going to beat this. He stood up there very strong; there’s a lot of respect in that.”
Linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. played eight seasons for Rivera in Carolina and signed with Washington this offseason. He said Rivera doesn’t want the players worrying about him. Davis also knows this could help inspire them.
“He is huge at finding ways to motivate guys,” Davis said. “But just his presence and knowing what he is going through, knowing his goal is to still be here for the team, as a player that motivates you daily. You face different bumps and bruises and the grind of being in camp. When you know your head coach is facing what he’s facing and his mindset is to be here every day, that motivates you to want to come in and work every day.”
Rivera said he gave a lot of thought to what he would say Thursday.
He said he also told the players: “OK, let’s say Coach has to step back. Are we going to wait for someone else to step up or will we step up ourselves? This is all part of our growth. It’s a learnable moment. We’ll find out a little bit more about ourselves.”
And perhaps develop a stronger bond.
“When a coach opens up his personal life to you, it allows you to then get to know him better,” said center Chase Roullier. “This is not a good circumstance by any means, but it shows you who he is as a coach, as a person. He wants us to know him fully and to understand him both as a person and a coach. It allows us to get to know him better and respect him more and see him as our leader and someone you want to go out on the field with.”
Said Allen, “When someone can be vulnerable, that says a lot about their mental toughness. For Coach to tell us that, it’s a huge step in building that trust with guys who haven’t played with him before.”
But Rivera also wants to build a winner, and that was the other message he delivered Saturday. He was upset with how sloppy the practice got late. He chastised one player — guard Wes Martin — imploring him to seize his opportunity to win a starting job. He pointed to Davis and running back Adrian Peterson as examples for others. But Rivera made it clear what was, and wasn’t, acceptable. He said it’s a theme he wants to emphasize, knowing it could help get them through days he might have to miss.
“Today was not acceptable,” he said. “If this is what’s going to happen, we’re going to struggle. I can’t allow that to happen.”