Rivers balancing individual success with team aspirations

By Mark Feldmann

Philip Rivers always knew he would be a football player. In the fifth grade, the story goes, Rivers plastered his face atop the body of a Minnesota Vikings player on the cover of a Sports Illustrated magazine. He handed in the finished product for an classroom assignment to write about your hopes and dreams.

Almost 20 years later, he has surpassed even his wildest dreams. Rivers isn’t just a football player – he’s a football star. Now the San Diego Chargers quarterback stands on the brink of NFL history. Rivers, in his seventh season, is on pace to pass for the most yards in one NFL season: More than record-holder and Hall of Famer Dan Marino, more than John Elway, more than Brett Favre, more than Drew Brees – whom he replaced as the Chargers starter – more than both Peyton and Eli Manning.

Through 12 games, Rivers had thrown for 3,362 yards and 23 touchdowns. That’s 1,723 yards from Marino’s record of 5,084 yards set in 1984. Rivers would have to average more than 400 yard passing in his last four games, but he has the arm, the grit, and the game plan to make it happen.

“If you can be accurate and you can be efficient, then yards will come,” he said after throwing four touchdowns to beat the Indianapolis Colts at the end of November. “I don’t care about yards, but in a lot of ways, yards equates to going to score if you’re protecting the football. You do have to gain yards to get in the end zone.”

The yardage record, another playoff appearance, and a possible NFL MVP award would certainly boost the value of everything with Rivers’ picture, signature, and uniform No. 17 on it. Rivers items already sell well, dealers say, and it would only get better.

“We sold out of Rivers 8×10 pictures at around $100 each,” said Sean Jacoby, operator of American Icon Autographs in San Diego. “We haven’t done as well with the 16x20s at $145. Jerseys do well at about $200. Mini helmets retail for $150.”
Cards sell well and will continue to as his career gets better and better. One especially nice card is an autographed “Signs of the Future” from Bowman’s 2004 set. The card pictures Rivers and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, a duo who have been entwined since the first round 2004 NFL draft. Autographed by both players makes it extremely rare and worth about $200.

Anything signed is a nice item because Rivers isn’t the easiest signature get, Jacoby said. “He is very nice to the fans but isn’t very accessible,” he said. “If fans are able to get to him, he generally signs. We have done one private and one public signing with Rivers. We haven’t been able to get another signing with him done, though. We have spoken to his representatives numerous times, and just haven’t been able to get anything done.”

Another dealer in River’s home state of Alabama said he thinks Rivers has a soft spot for kids. Rivers and his wife Tiffany, whom he met in the seventh grade, have five children. The couple also started the Rivers of Hope charity that helps abandoned children find homes and provides foster children with a semblance of a normal life.

“I heard he once saw a kid, one kid, waiting outside the players’ parking lot in San Diego. Rivers drove past him, then made an illegal U-turn to go back to the lot and sign for the kid,” said Nate Schreiber, who runs the Top Shelf Shop in Tuscaloosa, Ala. “I think he really likes doing that kind of thing because I think he really enjoys being a football player.”

Born and raised in football-crazy Alabama, Rivers learned to be a football player at the foot of his father, Steve, a former college player and a high school football coach. He served as water boy for his dad’s team, watching plays, and throwing a regulation size football instead of a pee-wee size ball. That probably led to his unorthodox, slingshot throwing motion that he has to this day.

He made the varsity as a sophomore, but as a linebacker. There he learned football from the defensive side. A growth spurt sent him past six feet as a junior, and he soon began drawing the attention of scouts and recruiters from major college programs. As a senior, he took over as quarterback, and was the state player of the year. He bypassed the local Crimson Tide at Alabama and signed with North Carolina State.

In Raleigh, he led the Wolfpack to 34 wins over four seasons, and four bowl games. He was named most valuable player in four bowl games – the last being the Senior Bowl following his final season, throwing for 213 yards and two touchdowns.

The 2004 NFL draft was a clash of top-notch college quarterback titans: Rivers and Mississippi’s Eli Manning. The San Diego Chargers took Manning, who had made no secret of his desire to stay away from the west coast team. The New York Giants selected Rivers. The two teams engineered a blockbuster swap, and the destiny of both quarterbacks was set.

“That’s the one thing fans in San Diego are going to get,” said Rivers after the trade was announced. “A guy who wants to be there and be a part of it.”

At first, Rivers’ part was to sit behind starting quarterback Drew Brees. In two seasons he threw 30 passes and one touchdown. He got his shot in 2006 when Brees signed with New Orleans as a free agent. The Chargers put everything in the Rivers basket. “There was no Plan B behind Philip,” said San Diego general manager A.J. Smith after letting Brees go and handing Rivers the job.

But Rivers’ talent, passion, moxie, and tenaciousness have kept him behind center ever since. In 2006 he led the Chargers to 14 wins, threw for 3,388 yards and 22 touchdowns. In the playoffs, he threw two touchdowns in a loss to the New York Jets. He was named to the Pro Bowl.

That was just a warm-up. He threw for more than 4,000 yards in 2008 and 2009, tossed 34 touchdowns in 2008, and posted a passer rating of more than 100 in 2008 and 2009.

In 2008, he led the Chargers to the AFC Championship game, gutting out the last month of the regular season and the playoffs on an injured knee. He hurt the knee in December, but continued to play. In a playoff game against Indianapolis, he torn his ACL, but not only finished, but won, the game. Six days later he marched into New England and took every snap in the AFC title game.

He plays the game with a fiery zest that is sometimes difficult to harness. In 2008, he got into well-documented, vocal dust-up with then-Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler. “I just don’t get along with the guy,” Cutler said after the tiff.
In a mostly meaningless preseason game against Dallas this season, defensive back Barry Church picked up a fumble. He dashed down the left sideline to the end zone and appeared to have a free path for a touchdown. But Rivers – the former high school linebacker and safety – delivered a bone-crunching tackle at the one.

“I don’t know how you can let a guy score,” said Rivers, when asked about making a daring tackle in the preseason. “They’re keeping score. Maybe the consequences aren’t as big in the preseason as far as wins and losses, but it’s kind of hard just to pass a guy up there.”

Such pronouncements have made River a polarizing player. Detractors roll their eyes at such brash statements, his tough talk, and sideline yapping. Chargers fan rally to defend their man as one of the best leaders, passers and players in the league. Either way you look at him, he now stands on the brink of NFL history.

Rivers has said he wouldn’t mind having the yardage record, but he would trade all the stats, Pro Bowls, and moral victories for a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy as a Super Bowl champion.

“To say it doesn’t mean anything would be inaccurate, but at the same time I would certainly trade it for a few more wins,” he said halfway through the season. “Hopefully, there’s a lot more yards this second half, and at the same time they’re going to translate to a lot more wins. It’s all about the wins.” SCM

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