ASHBURN, Va. -- The gesture meant a great deal for Ron Rivera. It was a chance, once more, for the Washington Redskins coach to embrace the military, an influence that will be felt by his new team.
It also meant a great deal for those on the other end, members of the military who were awarded tickets to Super Bowl LIV. They were happy to be remembered -- or, in one case, for a spouse to be.
Rivera and seven NFL players are part of a program that awarded Super Bowl tickets to military veterans or their families. PLayers involved include San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle, Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, Denver Broncos defensive end Von Miller, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry and Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner. The participants will get a chance to meet Rivera and the players during events in Miami.
They partnered with USAA, a financial services company for members of the military and their families, and the American Veterans, a volunteer-led organization formed by World War II veterans. Each recipient receives two tickets plus all travel accommodations. To those honored, it means more than just going to the NFL's biggest game of the season.
"After you lose someone, you want them to be remembered in some small way to keep their memory alive," said Josie LaMar, whose husband Mick was killed in Iraq in 2011. "That brings comfort to me and my friends. We're always talking about stories about him and remembering the good times. To know someone is out there thinking of my husband and wanting to honor him -- that brings so much joy and comfort."
Rivera understands this well, having grown up in a military household with life lessons instilled by his father, Eugenio Rivera.
"There's a discipline and accountability that you've learned," Rivera said. "When you grow up, you have responsibilities. It becomes a way of life. I get up every morning and make my bed. That's something I do; that's just the way you're brought up."
Perhaps this is no coincidence: During his eight full seasons in Carolina, no team had fewer penalties called against it (the Redskins were 20th). Rivera devours books on historical leaders, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Winston Churchill to Franklin D. Roosevelt, among many others. He'll keep some in his office so he can pull out a passage that pertains to a message for his players. A shelf in his office soon will contain a whistle given to him by a Marine Corps drill sergeant.
But Rivera also leaned on words from his father after he became the Panthers' coach in 2011.
"He said, 'Ronnie, when things get crazy and something bad happens, they're gonna turn to you and look to you for leadership,'" Rivera said. "It goes back to when he was in Vietnam. They had a situation when things were chaotic and he was the officer. He said people have to look for you to give direction. That's one of the things I had to learn. When things get tough, you have to maintain, you have to be in control. My dad used to say you've got to be Joe Cool in the motor pool."
Rivera occasionally had military speakers talk to the Panthers before games, something he said he plans to continue in Washington.
"It's really not about getting them to come in and just rah, rah," Rivera said, "but to give these guys true life lessons."
One speaker, Scott Neil, was a retired Special Forces Veteran who served in the Middle East. His message left the Panthers "fired up," Rivera said. But he also recalled Neil thanking the players, too. It resonated with Rivera and is one reason why partnering with USAA matters to the coach.
"[Neil] told our team that he really appreciated us," Rivera said, "because on those late, late nights when football is on TV, they'd stay up and watch. It's a piece of Americana that helps to bring back to light what is back home for them. I always kept that in the back of my mind, just how important we are to them as far as reminding them of things back home."
A chance to share memories
LaMar's husband was killed in Iraq nine years ago, on the day of their 11th wedding anniversary. She was expecting a call from him that day; instead, she received a knock on the door from an Army chaplain. Sgt. Mick LaMar, who first enlisted in 1986, had re-enlisted in 2007 and was on his second tour of duty; he was supposed to have been returning home on the day he was killed, but his deployment had been extended.
Her husband was a huge 49ers fan. He warned her of his devotion when they started dating; eventually she grew into a fan, as well. In fact, after she flew home to Texas following his burial in California, she happened to meet her husband's favorite player in the airport -- Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice.
Since last week's news that she would be going to the Super Bowl with her 16-year-old son, Nicolas, LaMar said the media coverage has given her a chance to share memories of her husband.
"We'd get asked about it before, but now people really want to know what happened and how it happened," she said. "Now they're making the human connection to the person and the soldier and kind of dad he was. It's great to know we're thought of, not only our family, but all soldiers' families -- that people realize there's still a family out there missing a loved one."
A slice of home
For Omar Settles, who spent eight years in the Marine Corps, the joy came in receiving the tickets from the coach of his favorite team: Rivera. Settles also happens to like the Carolina Panthers because he was born and raised in South Carolina.
Settles spent time on bases in Japan, South Korea, Australia and Guam. Now a civilian, Settles has lived in the Washington, D.C. area for 10 years. He'll bring Corey Singletary, a friend he met through AmVets, to the game.
Settles knows what the Super Bowl means to those serving overseas. Small rooms, perhaps only 1,000 square feet, in which military members watched games were packed and standing room only. There were the times he couldn't watch. In 2000, Settles, an artillery cannoneer, spent Super Bowl evening training the South Korean marines.
"We were out in the middle of nowhere training with these guys," he said. "Iron sharpening iron to keep that area safe. ... If a unit has been tasked to train, especially with other dignitaries or foreign allies, you can't put that on hold for a Super Bowl. Besides, the training is sometimes in places there isn't the privilege to watch TV in the middle of nowhere. Those are some things our fellow brothers and sisters are giving up.
"Taking it in live and in person? I can't wait."