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Ron Rivera talks about the fight against cancer

Ron Rivera appeared on a podcast this week with Chris Collinsworth and talked about the struggles he had during the 2020 season. They discussed the challenges of the COVID-affected offseason, the social justice issues that affected the same offseason, the name change and negative publicity revolving around the franchise, and coach Rivera’s battle with cancer through it all.

The coach said that part of his battle – and this is something that he did on the advice of his doctors – was to try to maintain his normal life to the extent possible during his chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Coach talked about both the struggles and the accomplishments of that effort. He said that he was proud of the fact that he managed to be on the sidelines for every game, and that he missed only three practices during the time period

But he also spent time detailing the difficulties. For example, he explained that, because he was easily fatigued, he used a golf cart to get around the practice field.

A company called Club Cart actually made a cart for me and sent it, so I would go down to practice in it, and I just I couldn’t get up — or if I did, I couldn’t stay up for very long; I’d have to go sit back down. So, you know, I did what I hoped I never would have to do ever as a coach, and that was to coach from a cart, but I did a couple of times.

It’s clear that a super bowl winning athlete and professional coach like Ron Rivera has a lot of pride and didn’t want to be seen as weak, but cancer treatments of the sort he underwent are debilitating. Coach Rivera went on to describe the worst day of his months of treatment.

I got my radiation — my proton therapy. I met with my oncologist that day, and then I was going back to the facility, you know, to Washington Football Park.

[My wife] Stephanie [took me] to the park and we were going to go down to the training room; I was gonna get some good hydration. But, I looked at her and I said, “Stephanie, I can’t get out of the car; you’re gonna have to take me around.” So she drove me around to the backside, and she went got the head trainer Ryan Vermillion, and arm-in-arm Stephanie and Ryan literally carried me into the facility.

The coach, predictably was shaken by the impact the treatment had on him. But he was also clearly affected by others seeing his weakness.

It just so happened to be a Tuesday — the players day off — but most of the guys were getting treatment and working out. Now a lot of those guys saw me come in, and it was…it was really at my lowest point during my treatments.

I went in; I got hydration, but there was no way I could stay. So [Stephanie] took me home. Courtney, my daughter, had to come out and help her help me get into the house and into the bed, and, from about 10:30 till about 5:30 I slept straight through. I just I was so worn down. I missed lunch and I missed my afternoon snack that I typically have. So I was really worn down!

In the end, thankfully, Ron Rivera, with the help of his doctors, family and friends, overcame the cancer and is now healthy.

He has, since his experience with cancer treatment, advocated publicly for the expansion of public health care for all Americans. Futhermore, in April, he and his family took a huge additional step by donating to the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital to help fund their fight against pediatric cancer, and Washington Football Team owners Dan and Tanya Snyder, contributed as well.

This past — I think was February — Stephanie and I had gone over to the Snyders’ to visit and really kind of recap the year. We talked about the team, what had just happened, where we were headed, and the things that we wanted to do as far as, you know, developing our team and preparation for free agency in the draft.

While we were having a conversation, one of the things that came up was my recovery, and that Stephanie and I were planning on giving back; you know, we were trying to find a cancer charity, and we wanted to donate, $100,000. Mr. Snyder just looked at us and said, “Well you know, Tanya and I would like to make contribution; we’d like to [match] that. He got up, went over and gave us a blank check, and said, “Here, do with it what you guys think is best.”

NFL fans across America and throughout the world learned about these generous donations during the NFL Draft, as draft host Rich Eisen, who for years has raised money for the St. Jude’s Chidren’s Hospital through a program called “Run, Rich, Run”, in which he runs a 40-yard dash in a business suit and leather shoes, told the draft audience about the generosity of the Riveras and Snyders.

In the podcast this week, Ron Rivera explained how he and his wife came to the decision to support this particular charity.

We wanted to find what we felt would be a real worthy cancer charity, and, when we saw the advertisements for the Run, Rich Run, Stephanie did her homework on St. Jude and found that St. Jude also has, for the children with cancer, what’s called the Red Frog Proton Therapy Center. Proton therapy is one of the therapies that I used during my treatments, so I got to understand just how good it is and how important it is — especially for children to use — because proton therapy, unlike photon, is very direct, very specific – it’s not a broad beam, so there’s not a lot of collateral damage done to the healthy organs and tissues in that area. And so, we wanted to make that contribution. We reached out to Rich Eisen, talked to Rich about it, and told Rich what our plan was, and he loved it.

The plan, it turns out, wasn’t as simple as just mailing a check. The Run, Rich, Run program invites NFL fans (or anybody, for that matter) to make a video of themselves running a 40 to help raise the money. The program this year encouraged people to do that in whatever way felt most comfortable, suggesting that people could run 40 blocks or even run 40 errands for their neighbors.

Ron Rivera chose to stay on brand for this year, and let a family member help him out.

I was going to accept the challenge, but then I turned said, “Look, I’m still going through my recovery, so my family member, Taho, our dog, is going to run the forty. He ran a 3.39!”

The Washington Football Team had more than its share of inspirational stories this past year. We saw quarterback Alex Smith make possibly the greatest NFL comeback of all time; we were treated to Taylor Heinicke’s Cinderella story, and Ron Rivera’s struggle and victory over cancer. As fans, we often celebrate the result, but are unaware of the toughness required to get through the brutal days of recovery. Thanks to Alex Smith and ESPN, we had an inside look at the incredible journey that Alex went through, and the massive team of doctors, family members and others that made his return to the football field possible, and thanks to Ron Rivera’s interview this week, we were reminded of the support that’s required from family and friends for even the toughest people when the day comes that they just can’t get out of bed.

Coach Ron Rivera’s story should be a reminder to us all of, not just the courage and strength an individual needs to face and overcome challenges, but that the source of that courage and strength is often found in our families and the other important people in our lives.