Panthers players feel like they lost more than a coach in Ron Rivera

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen texted Ron Rivera on Tuesday night, not long after owner David Tepper fired the team’s all-time winningest coach, the three-time Pro Bowl tight end began scrolling through their text history.

He went back to Rivera's messages from 2012, when Olsen was dealing with his son T.J.’s congenital heart disease that turned his world upside down.

“Not one thing to do [with football] other than asking how my family was doing, don’t rush back, be there for Kara [Olsen's wife], be there for your kids, no rush," Olsen said Wednesday. “I can go down the list, days and days and days of him not [asking] one thing about me as a football player, not asking me when I’d be back, just asking about me as a dad, as a person.

“That stayed true for nine years."

Sometimes when a head coach is fired before the end of a season, he has lost the locker room or respect from his players. That’s not what happened in Carolina.

There was almost a funeral-like mourning for the loss of Rivera. Linebacker Luke Kuechly was nearly in tears, as he was after the final game for former owner Jerry Richardson. It wasn’t like players lost a coach. It was like they lost a family member.

As interim coach Perry Fewell said, “We all love Ron."

The impact Rivera made on his players' lives is why he said earlier in the day that he plans to continue his coaching career elsewhere. Changing lives meant more to him than wins and losses.

It was obvious that Rivera had an impact on a lot of lives, including the man who replaced him.

“Ron brought family, brought a sense of family, and brought culture to this organization," Fewell said. “His wife was available around the players, and his daughter was available around the players. He taught each and every man in that room how to treat their wives and how to treat their daughters, and how to be men. I can only aspire to do that."

Olsen, who never had been a part of a coaching change, said, “This is as bad a day as I’ve ever been a part of in the NFL." He called the experience of saying goodbye, and reliving great moments on and off the field, “terrible."

“Ron means a lot to a lot of guys in here outside of football," he said.

Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said that Rivera was one of the reasons he came to the Panthers during the offseason. The six-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman wanted to be a part of the culture Rivera developed.

He immediately experienced that culture in training camp when he asked for permission to attend the funeral of his Little League coach.

“He told me to take as much time as I need and come back and be ready," McCoy said of Rivera. “That’s rare. Usually, you get, ‘Go to the funeral and be back.’ Not, 'Take as much time as you need and come back and be ready.' He loved his guys."

McCoy said that it’s not rare for a coach to be as genuine as Rivera was with his players but that “it’s rare for them to show it."

“It’s rare to have a guy interact with people’s families and be so family-oriented up front," he said. “To show the love he has for his players ... actually show it ... It’s one thing to say it, ‘Yeah, I care about my guys.’ But to show it with your actions? Every day? Coach Rivera was like that."

Defensive end Mario Addison experienced that when his brother was murdered in Birmingham, Alabama, in late October. Rivera told Addison to take as much time off as he needed to deal with the tragedy even though it meant Addison missing a game.

Addison also recalled how Rivera believed in him when other coaches didn’t.

“When I first got here, they said I was too small to play D-end," said Addison, who with 55 sacks is now one from passing Mike Rucker for third place on the franchise’s career sacks list. “But he always said I had heart. He kept pushing me."

Safety Eric Reid offered a reminder that Rivera was the only coach who took a chance on him after he filed a collusion grievance against the NFL, claiming he was being banned by teams for joining Colin Kaepernick in kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice.

“It really speaks to his character, to be who he says he is as a leader and to not be closed-minded, to do the research and see what other people are going through," Reid said. “That’s really what his legacy will be here. Obviously, he was a great leader. He took this team to the Super Bowl.

“But he’s even a better person."

Kuechly agreed.

“There's been numerous situations where you'll go around this locker room and talk to guys about what Coach Rivera's meant to you, and a lot of the best stories are gonna be what he's done as a person," he said.

Running back Christian McCaffrey recalled when Rivera came to his pro day at Stanford before the draft, how afterward they went to a steakhouse and talked little about football.

“You could tell he was such a genuine person," said McCaffrey, the eighth pick of the 2017 draft. “Obviously, he’s a helluva coach. The impact he had as a man says a lot about who he is."