SAN DIEGO — – Philip Rivers has never played a down at Bank of America Stadium, but he’d be lying if he said he didn’t allow himself to dream about what it would be like playing for the Panthers while he was serving his four-year NFL apprenticeship at N. C. State.
“I always thought it would be kind of cool because it was so close,” said Rivers, a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback for the San Diego Chargers. “It would have been neat to stay close to home in what became my back yard.”
The stars didn’t quite align for Rivers, so nearly a full decade after leaving the Raleigh campus as the N.C. State and ACC record holder in most every significant passing category, he’ll have to settle for trying to beat the team he once thought could be signing his paychecks.
Sunday, Rivers will get that chance when the Chargers host the Panthers at Qualcomm Stadium – just the second time they have met with Rivers under center.
He watched with clipboard in hand during the Chargers’ 17-6 win at Bank of America Stadium in October 2004, then felt the sting of a 26-24 home loss to the Panthers in the season opener four years later – as his 217-yard, three-touchdown effort was wiped out by Dante Rosario’s catch in the back of the end zone with no time left.
While Rivers would like nothing more than to erase that memory with his first win over Carolina, he doesn’t expect local fans’ fond memories of his Wolfpack exploits to supersede any affinity for their NFL team.
“I think if they’re true Panthers fans but are true NC State fans, maybe they’ll pull for me to have a decent game, but they’re pulling for the Panthers,” Rivers said with a wide smile.
During the waning stages of a difficult 5-8 season in which his numbers have been down, much of his offensive line has been decimated by injury and strong rumors have surfaced about the impending firing of Chargers coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith, Rivers seemed to welcome the distraction earlier this week of talking about his connections to NC State.
From 2000-03, Rivers helped focus the national spotlight on Carter-Finley Stadium, leading the Wolfpack to bowl games in four straight years while setting career school and conference records in passing yards (13,484), passing touchdowns (95), completions (1,087) and attempts (1,711), among others. It is a time he won’t soon forget, and his ties to Raleigh remain strong.
“I’ll be a Wolfpacker forever, so I obviously still pull for them year-round,” Rivers said. “You keep up with guys who you played with there or other NC State guys that you now play against.”
He met current Wolfpack quarterback Mike Glennon at graduation last spring, and has closely followed Russell Wilson’s rookie season with the Seahawks this fall. With Glennon projected as a high second-round pick in April’s NFL draft, Rivers said he could foresee a time soon when three former N.C. State quarterbacks are NFL starters, a thought that made him swell with pride.
“You have a relationship with them because of where you went to school,” Rivers said. “I don’t really know either of them, but I certainly pull for both of them.”
Rivers is well aware that some of his records remain intact because Wilson transferred to Wisconsin for his senior season. He said he enjoys hearing his name come up in the context of Glennon breaking single-game marks he held. More than that, he appreciates that he was able to set the bar high for those passers who came after him and helped raise the profile of N.C. State football.
He has extended his bar-setting legacy in San Diego.
Among NFL quarterbacks who played in the ACC, Rivers ranks fifth in career yards and touchdowns. He enters Sunday’s game with 27,454 career yards and 184 touchdowns.
He is about 10,000 yards shy – three productive seasons – from supplanting Maryland’s Boomer Esiason at the top of that ACC/NFL list and needs 72 more touchdowns to replace Duke’s Sonny Jurgensen in that category. He’ll have to pass former Wolfpack great Roman Gabriel along the way. Gabriel ranks third in touchdowns (201) and fourth in yards (29,444).
Around the Chargers locker room, Rivers exudes a presence that makes it clear he’s the leader of his team. He also has a special bond with a handful of teammates who came from ACC schools – from backup QB Charlie Whitehurst and cornerback Marcus Gilchrist (Clemson) to receiver Eddie Royal (Virginia Tech) and linebacker Gary Guyton (Georgia Tech).
Placekicker Nick Novak crossed paths with Rivers during his time at Maryland from 2001-03, a stretch during which the Terrapins won all three conference matchups – by a combined nine points.
“We had a lot of great battles against each other,” Novak recalled. “The respect I have for (Rivers) started back in college, and as soon as I got here, he took me under his wing and expressed that same respect for me.
“It feels great for me to be a teammate of Philip’s. I feel lucky to see him in action, not just on the field but the way he leads our team, the daily interactions and just seeing him work.”
Rosario couldn’t agree more. The player who broke Chargers fans’ hearts during the 2008 opener wearing a Panthers jersey is now a backup tight end for San Diego, his fourth professional team. He has the utmost respect for Rivers.
“He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league,” Rosario said. “To be able to play with a guy that’s delivering the ball with that caliber and that skill, it’s been great.”