Leaders players reflect on Ron Rivera’s time as coach

Leaders players reflect on Ron Rivera’s time as coach

In the Washington Commanders’ locker room on Sunday, coach Ron Rivera asked everyone except the players and coaches to leave. The Dallas Cowboys had just beaten the Leaders, 38-10, and everyone seemed to think that was the case. The end of the era. Rivera was about to address his team for what was likely one last time.

In the summer of 2020, he mentioned to his team that he had been diagnosed with skin cancer. It was in the lymph node in his neck. He wanted a treatment called proton therapy, a more targeted form of radiotherapy. There was no proton therapy facility in North Carolina, where he spent the last nine years of his life coaching the Carolina Panthers. But there was one just a short drive from his new team’s headquarters.

The treatment was exhausting. He underwent three cycles of chemotherapy and 35 proton therapy sessions. Since then, he has been cancer-free. Sunday was his birthday. He was 62 years old. Four players said his point was: Everything happens for a reason.

“He’s an incredible human being,” said gambler Trace Way.

“He said we helped him. (He said) we were the reason he got through it, which means a lot,” right guard Sam Cosmi said.

“Seeing how he beat (cancer) and how he was still there for us is a huge respect,” Antonio Gibson said. “This is something you can’t forget.”

Sverloga: Sam Howell showed what he is not: a future future leader

Sunday night, the Leaders’ locker room was mostly somber. There was some relief — there was no more losing, and the streak thankfully stopped at eight games at the end of the season — but that was overshadowed by mourning for a room that would never be the same. Defensive tackle Vedarian Mathis tapped on his phone, and from a red portable speaker came a sad snippet of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” by Boyz II Men.

How do I say goodbye to what we had? / The good times that made us laugh / outweigh the bad.

“Really, brother?” Offensive tackle Trent Scott called across the room.

Everywhere, players hugged and shook hands. Run game coordinator Juan Castillo sat in front of an empty booth, talking with his offensive linemen. Linebacker Cody Barton, still wearing his white jersey, leaned over a folding table, seemingly reflective.

“It gets very heavy,” Way said. “It makes your stomach churn. You don’t know what’s going to happen to anyone. But that’s just the reality of playing…in this league.”

A ring of cameras formed around tight end Logan Thomas. Behind him, his 7-year-old son sat patiently, pulling on his father’s huge yellow gloves. After the reporters dispersed, Thomas turned to his son and placed his shoulder pads over his head. This was the team Thomas grew up for, a team he took a chance on as a converted quarterback in 2020, and now his contract is up. He didn’t know if he would come back. He took out his phone and took a picture of his son.

Marty Horney, soccer’s executive vice president of player personnel, walked in and out wearing his signature backpack. General manager Martin Mayhew, red tie loose around his neck, chats with his son. Rivera, Thomas and wide receiver Terry McLaurin wandered to a far corner of the room to conduct interviews on the team’s postgame radio show. Players were nominated for fragile Jordans and expensive loafers.

Gone are McLaurin and defensive tackle Daron Payne, foundations for the next era. There went backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett and defensive end James Smith-Williams, soon-to-be free agents. Receiver Jahan Dotson, running back Brian Robinson Jr. and cornerback Kendall Fuller went there.

The leaders lost to the Cowboys. Let the off-season changes begin.

About half an hour later, only a few players remained in the locker room. One of them was cornerback Jace Whitaker, a member of the practice squad who, in the game, recovered a blocked field goal and ran it 51 yards. Another was quarterback Sam Howell. He emerged wearing a gray tracksuit, hood pulled up, and walked down the hall to the press conference room.

“It’s been a difficult year,” he told reporters. He returned to the locker room, radioed and then grabbed his things. He was the last player out at 8:06 p.m., with only equipment, pieces of grass and half-full water bottles left in the room. Workers darted into the locker room, loading burgundy and gold gear bags. Someone removed the silver containers labeled “Chex Broth” and “Apple Juice.”

Across the room, on one of the burgundy walls, was a phrase written in gold: “Everything we need is in this room.” That was Rivera’s refrain during the 2021 season, when the coach summoned a David vs. Goliath spirit and began throwing a brick at the wall after every win. The leaders’ tie-breaking push was insufficient. I carried the message.

Not too long from now, this phrase will likely be painted over or removed. Someone new will have some new phrase. But Sunday night, as a disappointing era came to an official end and Rivera spoke to his players about what they meant to him in a difficult time, the words remained true.

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