Philip Rivers didn’t strike the football world as someone who was hyper-cautious about the crafting of his post-career legacy; the kind of person who, through careful observation of the greats around him and the aiding of a high-powered marketing team, laid the groundwork for a gilded life after football propped up on the strength of faux humility disguising a business interest.
He does not have a soft drink to promote. He does not have a lifestyle fitness empire to tend to. His personal branding effort over the last 17 seasons began and ended with a bolo tie and a hat with the Latin phrase Nunc Coepi on it. It means, “Now, I begin,” which Rivers has said relates to both life and football. It is a rallying cry to treat each moment with the reverence of a fresh start.
And so you judge a man like that based on the kinds of things people say about him once they don’t have to be nice anymore. A player’s retirement has often been the most revealing kind of news dump in which all the stories we’ve saved up over the years get released in a stream of social media fireworks.
With Rivers, what we learned mostly solidified what we already knew about the player we had come to appreciate over the course of two decades in the NFL; a man in love with football and his family. A person who treated the sport with the ultimate respect in that he played every down with the energy of a pissed off child in the backyard, jeans ripped and dirt smeared across his face.
Rivers did not confide his intentions to retire through the cellphone of a national reporter that he’d cozied up to over the last 20 years in an effort to protect himself. He gave the story to the great Kevin Acee, the San Diego Padres’ beat writer for the Union-Tribune, who had covered Rivers the for the majority of his career for the Chargers’ hometown paper. It’s the kind of scoop that means something dearly to the journalists on the ground who cover these players day in and day out, conditioned to the fact that one day they’ll be left behind for the bright lights of a bigger outlet once the player develops a high enough profile.
After the news broke Wednesday, we mostly talked about the 2007 AFC championship game, when Rivers nearly derailed the big, bad, undefeated New England Patriots on a legitimate torn ACL without the help of LaDainian Tomlinson. We talked about J.J. Watt’s memory of Rivers, who once correctly notified a Texans defender before the snap that the defender himself was not in the correct alignment for the blitz he was about to fire off. We watched NFL Films clips of Rivers, who was beautifully frenzied almost every Sunday, a constant stream of offsides-inducing audibles and delightful, family-friendly chatter when defensive players got in his face.
Through all examples, the common thread was simple: a person so enveloped and singularly focused on the sport and his teammates. A person whose competitiveness oozed from every hobbling, side-armed shotput of a throw that improbably corked from his slanted shoulder.
It is appropriate that Rivers will perpetually live in our memory as the quarterback leading the fourth-quarter comeback drive. It became known as the Rivers experience, once thought to be simply a signature of the cardiac Chargers over the years until the Colts began to see the trend in Indianapolis. Critics might say that this was an inability on Rivers’s part to close out games. On a day like today, we might counter that the quarterback loved competitions so much that he managed to conjure them, living for the times where the sport’s orbit centered around one of his frantic attempts at one last touchdown.
His final drive included a pair of fourth-down conversions against one of the best defenses in football. His final throw, likely made with the knowledge that there would be no more, was also fitting. A full-strength Hail Mary into the end zone headed for the bread basket of his most dependable receiver, one he no doubt made with the confidence that it would land the Colts in the end zone. It was a pass made with the energy of someone who treated that throw, like all 8,534 that preceded it, as a new beginning.