March 24, 2023
Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera talks with Catholic University students and staff members March 24.  (Catholic University/Patrick G. Ryan)

Within the NFL, Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera is known as “Riverboat Ron” for his risk-taking decisions.

As Rivera spoke to a large crowd of Catholic University community members gathered inside the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center’s Great Room March 24, it was clear his nickname was well-earned. 

“I’m going to bet on me,” Rivera said several times during the keynote address that capped off “Launching into Leadership,” a weeklong event hosted by the Office of Campus Activities March 20-24. 

Rivera, who is Catholic, said he was inspired by the leadership of St. John Paul II, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Teresa of Kolkata, among others.

“Everybody is capable of leading,” Rivera said. “It’s about whether you have the confidence to lead. In order to be a successful leader, you have to be willing to make a great investment. Invest in yourself.”

As a linebacker for the Chicago Bears, Rivera was the first player of Puerto Rican descent to win a Super Bowl. The former linebacker was also named that franchise’s Man of the Year in 1988 and its Ed Block Courage Award winner in 1989. When his playing career ended in 1993, Rivera eyed coaching and volunteered with the Bears to get his foot in the door.

“I didn’t get a dime for six months,” Rivera said. “In my mind I was going to do everything I could to make them realize that I was invaluable and could not let me go. I got there at 5:30 in the morning. I made the coffee. I made the copies of the game plan.”

He rose through the ranks, serving as an assistant coach for the Bears, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the San Diego Chargers. Rivera was the head coach of the Carolina Panthers from 2011 to 2019. During the 2015 season, he led the Panthers to a 15-1 regular season record and an eventual Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos.

Commanders coach Ron Rivera addresses the Catholic University community March 24.  (Catholic University/Patrick G. Ryan)

When he took over the Commanders in 2020, the organization had fallen on hard times after once being a crown jewel of the NFL. He guided the Commanders to an NFC East championship season his first season, the same year he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in his neck. He received treatments often on the same day he coached the team.

Catholic University’s football coach, Mike Gutelius, 1992, introduced Rivera, saying, “I’m really excited and honored to introduce Coach Rivera because he’s a tremendous football coach, was an awesome football player, but even more … because he’s a cancer survivor.”

One student in the audience told Rivera that he was a source of inspiration to her, as her father was going through a cancer struggle at the same time. Rivera, clearly moved, thanked the student. 

Senior Nicholas Barry said he was inspired by Rivera’s willingness to motivate others and learn about their experiences.

“He definitely has a very incredible story,” Barry said. “It seems like he just loves what he does, like he loves helping people. He’s very convincing.”