When Ron Rivera joined Washington at the beginning of 2020, anyone even remotely familiar with the franchise’s recent past knew there was a ton in store for the head coach. Building Carolina up to a contender was a major challenge that he handled, but this would be far, far different.
No one knew how different, however.
In late August, in the middle of his first training camp with the club, Rivera came out and announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer. Shocking doesn’t begin to describe that news.
Forget everything he had already faced with the Burgundy and Gold, including, but absolutely not limited to, retiring the organization’s old name, dealing with reports about a toxic workplace culture and trying to learn about an entirely different roster during a pandemic. This was cancer.
Even though Rivera was bullish about his chances of beating the disease because it was caught so early, it was hard not to let one’s mind race and think about the worst-case scenario. Yet Rivera never wavered.
The 58-year-old finished camp and didn’t miss a single contest as he battled squamous cell carcinoma. The constant appointments, therapies and chemo sessions did wear on him greatly — he had to nap multiple times a day, leave the facility earlier than he normally prefers to and lost weight as most foods didn’t appeal to him — but, somehow, he never took a step down or a step back. Through it all, he remained Washington’s leader.
Think about the impact that had on Washington's roster, front office and employees. How could someone complain about a tight hamstring or an extra meeting when the coach is not just fighting cancer, but overcoming it? His courage undoubtedly trickled down to every level of the operation.
Then, near the end of October, Rivera got to ring the bell, a tradition that comes at the final stage of a patient’s treatment. His recovery isn’t over yet — he still has follow-ups to ensure his health is in a good place and the medicine keeps doing its job — but the two months of hell, of having to juggle one of the world’s most time-consuming jobs and one of life’s most unfair obstacles, was put behind him when that bell sounded.
“It was a kind of surreal and emotional moment,” Rivera said about that part of the experience. “When you’re a professional athlete, when you’re a high-profile athlete, the tendency is to feel like you’re Superman and you’re really not. So when something like this happens to me personally, it was a very humbling experience.”
Very humbling for him — and very inspiring for countless others.
As of now, it appears that Rivera has Washington on a very promising track, with potentially many more wins left in their future together. It’s quite likely, though, that he’s already scored his most impressive victory.
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