Ron Rivera, the first-year head coach of the Washington Football Team, revealed on Thursday that he has early stage lymphoma.
Rivera, 58, told the team of the diagnosis Thursday night and said he would continue coaching even as he receives treatment, which can severely compromise his immune system and raise his risk of infection from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Rivera’s condition was first reported by ESPN.
Rivera sought treatment after a self-care check and said the cancer was at an early stage and “very treatable.” “I was stunned,” Rivera told ESPN. “But I was angry because I feel like I’m in best health I’ve been in.”
Rivera has had a particularly heavy workload since joining the team before this season. He not only has been trying to turn around a flailing team, but has also dealt with changing the organization’s troubled corporate culture.
Rivera’s diagnosis comes during a critical phase of training camp, as players and coaches began wearing pads in practices to get ready for the upcoming season, which begins in just three weeks. Training camps, which have been altered this year to reduce the risk of infection from the coronavirus, include fewer full-contact practices and in-person meetings and no preseason games.
Rivera is far from the first N.F.L. head coach to confront serious health issues. Over the years, head coaches including John Fox of the Denver Broncos and Bill Parcells of the Giants stepped away from their teams because of heart-related illness.
In September 2012, Chuck Pagano, then 51 and the coach of the Indianapolis Colts, took an indefinite leave after a leukemia diagnosis. His illness became a rallying cry for the players, including quarterback Andrew Luck, who wore T-shirts with the phrase “Chuckstrong.” That Christmas Eve, Pagano returned to work in time to see his team qualify for the playoffs after finishing 2-14 the season before.
In 1970, Vince Lombardi was coaching in Washington when he received a colon cancer diagnosis and died less than three months later at 57.
None of these coaches, though, had to grapple with health issues during a pandemic, and the risk of infection could change Rivera’s plans. He told ESPN it was “business as usual” but that he had a “Plan B.”
Often, head coaches who temporarily step down appoint one of their deputies to take over. Rivera’s two main lieutenants are Jack Del Rio — like Rivera, a former linebacker — and Scott Turner. Now a defensive coordinator, Del Rio, 57, was a head coach for 12 years with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Oakland Raiders. Turner, 38, is a first-year offensive coordinator and has been a position coach at several colleges and with four other N.F.L. teams, most recently the Carolina Panthers, where he was Rivera’s offensive coordinator. He is a son of Norv Turner, who coached the Washington team from 1994-2000.
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Even before his diagnosis, Rivera was already thrust into one of the most chaotic off-seasons any head coach has had to face. Hired by team owner Daniel Snyder at the end last season after being fired by the Panthers, Rivera was presented as a new face of a franchise eager to ditch its losing ways. The team has not made the postseason in five years and has not won a playoff game since Snyder took over the franchise in 1999.
Rivera, who led the Panthers to the playoffs four times in his nine years there, brought in Turner, Del Rio and several front office personnel. But his efforts to remake the team hit a wall when the pandemic forced the N.F.L. to shut down all team facilities and ban all nonessential travel. This forced Rivera and his new staff to work remotely and forgo the in-person player interviews and tryouts essential to the recruiting process. Like all teams, Washington held virtual off-season workouts.
Then George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis at the end of May, prompting a wave of protests around the country and renewed activism among N.F.L. players that pushed league executives, including Commissioner Roger Goodell, to more vocally support racial justice. Rivera condemned Floyd’s killing and said he would support players’ protests. The team launched initiatives to further “cultural understanding” underwritten by a $250,000 donation from Snyder.
Within weeks, Snyder removed the name of George Preston Marshall, the team’s founder, from the stadium and other locations associated with the franchise. Marshall, who chose the name “Redskins” for the team, a term many consider a racist slur, was the last owner in the league to sign Black players.
In July, yielding to pressure from some of the team’s biggest sponsors, Snyder said the team would abandon its 87-year old name. Just three days after news of the name change, the team’s internal turmoil came to light when The Washington Post published an article that included claims from 15 women who said they were sexually harassed while employed by the team. Snyder hired the law firm Wilkinson Walsh to review the allegations, which include misconduct and abusive behavior by several team executives and football personnel over more than a dozen years.
Through all the turmoil, Snyder communicated publicly through issued statements and left Rivera to speak with the media about these and other business decisions. Addressing reporters after The Post’s article, Rivera said, “Dan Snyder brought me here to change culture and create an environment of inclusion among employees. I believe everyone that works for this franchise has a vested interest in our success.”
Meantime, Rivera’s defensive coordinator, Del Rio, raised eyebrows in July, when he shared a viral video of Stella Immanuel, a woman who identified herself as a doctor and made misleading claims about the coronavirus. His support for Immanuel flew in the face of the league’s efforts to safely reopen its training camps, test players for the virus and educate players on how to reduce the risk of infection.
Rivera’s cultural reset got another test when running back Derrius Guice was arrested on domestic violence-related charges in early August. Rivera said in a statement that the team’s decision to release Guice, a second-round pick in the 2018 draft, came the same day it learned of the charges and spoke to Guice.
While helping to select new hires, serving as the public face of the organization, chiming in on the franchise’s branding and navigating its new approach on race, Rivera has also had to prepare the team for the upcoming football season.
Rivera said that the rocky start to his tenure in Washington had been difficult, but that he had no regrets about taking the job. “This hasn’t dampened my approach and spirit with this organization,” he said.