No mistaking the player, but Rivers the person is just misunderstood
Public perception of Philip Rivers as brash, petulant couldn't be further from reality
Rivers is a devout Catholic with a great sense of humor for those who know him
Division rival Champ Bailey originally didn't respect Rivers, has grown to like him
The latest issue of Sports Illustrated -- available on iPad Oct. 10 and newsstands Oct. 11 -- features a story on Philip Rivers' quest for playoff success. Below, Jim Trotter looks at another side of Rivers.
The contrasting opinions about Philip Rivers the Player are understandable, considering he has yet to lead the Chargers to a Super Bowl while the three quarterbacks directly linked to him have combined to win five titles. One of those signal-callers is Drew Brees, who recently came to the defense of Rivers, his teammate in San Diego in 2004 and 2005.
"Philip is an elite quarterback," Brees said after throwing for four touchdowns in a 31-24 defeat of the Chargers and Rivers on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. "I know at the end of the day quarterbacks are judged on wins, losses and championships, but there have been Hall of Fame quarterbacks who've played this game and not won Super Bowls -- Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Warren Moon, Dan Fouts. There are certain circumstances that sometimes come into play ..."
"Philip's in the prime of his career and he could be in the prime of it for the next eight to 10 years," he continued. "The story is still to be written on him."
The same can't be said when it comes to Philip Rivers the Person. A large number of football fans closed that book years ago after TV cameras caught him jawing with opponents or fans in separate sideline incidents. He was immediately written off as being bratty and petulant, a trash-talker whose antics overshadowed occasionally brilliant performances.
Perception couldn't be further from reality in this case. Rivers isn't a boor. He's a devout Catholic who married his middle-school sweetheart; they have six children together. He doesn't curse or carouse and is firm in his priorities: faith comes first, then family, then football.
"You get exactly what you see with Phil," said Tampa Bay wideout Vincent Jackson, a former teammate, who grew up in Alabama. "Southern kid, family guy, competitive as an ox, tough as nails. Only thing behind closed doors people don't know is that he has a great sense of humor."
Rivers might be the most misunderstood player in the league. During his early years in the league people knew him as much for his trash-talking as his gaudy statistics, which, since moving into the starting lineup in 2006, rank No. 2 in yards passing and wins, No. 3 in touchdown passes and yards per attempt and No. 6 in rating. Most people's perception of him was based on a sideline staredown of QB Jay Cutler, who was with the Broncos at the time.
San Diego was leading 23-3 midway through the fourth quarter when, after a fourth-down stop of Cutler, Rivers was caught by ESPN cameras barking at the rival QB from the sideline. It didn't matter that he was saying "Atta boy!" to his teammates as they came off the field, or that Cutler had made an obscene gesture. The glare was so intense, the bark so seemingly vicious, that Rivers was painted as the bad guy.
His jawing with Colts fans during a 2007 playoff game at Indianapolis didn't help his cause, with fans or opponents. When asked about Rivers in 2009, cornerback Cortland Finnegan, then with the Titans, said: "I don't like him. Yeah, I said it. I don't like him. He needs to learn to keep his mouth shut. He talks too much."
Two years before that, after the Cutler incident, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said: "I don't really care for the guy, first of all. He's not a respectable guy right now because you talk too much trash and do this and that, but you're really not a great player in this league right now. You're surrounded by great players, but you're not a great player. I think he needs to understand where he stands in this league -- where he stands on his team first and foremost."
The comment initially stung Rivers, who has great respect for Bailey. He couldn't understand the fuss because his "trash talking" was never demeaning. Irritating? No question. But never demeaning.
His trash talk is like the fly that keeps buzzing around your plate at a picnic. Say he completed a pass on a linebacker or cornerback. He might bark at them, "Man, you're going to have to do better than that." Or, "You're going to give us that?" A deceptively good basketball player, particularly from behind the three-point line, he was playing in an offseason rec league when a teenager, playing for the opposing team, was too short to grab a full-court pass. Rivers, from the other end of the court, said to the kid: "Don't worry. In a couple of years you'll be tall enough to get that."
Irritating, but innocent.
Part of Rivers' charm is his southern twang and the use of words like "neat," "cool" and "golly" when he gets excited, or "rear-end" when discussing the body part that was figuratively kicked in a lopsided loss.
"I didn't respect him a lot early in his career, but he has proven that he's a good guy and one of the best quarterbacks in the league," Bailey told me this summer. "I have a lot of respect for him. I talk to him as a friend now."
It's almost impossible to know Rivers and not like him. At N.C. State, an assistant athletic director went so far as to thank him in the Wolfpack's 2003 postseason guide, saying it was a "privilege" to work with him. The university also took the unusual step of retiring his jersey before he was done playing. He was beloved as much for his conviction off the field as his competitiveness on it. But it is that fiery spirit, the animated body gestures, the shouting and flapping of the arms and running up on officials, that makes outsiders believe he has a lot of jerk in him. He doesn't.
Regardless of whether Rivers ever wins a Super Bowl, the final chapter will show that Philip Rivers the Player had nothing on Philip Rivers the Person.
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