“The most encouraging part was always that the doctor said that it’s very treatable and very curable,” Stephanie said. “So for us it was just a matter of helping him get through the tough days, the tough times. The doctors warned that he’s going to lose his appetite, so my job was to feed him any way I could.”
The doctors also warned that treatment could make his throat very sore and that he could lose a lot of weight and experience fatigue. As his treatment progressed, Rivera watched practice from a golf cart and took naps between meetings. And for the first time in his head coaching career, he couldn’t always be there.
“But I saw him just power through it,” Stephanie said.
Yet the Riveras feel lucky. On Oct. 26, after 35 proton therapy sessions and three cycles of chemotherapy, Ron “rang the bell” at Inova Schar Cancer Institute in Falls Church, signifying the completion of his treatment. Two days later, he began his next mission: becoming an advocate for more affordable health care.
“After going through it and seeing just how expensive it is … you sit there and think, ‘Gosh, how can people afford this that aren’t in the situation or the position that I’m in?’ ” he said. “… I think that’s really helped to shape my views, just saying and thinking to myself we need to have some sort of affordable care in the United States for everybody.”
His push for affordable health care and improved coverage was born out of his own experiences but also those of people close to him — including his brother Mickey, who died in 2015 after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 57, almost two years younger than Ron Rivera is now.
As the owner of multiple Little Caesars franchises, Mickey had insurance that covered his treatment. One of Ron Rivera’s late aunts, however, lacked the proper insurance for a procedure she needed to treat a heart issue. Without it, her condition worsened over time and became virtually untreatable later in life.
“To have somebody say she didn’t have the insurance to pay for it, that’s crazy,” Rivera said. “Because she probably could’ve lived a little longer. It’s just sad to know that because people don’t have the right insurance or have enough insurance that they can’t get good care.”
Though Rivera has health insurance through the Washington Football Team that has covered his treatment, even he — a patient in good financial standing with adequate coverage — dealt with a hang-up over his choice of proton therapy, a more targeted form of radiotherapy than radiation or photon therapy. Even though proton therapy has been offered in the United States since 1990, his insurance initially deemed it too experimental, according to Stephanie Rivera. The matter was resolved when Rivera’s doctor vouched on behalf of the treatment and team owner Daniel Snyder got involved.
“We were very fortunate because of the insurance that we have,” Rivera said. “… Mr. Snyder and our doctor made a phone call and were able to get it worked out because of our insurance. … To have people advocate for you is important as well.”
‘It’s opened my eyes’
When Rivera starred on the University of California’s football team in the early 1980s and later played nine NFL seasons with the Chicago Bears, he didn’t believe it was his place to use his platform to speak out on anything beyond football. He was an athlete, and his opinion on such topics didn’t matter, he thought.
“We have a platform now,” he said during training camp this year when asked about NBA players refusing to compete in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wis. “I was one of those guys back in the day when you didn’t use your sports platform for that. But in today’s world — because so many people admittedly look up to the professional athletes, to the sporting community, to help social direction — now these guys know they have a platform. … As time has gone on, we’ve come to the realization that we have an opportunity to voice our opinion. We have an opportunity to influence and impact; why shouldn’t we use it? Why shouldn’t we do it the right way?”
Over the years, Rivera was asked to endorse political candidates, and each time he declined. He believes that voters should do their own research on candidates and that it’s not his place to influence votes. But if he’s ever invited to speak before Congress or meet with elected officials about affordable care, he probably will accept.
“From my own experience and from what I’ve seen, I just think that people need to have some sort of options in this country,” he said. “I mean, we’re the richest country in the world. How could we not?”
Two days after completing his treatment, Rivera began to publicly share his plan to support more affordable health care. His vision for how his advocacy might take shape isn’t fully formed, but he maintains his primary interest is pushing for more affordable coverage for the masses, especially those with preexisting conditions — those like his late aunt or the many he didn’t see at the cancer center at 7 a.m. each day because they were denied coverage.
“I think we have to have some sort of system that allows folks to get the kind of insurance that they need, and people with preexisting conditions are most certainly going to need coverage as well,” he said. “Believe me, it’s opened my eyes to say, ‘Hey, look, I’d love to be an advocate, just having gone through what I’ve gone through.’ ”
Rivera, who at times has gone so far as to advocate for universal health care, said his experience didn’t change his view of the Affordable Care Act, the health-care law enacted by President Barack Obama in 2010. Rather, Rivera said, it strengthened his opinion of affordable coverage.
The ACA became one of the most contentious partisan issues over the past four years as President Trump vowed to repeal and replace the legislation, with little progress. The Trump administration made changes to the ACA, including the elimination of an individual mandate, but the Supreme Court, which this month heard the Trump administration’s latest challenge to the ACA’s constitutionality, so far appears willing to uphold the law. President-elect Joe Biden has said he wants to expand the ACA.
“I believe people’s health care should not be partisan politics,” Rivera said. “I think it’s one of those things where people should be able to reach across the aisle and work together. Because for the last four years we kept hearing we’re going to have something better. ‘We’re going to change it and have something better.’ Okay, well, let’s do that. You know what I’m saying? Why shouldn’t the Republicans and the Democrats get together and do something that benefits everybody? … Make it a bill that both parties agree upon and say, … ‘We did this together.’
“What’s wrong with doing that? Doesn’t that make sense?”
‘This is more of an American thing’
During Rivera’s NFL coaching career, he and his wife have set out to become a part of each community in which they have lived. They don’t have their own charitable foundation, but Stephanie meticulously vets local organizations and causes for them to support — almost all of which have personal ties. In Charlotte, Ron partnered with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network in honor of his brother. He donated time and money to the USO because of his family’s military background. And they worked with the Humane Society because of their love of animals.
In normal years, that vetting process includes building in-person relationships with those involved. This year is different.
“Ron would've probably been at Walter Reed every week visiting because he loves those who have served,” Stephanie said. “That definitely was hard for us to not be able to do, and we've always gone to the military base and things like that.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Riveras’ ability to truly become embedded in the Washington community has been delayed. So, too, has his ability to get in front of policymakers or possibly align with an organization that advocates for affordable care. When doors do reopen, he’s willing to speak to policymakers, maybe align with an organization that advocates for affordable care.
“I don’t know if anybody will ever ask me,” he said. “But it’s certainly something I’ll consider because I can at least get an opportunity to help tell people some other opinions. I think this is more of an American thing than it is a party thing.”
His personal fight isn’t over. He is in recovery but still receives regular checkups and needs the occasional nap between team meetings and workouts. He won’t know whether the treatment did its job until he undergoes a positron emission tomography scan in January. But his taste buds are returning, along with his strength. He has even ditched the golf cart at practice and is back to roaming the field, checking in with every player before the start of every workout and every game.
“He’s definitely feistier,” Stephanie said, laughing. “The [players], because they missed it with no offseason workouts, they have not yet seen full-on ‘Riverboat’ Ron.
“For sure, it is coming.”