As overtime began in last Thursday's Georgia Tech-North Carolina State game, Steve Rivers fidgeted compulsively in section 5, row J at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. He spit on the concrete, hitched up his pants and scanned the field, much as he has for the last 29 years as a high school football coach. At the same time Philip Rivers, the Wolfpack's 18-year-old freshman quarterback, was eyeing the Yellow Jackets' defense before reaching for the snap on the second play of OT. "Be smart," Steve said, as if speaking into his son's ear. "There's no safety support. The fade is open."
In the huddle Philip had called a slant to sophomore receiver Koren Robinson, but he had also reminded Robinson to look for "the sign." As Philip settled in behind the center, he tugged on his face mask—the signal to Robinson to change his pattern from a slant to a fade—and audibled. Moments later Philip lofted a delicate pass to the right corner of the end zone, and as it sailed through the air Steve cried, "There it is.... There it is.... There it is!" Robinson gathered in the pass for the 23-yard touchdown that won the game 30-23.
That the Cardiac Pack trailed Georgia Tech by 13 points at halftime and by three after three quarters hardly fazed the younger Rivers, who had already led a pair of dramatic comebacks in sparking N.C. State to an unlikely 3-0 start. In his college debut against Arkansas State on Sept. 2, Rivers had to play through leg and hip cramps that required him to take saline solution intravenously. Still, he converted two fourth-down plays during a rain-soaked, last-minute, game-tying drive. He then engineered touchdown marches in two overtimes to win the game 38-31. A week later the Wolfpack trailed by 12 with 4:29 left at Indiana, but Rivers tossed touchdown passes of 26 and 47 yards, the latter with 54 seconds remaining, to steal a 41-38 victory in his first road game. "The kid is officially potty trained," Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato said after that game. "We don't have to put Pampers on him anymore."
During each of N.C. State's comebacks Rivers has put on a headset and delivered the same message to quarterbacks coach Norm Chow, who spent the last 22 seasons as an assistant at BYU. "He'll tell me, 'Coach, don't worry, we're going to win,' " Chow says. "I'm thinking, Aren't I supposed to be telling him that? There's really no substitute for the poise of a coach's son."
In the mid-1960s Steve Rivers was the quarterback at Sylacauga ( Ala.) High, across town from where his father, Ken, had played quarterback at B.B. Comer High. Steve signed with Mississippi State, tore up his knee and played sparingly as a reserve safety. In '72 he began his high school coaching career, at Decatur ( Ala.) High. Philip is his father's son. Both he and Steve are unmistakably confident yet refreshingly humble. They finish each other's sentences and use "Gaaaaw-lee!" as an expletive. Steve's wife, Joan, swears that Steve's and Philip's voices are so similar that she has trouble distinguishing between them on the phone. Naturally, Philip wears the same number, 17, his father wore. As a starting college quarterback Philip is living his daddy's dream, but this is no repeat of the Marv and Todd Marinovich saga. There was no father-imposed blueprint for Philip to follow from birth. This is simply the tale of a gridiron lifer, his oldest son and the magnetic pull of the pigskin in the Deep South. What else would Steve's boy want to be?
Posters of Troy Aikman, Dan Marino and Joe Montana served as wallpaper in young Philip's bedroom. When his grandmother Lois gave him red-and-white number blocks for his fourth birthday, he lined them up as two football teams and ran plays on the carpet using shoestrings as sidelines. Later, when he played in the backyard of the family house, Philip spray-painted yard lines and used orange pylons for end zone markers. Philip attended Steve's practices after school, and at the dinner table, conversation centered on topics like defending against the wishbone. Philip lived for the spectacle of a Friday night in autumn. "He once asked me, 'Mom, when I get big, can I play quarterback in the game and be the drum major at halftime?' "Joan recalls. "He always wanted to be the leader."
Philip had to settle for being the starting quarterback (and occasional free safety) for three years at Athens ( Ala.) High, where Steve was the coach. As a senior last season he threw for 2,025 yards and 15 touchdowns and was voted the state's player of the year, but because of his unorthodox throwing motion, which looks more like he's launching a javelin than a football, many marquee college programs shunned him. Alabama and Auburn offered him a look at quarterback but suggested he might make a better safety or tight end. "Recruiting is in the eye of the beholder," says assistant Joe Pate, who courted Rivers for the Wolfpack. "I concentrated more on the results of his throws, and I realized he was the best quarterback that I'd ever recruited."
On Jan. 8, only two days after Chuck Amato had replaced the fired Mike O'Cain as the North Carolina State coach, Rivers became the first prospect Amato visited. The Wolfpack's 1999 starting quarterback had been senior Jamie Barnette, and Rivers was enticed by the possibility of starting as a freshman. Already possessing enough credits to graduate from high school, Rivers signed with the Wolfpack a week later, loaded his car and made the 414-mile drive to Raleigh. The kid voted Mr. Athens High School gave up his spot on the basketball team and a chance to take his high school sweetheart, Tiffany Goodwin, to the senior prom.
Then, on just his ninth day in Raleigh, a freak blizzard dropped 20 inches of snow on campus. "Those first two weeks I felt really homesick," Rivers says. "I kept wondering, What am I doing here? But by the time the snow melted, I was ready to compete for the starting quarterback job."
Still, Chow, who has coached the likes of Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer, was concerned enough about Rivers's delivery that he made a special trip to Seattle to visit an old friend, Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, to show him videotape of his new passer. Holmgren screened the tape and asked, "Does he throw strong and accurately? If so, leave him alone."