SAN DIEGO — The most meaningful pass of Philip Rivers’ life wound up in the arms of the pope.
It happened in May, when the San Diego Chargers quarterback and his extended family visited the Vatican and were in a crowd of thousands for a Wednesday papal audience. Rivers, a devout Catholic, had a prime spot in the crowd and was holding the youngest of his six children, Pete, who will turn 2 in October.
“I was about 10 yards away, and the crowd kind of opened up,” Rivers said. “Pope Francis just kind of motioned like, ‘Bring him to me.’ Pete was like, ‘No! What are you doing?!’ But we passed him to the pope. It was awesome. The pope kissed him, blessed him. We got great pictures of it.”
That moment was a highlight of what has been an incredibly trying – and unexpectedly gratifying – two years for the Pro Bowl passer, who is in the most turbulent stretch of his nine-year NFL career. His team is coming off a 7-9 season, one that cost Coach Norv Turner his job and kept the Chargers out of the playoffs for a third consecutive year.
The former N.C. State star, meanwhile, has gone from elite to inconsistent, committing a combined 47 turnovers in the past two seasons. Shoddy pass protection and a dwindling cast of capable receivers are partly to blame, but Rivers has absorbed the bulk of the criticism, and accepts that.
“Last year was the first losing season I’ve ever been a part of,” said Rivers, 31, sitting outside a coffee shop near team headquarters. “You feel like you let down so many people. You realize that your play affects so many people’s lives. You’ve got to be careful trying to think about that often because that’s too much. But it’s the truth. It’s a tough business.”
Real life can be tougher. Rivers and his wife, Tiffany, got that reminder after the season when their 5-year-old son, Gunner, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. The couple has four girls, two boys, and another child due in October.
“He’s football all the time, nonstop energy all the time,” Rivers said of Gunner. “And late in the football season last year he didn’t want to play as much, he started to lose weight. He had to pee all the time. We took him in, and his blood sugar was 700 (the acceptable range is closer to 80 to 100, Rivers said). He’s dying there right in front of you. It’s terrible.”
Gunner was admitted into the hospital, and his situation was stabilized. Meanwhile, a family so fortunate in so many ways struggled to catch its breath.
“When he came home from the hospital, he was showing his sisters all the diabetes-related stuff he got,” Rivers said. “To me, I don’t know why, that was the toughest day. I got home and, shoot, I lost it. I was bawling, crying. He was so excited to show them, and I was just thinking, ‘Man, his life’s changed forever.’ I remember the one thought in my head was, ‘Gosh, you’re going to have to prick his finger to go play catch in the yard. Goodness gracious.’”
Over the days that followed, Rivers said, he and his wife went from a sense of overwhelming sadness to gratitude.
“A couple nights in, we were starting to get the hang of it,” he said. “I just remember how thankful we were that he’s going to be healthy. He’s going to be fine. He’s here. If this is our burden, then we can live with this.”
That’s typical of Rivers the football player. He refuses to dwell on the negative and is unwaveringly positive, something that comes through in his voice, his facial expressions and his occasionally over-the-top, fist-pumping exuberance on the field.
“He’s eternally optimistic, always upbeat and has an endless amount of energy,” Chargers center Nick Hardwick said. “He’s a terrific leader for us.”
But as Rivers’ statistics have slid since 2010 – a season when he completed 66 percent of his passes for 4,710 yards with 30 touchdowns and 13 interceptions – questions have percolated about whether he’s the right quarterback to guide the franchise.
Rivers hears the doubters and has learned to tune them out. Mostly.
“The thing that’s gotten to me this off-season is, ‘Who’s going to fix Philip?’” Rivers said. “That phrase, I almost laugh it off. That drives me nuts, really.
“There’s no question I’m responsible for some of the plays and some of the games we haven’t won. I’m not going to shy away from that. But we can go sit in there and watch a lot of tape from last year, and I’ll ask you, ‘What do you want to fix?’ It’s just about eliminating some of the bad plays.”
That’s what the Chargers intend to do this season, even though questions linger about the line’s ability to protect Rivers and the lack of playmaking receivers. He was sacked 49 times last season, roughly twice as frequently as he was sacked during the team’s playoff years.
Hardwick called the notion that Rivers needs to be fixed “a huge misnomer.”
“We went through bad times, and as a team things got away from us,” the center said. “We’ve had some unbelievable years here in the past, but as a team in the most recent past, we kind of lost our direction just a touch. To say that he’s broken is absolutely wrong.”
That said, no matter who is to blame, the bad plays have taken their toll on the quarterback.
“I never lost confidence,” Rivers said. “But there’s no question that when you have games like that, you don’t feel the same way. When you’ve made that throw three or four games in a row, it’s a lot easier to pull the trigger the next time. But when maybe it’s been an interception the last couple, it’s a little harder to make it. It’s human nature. It’s that feeling of ‘Be careful’ rather than that ‘Aw, (the defender) can’t get there.’”
Now, for the first time in nine years, Rivers is learning a new offense. It isn’t etched in stone. He’s had a lot of input, as have coach Mike McCoy, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and quarterbacks coach Frank Reich.
“This was unique as far as our off-season, because we were blending a lot of different things,” Whisenhunt said. “One of the things that was important to us was that this guy (Rivers) and this team have done a lot of great things, regardless of anything that’s been said. If you look at what they’ve done offensively, they’ve made some big-time plays in big-time situations. That goes back to Philip.”
The biggest challenge for Rivers, who is 6-foot-5, 228 pounds, has been learning the new language of the offense. He’s grown increasingly comfortable with that over the course of training camp.
“Early on it was, ‘Here’s the new play and what we call it,’” Rivers said. “I would always have to translate it back in my mind. ‘That’s our old 678.’ Now, I don’t have to do that anymore. Now, when I hear something called, I see it right away.”
His teammates have responded in kind. Reich, who played quarterback in the NFL for 14 seasons, calls Rivers “one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around.”
“Guys in his position tend to have big egos,” Reich said. “Philip doesn’t. I couldn’t have a higher opinion of him as a person.”
Around the Chargers, stories of Rivers’ humility are legendary. Two years ago, he was scheduled to give a 20-minute speech in Phoenix to the Catholic Men’s Fellowship. His flight was canceled, however. Instead of bowing out, he got in his truck and made the 700-mile round trip. The Chargers learned about it only after an event attendee wrote to them.
Rivers attends Mass before each game, either on Saturday night or early Sunday morning, and especially likes checking out new churches when he’s on the road.
“You see all the jerseys from the opposing teams in there,” he said. “Very rarely will I be recognized. Then I go back to the hotel and go to the game. But I’m in a cab coming back from Mass four hours before the kick.”
The reason the Rivers family was in Europe this season is they had made a pilgrimage to France to take Gunner to the Christian holy site of Lourdes, where the waters have reputed healing powers.