After a near-perfect season (18-1) and a recent win over the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship, the Carolina Panthers punched their ticket to Super Bowl 50, where they will face the Denver Broncos. The Panther’s success this year came under the leadership of head coach Ron Rivera, who continues to instill in his players the values and lessons of his father, a veteran who served 32 years in the U.S. Army.
Rivera’s father, Eugenio Rivera, from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, was drafted into the Army in 1952 and completed his basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He trained as an Army engineer and served in Germany and France before completing two tours of duty in Vietnam, during which he was stationed in the Mekong Delta.
“During those times, I was relatively young the first time, but the second time you were kind of aware so sports kind of distracted you from what was really happening,” said Rivera about his father’s deployments in an interview with USAA.
Those deployments remain Rivera’s worst childhood memories. By his father’s second deployment, Rivera was old enough to understand where his father was going and why. However, for Eugenio Rivera, that second deployment turned out to be his most rewarding, as he was deployed as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Army. “I used to support the schools, get the stuff they needed, and I helped them a lot. I really enjoyed it,” Eugenio Rivera told USAA.
While his father’s departures were Rivera’s worst childhood memories, his returns proved to be Rivera’s favorite childhood memories, as the whole family gathered to welcome him home. These deployments and reunions would continue in the years following Vietnam, when Eugenio Rivera deployed to Korea, South American and Central America.
Like most military families, the Riveras moved often, whenever the head of the household – who was eventually promoted to warrant officer – was sent to new duty stations in Panama, Washington, D.C., Germany and Maryland, before finally settling in Monterey, California. There, Rivera would become a star linebacker at Seaside High School and was pursued by a number of collegiate athletic programs, including West Point, which he seriously considered. “My dad actually told me, ‘Hey, it’s a different lifestyle,’” Rivera recalled in an interview with ESPN. “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.’”
Rivera eventually accepted an offer from the University of California, Berkeley, where he led the team in tackles in his last three years playing for the Golden Bears and earned the title of All-American linebacker and the 1983 Lombardi Award.
In 1984, Rivera was drafted by the Chicago Bears, playing with the team for a total of nine seasons and winning a championship against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. After his playing career, Rivera began coaching linebackers for the Philadelphia Eagles and then worked as the defensive coordinator back in Chicago with the Bears, where his defense proved dominant in 2005 and 2006. This earned Rivera consideration for head coaching positions. He was a candidate for a number of teams before his eventual hire as a linebacker coach in San Diego, where he would then become the defensive coordinator.
Then in January 2011, Rivera was hired by the Carolina Panthers, becoming the fifth Latino head coach in the NFL, and would eventually land the AP NFL Coach of the Year honor in 2013, when his team finished the regular-season at 12-4. In this position, Rivera has often shared lessons learned from his father and from his experience growing up around the military. While he doesn’t liken being a football coach with being a military leader, he does note the similarities they share in leadership.
Rivera also continues to enhance his own ability to command his team by reading military stories and autobiographies of great military leaders – including Gen. George S. Patton and Winston Churchill – and by entwining the inspirational actions of present-day soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen with the Carolina Panthers.
“[There’s] a tremendous sense of community within the military, within military families, that there’s that tight bond that has to be developed. Watching how the military does things, certain cohesiveness and togetherness that is formed, the bonds that they create are really truly important,” Rivera said.
Surrounded by a number of major military installations in North Carolina – including Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune – Rivera, his wife Stephanie, and members of the Carolina Panthers are proudly active in the military and veteran communities as volunteers and ambassadors with the USO. Wounded warriors are often invited by Rivera to speak to his team and visit them during practice and participate in the team’s success throughout the 2015-2016 NFL season.
Now, Rivera and the Panthers, including quarterback and MVP contender Cam Newton, have one final hurdle before marking their place in sports history as Super Bowl champions.
Watch Rivera and the Carolina Panthers face off against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 on February 7 at 6:35 p.m. ET on CBS or stream it on your mobile device with NFL Mobile from Verizon.