Washington coach Ron Rivera's return to Carolina evokes fond memories

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Carolina memories remain embedded in Ron Rivera's mind. Some are deeply personal, like the time his house caught on fire, causing $500,000 damage only to have the community pitch in to help. Or the numerous charities Rivera, now the Washington Football Team coach, and his wife, Stephanie, were part of during their nine years in the Charlotte area.

Others are fun, like going to Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House after games with friends and family, ordering the 98-ounce bone-in ribeye -- medium rare -- to split with Stephanie, with plenty used in leftovers during the week.

And many, of course, are tied to the field. Sometimes it was the little details, like the driving rainstorm that accompanied his first win as Carolina Panthers coach in 2011. Or the four-game winning streak to win the NFC South in 2014. Or the 15-1 Super Bowl season a year later, and a practice in a driving snowstorm before the NFC Championship Game.

It's why Sunday won't be just another game for Rivera when Washington (3-6) visits the 5-5 Panthers (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

"It's crazy, because wherever I walked, wherever Stephanie and I were, whether it was dinner or a movie, I was 'Coach,'" Rivera said. "In a small tight-knit community like that, you're 'Coach' for everybody. I appreciated that."

Rivera's not the only one with Charlotte memories. Washington has 30 members of its football operation -- 15 coaches, nine players and six members of the front office -- who have ties to Carolina. There are also a dozen Panthers players on the active roster who played for Rivera in Charlotte.

"We know a lot of things going on with the history this coaching staff has with Carolina and some of their former players," Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said. "They're human; they'll have those emotions ... I've been teasing some of the guys that it's the reunion week."

Quarterback Taylor Heinicke played for Carolina, spending 2018 with the Panthers before being cut the following summer. He was friends with Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, whom he called the "God of Charlotte." But for Heinicke, the Panthers are one of five franchises for whom he has played.

"I just kind of view them as another team on the schedule," he said. "There's a little something there that you want to kind of go back and win where you used to be. I think everyone feels that way. I wouldn't say it's anything extra."

Nobody was tied to the community more than Rivera, who was the coach in Carolina from 2011 until late in the 2019 season. He was fired with four games remaining and hired by Washington shortly after the season ended. In fact, the last game he coached with Carolina was a loss to Washington.

"He's done a really good job of expressing the importance of this game for our team and not for him. He hasn't made it about himself," said Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who was with Rivera for four years in Carolina. "But it's that elephant in the room. We know this is an important game for coach."

Rivera inherited a 2-14 team in Carolina and left with a 76-63-1 record, three division titles and four playoff appearances. He and Newton became the faces of a franchise that made it to Super Bowl 50.

During the Super Bowl run, Rivera and a set of friends would go to eat at different places on Fridays. They eventually settled on Cajun Yard Dog. A private room at Del Frisco's was the place, win or lose, after Sunday games.

When Rivera battled cancer last year, Stephanie's close friends from the Charlotte area flew to Washington to keep her company and provide some relief. And she flew down to Charlotte on Thursday to spend time with friends.

It's the kind of connection Rivera wants to have in Washington. He frequently points to what former coach Joe Gibbs accomplished here, not just as a coach but in the community. The coronavirus pandemic and Rivera's recovery from cancer treatments have impacted his ability to play a role in the community as he did in Carolina, where he and Stephanie were involved with the Ronald McDonald House of Charlotte, the Humane Society of Charlotte and the USO of North Carolina.

"To be in one spot for a while, that was pretty cool," Rivera said. "When our house burned down, the outpouring of support we got from the community was tremendous. ... When I got sick last year, the messages and notes and the things we got from the people of Charlotte -- or I should say the Panthers fans -- were terrific. It really was tremendous. We'll be forever grateful for that."

During an emotional first year in Washington that included a name change for the franchise, social unrest, the coronavirus pandemic, his cancer battle and an investigation by the NFL into the organization, the team won five of its last seven to win the NFC East with a 7-9 record.

It's been a bumpy second season, but ultimately, the connection in Charlotte was about football and Rivera's popularity here will also be determined by the on-field success. Washington has yet to find what the Panthers had during his time in Carolina with Newton: A franchise quarterback. It enters Sunday's game with numerous injured players -- both defensive ends, Chase Young (ACL) and Montez Sweat (jaw), are out. There are still health concerns with tight end Logan Thomas (hamstring) and receiver Curtis Samuel (groin).

But Rivera returns Sunday with a renewed energy that stems from his 2019 firing.

"It invigorated me, it really did," he said. "It made me realize how much I love the game and love being around the players, and how much I enjoy the community."

Perhaps all of this is why Rivera said he harbors no ill will toward Panthers owner David Tepper.

"There's no reason to be bitter. I did the best I could," Rivera said. "If there is anything, it's just miss the folks and the friends we had in Charlotte."