Commanders Coach Ron Rivera protects his team from chaos, even during tragedy

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Ron Rivera never got to celebrate the Washington Commanders’ win over the Green Bay Packers. Less than 48 hours later, he boarded a private jet to California to visit his mother, who was battling stage IV lung cancer and didn’t have much time left. For weeks, Rivera was shielded from the seriousness of her condition.

But it got to a point where Dolores Rivera-Munoz knew she needed to see her son. So Rivera took a short trip, left the hospital in California thinking he’d seen the last of his mother, and returned to Virginia — where he was bombarded with chaos.

Daniel and Tanya Snyder, co-owners of the Commanders, revealed they had hired a bank to look into possible transactions involving the team, including a sale that trampled on every spark of new hope and fanfare the win deserved stepped.

Shortly after the Commanders’ narrow loss to the Minnesota Vikings two weeks later, Rivera was again on a flight to California, this time for his mother’s funeral. He returned Wednesday night – again just in time for more drama at Ashburn. A statement from a team spokesman referred to pushing back Brian Robinson Jr., the victim of a DC shooting in August, while clapping back at the county attorney general. It drew widespread criticism, and although team president Jason Wright tried to push it back, Rivera was forced to raise the matter with his team the next morning.

“[At] an 8 a.m. team meeting … he came in and talked about it,” quarterback Taylor Heinicke said. “[He said:] ‘That’s what’s going on. I want you guys to focus on soccer. I’ll take care of it.’ For everything that’s going on, he’s doing a great job. He really just wants us to focus on the ball.”

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For nearly three years since he took on the job of head coach, football’s foremost decision-maker and de facto culture fixer in Washington, Rivera has taken on a role few could master. He is a shield. At times he is also team spokesman. He’s the rally captain when the outside negativity intensifies, the familiar voice when the noise penetrates the walls of the dressing room.

The importance of his job has perhaps never been greater as he tends to his own grief, the franchise’s football activities and the needs of his players as they prepare for a clash with the undefeated Eagles in Philadelphia.

“He’s doing a good job,” said left tackler Charles Leno Jr. “He’s trying to keep us focused on football. It’s not his job – he shouldn’t have to make us focus on football – but he’s done a good job with that.”

It turns out Rivera didn’t get his knack for foreclosure or compassion for his players from football or coaches in his past. He got it from his mother.

Rivera choked when asked to share about his mother just days after her death on Oct. 31.

“My mother had a certain toughness,” he began.

Rivera-Munoz, 82, loved sports. loved soccer. And, boy, did she love her family?

When Rivera’s father, Eugenio Rivera, was serving in Vietnam, Rivera-Munoz stepped in as interim coach, suggesting batting drills for their sons and even participating in combat drills. She was involved in bake sales and Christmas bazaars. She was the team mother on all of her sons’ sports teams.

Later, after embarking on a successful football career, Rivera purposely shielded her son from bad news so as not to upset him or distract him from his team.

Early in his career, while Rivera was with the Bears, he bought his parents tickets to see a preseason game against the 49ers in San Francisco. But as he jogged onto the field, he noticed their seats were empty. His parents didn’t answer his calls after the game, and it wasn’t until he got on the plane that his mother finally called.

Rivera’s father had been hospitalized because his appendix ruptured. An operation was planned.

“He’s going through this whole thing and not saying a word,” Rivera said. “That’s nice of them.”

Years later, while Rivera was in Spartanburg, SC for training camp with the Carolina Panthers, he kept calling his parents with no answer, only to hear back from his mother days later. She had been in the hospital; Doctors found a benign tumor on her pancreas and removed it.

Then, in 2020, Rivera called home to tell his parents that he had been diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in the neck. He heard his mother crying on the other end; She lost her eldest son to cancer in 2015.

As Rivera spoke to his father, Eugenio confidently assured his son that everything would be fine – unbeknownst to his son, Eugenio had also been diagnosed with cancer a few years earlier. Eugenio told Ron he had been treated, the doctors had traced the cancer back to Agent Orange from his time in Vietnam, and everything was fine.

“I’m stunned,” Rivera said. “I’m like, ‘What about you guys?'”

When Rivera’s mom broke the news about some testing in August, he knew something was wrong. He had seen this dance before and it became clear that Rivera-Munoz was hiding something. She asked Rivera’s brother to take her to a specialist weeks later and ordered him not to say a word. Eventually, John Rivera told his older brother he had to fly out immediately.

When Rivera arrived, he found out what was going on. His mother’s first question when he arrived: “What are you doing here?”

“It was private. She was calm. She didn’t say much,” Rivera said. “…She was an officer’s wife. Everything was community service. … Her duty was to protect her family, her children, and us, and to keep us safe from things.”

In recent years, Rivera has often used a mantra: Focus on what’s important, not what’s interesting.

“I compartmentalize things,” Rivera said. “I can separate them and put them in buckets.”

Rivera reminded the team what’s interesting and what’s important last month as their Thursday night game in Chicago turned into a wild day with news that could have easily distracted them. More allegations were leveled against Snyder, and there was a report that Washington’s highest-paid cornerback wanted out. Despite the hurricane, the Commanders fought back a win over the Bears and Rivera was celebrated with the cue ball.

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Days later, at the league’s fall meeting, Colts owner Jim Irsay stated that “there [was] merit to remove” Snyder as owner. And days later, the Commanders rallied to defeat the Packers, only for the top headline to be about the crowd’s shouts of “sell the team.” A week later, Washington’s win in Indianapolis gave way to news that the Snyders could sell.

And with any controversy, Rivera is almost always asked for his reaction, a comment, a response of any kind. So are his players.

“The difficult part is there’s a lot that doesn’t involve us,” Rivera said. “That’s one thing I’m trying to convey to the boys in the first place. This stuff happened before us.”

Yet when the outside noise increases, Rivera is able to break through the chaos, an ability that some players know is a rarity. It’s one they deeply respect.

“I can think of coaches who could not take on such a task,” said Leno. “They couldn’t control what they can control.”

Before Rivera left for his mother’s funeral, his family framed an enlarged photo of her. It was taken at his wedding, and it has his mom standing there with a little smile on her face — a smile “that kind of says, ‘Hey, it’s going to be okay,'” Rivera said.

The photo is Eugenio’s favorite and was shown at Rivera-Munoz’s vigil and rosary, as well as the funeral and reception that followed. That small smile was the same one she had on her face the last time she saw her son, in the hospital in California, days after his team defeated the Packers.

Rivera knew what the smile meant when he left the hospital. Shortly after the trainer returned home, his mother’s doctor called to confirm the news, which she had been shielding him from for weeks.

“I was the last to know and that was her wish,” Rivera said.

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