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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
PHILIP RIVERS drives a Ford pickup truck with a custom-made bumper sticker on the back window that reads, THEY'LL WALK IF YOU LET 'EM. It was a message that former Chargers linebacker Carlos Polk used to shout at the end of long practices on hot summer afternoons when he knew that some players might be tempted to loll through the final special teams drills. Rivers became so taken with the saying that he logged on to makestickers.com early this season and had it printed up. Standing in the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot last Saturday night after the Chargers' 23--17 wild-card defeat of the Colts in overtime, Rivers said, "That bumper sticker has meant different things to me at different times. But right now it makes me think about when we were 4--8, and we could have walked the rest of the way. We didn't let each other walk."
The Chargers made that choice as a group on Nov. 30, after they'd lost to the Atlanta Falcons at home to fall to 4--8. When coach Norv Turner finished addressing the team, running back LaDainian Tomlinson stepped to the middle of the locker room. "We're not going to quit," he said. "We're not the Raiders."
San Diego became the first 4--8 team in NFL history to go on to make the playoffs and, on Saturday night at Qualcomm, the first 8--8 team to win an AFC playoff game. On Sunday in Pittsburgh they'll try to continue their run when they meet the Steelers in the AFC divisional round. "It's amazing how quickly people forget you were 8--8," said Rivers. The regular season became obsolete the moment Rivers called the play 30 Iso on the first possession of OT. He handed off to Darren Sproles, the 5'6" second-string running back, who jitterbugged 22 yards to the end zone and juked the Colts right into the off-season. Just like that, Peyton Manning, named league MVP a day earlier, was out of the playoffs, and for the second year in a row the Chargers were responsible for his exit.
As Rivers sprinted off the field, fans serenaded him with chants of "MVP," despite the fact that he wasn't even voted to the Pro Bowl. Although he led the NFL in passer rating this season (105.5), and his 34 touchdown passes broke Dan Fouts's single-season Chargers record, Rivers is still dogged by two bits of video from the 2007 season that keep turning up on highlight shows. In one he's barking at Denver quarterback Jay Cutler, and in the other he's trading barbs with Colts fans during last year's playoff game. Asked whether those clips cost Rivers a trip to Hawaii, Chargers broadcaster and former special teams ace Hank Bauer said, "Absolutely. And it's a crying shame because this guy is the most miscast player in the league."
The perception of Rivers as a renegade is comical for those who know him. He's a devout Catholic who doesn't curse, a country boy from Alabama who wears cowboy boots and Piggly Wiggly T-shirts celebrating the Southern supermarket chain. Rivers met his wife, Tiffany, in the eighth grade, and when he wanted to propose to her at N.C. State, he first asked his coaches for permission. "He didn't want to be a distraction," says Todd Stroud, then a coach with the Wolfpack who is now at Florida State. Leading up to the 2004 draft, Rivers didn't demonstrate the mobility of Ben Roethlisberger or the arm strength of Eli Manning. But his character and leadership skills were off the charts.
"What other people see as mouthy, we see as passionate," says right tackle Jeromey Clary. "When you play with passion and fire, you can get misunderstood. That's what's happened to Philip. But I wouldn't change him for the world. His leadership has a lot to do with where we are right now."
Rivers promised the Chargers he'd cut off his exchanges with opposing fans, and he has made it through this season without incident. But he's still animated when compared with the league's many robo-quarterbacks. "Certainly you want to be understood," Rivers says. "But you have to earn that. The only way to change perception is to keep being yourself. People will eventually see you and think, Maybe this guy is just having fun. Maybe he just likes to play the game."
The worst thing the Chargers might say about Rivers is that he can't relax. On Dec. 21 San Diego beat the Buccaneers in Tampa but still needed the Bills to win at Denver to stay eligible for the playoffs. On the charter home Rivers paced the aisles, starting at the back of the plane, where assistant p.r. director Scott Yoffe had a Sony Walkman pressed to the window to pick up a radio signal of the Bills-Broncos game. When Buffalo linebacker Kawika Mitchell intercepted a pass with 5:42 left in the fourth quarter and the Bills ahead 30--23, Yoffe bellowed, "Interception!" The cabin erupted.
But as the 757 flew over the Gulf of Mexico, Yoffe lost his signal. Rivers made his way to the front of the plane, where teammates were watching seatback TVs, surfing between various ESPN channels and NBC. "I was going crazy," Rivers says. "I kept asking everybody, 'Where's the ball? Where's the dang ball?' We heard the Broncos were on the 20, and I'm like, 'Their own 20 or the Bills' 20? Are they fixin' to score or not?'"
When Clary found the final score on NBC—30--23, Bills—it triggered a celebration that likely violated several FAA regulations. Players spilled into the aisles, hugging and high-fiving. Some threw pillows. One took off his shirt. General manager A.J. Smith, who has spent 24 years in the NFL and went to four Super Bowls as a scout and an executive with the Bills, called the flight one of the greatest experiences of his career. "For the entire Buffalo organization, dinner and drinks at the combine are on me," Smith says.