The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ron Rivera shields his team from chaos. He got that trait from his mother.

Commanders Coach Ron Rivera shakes the hand of receiver Curtis Samuel before their game against the Minnesota Vikings at FedEx Field. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Ron Rivera never got to celebrate the Washington Commanders’ win over the Green Bay Packers. Less than 48 hours later, he hopped on a private jet to California to visit his mother, who was battling Stage 4 lung cancer and didn’t have much longer. For weeks, Rivera had been shielded from the seriousness of her condition.

But it reached a point where Dolores Rivera-Munoz knew she needed to see her son. So Rivera took a quick trip, left the hospital in California believing he had seen his mother for the final time and returned to Virginia — where he was bombarded with chaos.

Daniel and Tanya Snyder, co-owners of the Commanders, announced they had retained a bank to explore potential transactions related to the team, including a sale, which trampled any shred of renewed hope and fanfare the win had earned.

Shortly after the Commanders’ close loss to the Minnesota Vikings two weeks later, Rivera was again on a flight to California, this time for his mother’s funeral. He returned Wednesday night — again, just in time for more drama in Ashburn. A statement issued by a team spokesperson referenced running back Brian Robinson Jr., the victim of a shooting in D.C. in August, while clapping back at the District’s attorney general. It earned widespread criticism, and though team president Jason Wright tried to walk it back, Rivera had to address the matter with his team the next morning.

“[At] a team meeting at 8 a.m. … he came in and talked about it,” quarterback Taylor Heinicke said. “[He said:] ‘This is what’s going on. I want you guys to focus on football. I’m going to take care of this.’ For everything that goes on, he does a great job of doing that. He really just wants us to focus on ball.”

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For nearly three years, since he accepted the job of head coach, lead football decision-maker and de facto culture-fixer in Washington, Rivera, 60, has taken on a task few could tackle. He is a shield. At times, he’s also a team spokesperson. He’s the rally captain when the outside negativity intensifies, the trusted voice when the noise permeates the locker room walls.

The weight of his job perhaps has never been more magnified as he manages his own grief, the franchise’s football operations and his players’ needs as they prepare for a matchup with the undefeated Eagles in Philadelphia on Monday night.

“He’s doing a good job,” left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “He’s trying to keep us focused on football. That’s not his job — he shouldn’t have to keep us focused on football — but he’s done a good job with that.”

Turns out, Rivera didn’t get his knack for compartmentalizing or his compassion for his players from football or from coaches in his past. He got them from his mother.

Rivera choked up when he was asked to share about his mother just days after her Oct. 31 death.

“There was a toughness about my mom,” he began.

Rivera-Munoz, 82, loved sports. Loved football. And, boy, did she love her family.

When Rivera’s father, Eugenio, served in Vietnam, Rivera-Munoz filled in as interim coach, pitching batting practice for her sons and even taking part in tackling drills. She was involved in bake sales and Christmas bazaars. She was the team mom on all of her sons’ sports squads.

Later, after Rivera embarked on a successful career in football, she purposely shielded her son from bad news so as not to worry him or to take his focus away from his team.

Early in his career, when Rivera was with the Bears, he bought his parents tickets to see a preseason game against the 49ers in San Francisco. But when he jogged onto the field, he noticed their seats were empty. His parents didn’t answer his calls after the game, and it wasn’t until he stepped on the plane that his mother finally rang.

Rivera’s father had been hospitalized because his appendix burst. Surgery was scheduled.

“He goes through this whole thing and doesn’t say a word,” Rivera said. “That’s kind of them.”

Years later, when Rivera was in Spartanburg, S.C., for training camp with the Carolina Panthers, he called his parents again and again to no answer, only to hear from his mother days later. She had been in the hospital; doctors had found a benign tumor on her pancreas, and they had removed it.

Then, in 2020, Rivera called home to inform his parents he had been diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in his neck. He heard his mother cry on the other end; she had already lost her oldest son to cancer in 2015.

When Rivera talked to his father, Eugenio confidently assured his son everything would be fine — because, unbeknown to his son, Eugenio, too, had been diagnosed with cancer a few years earlier. Eugenio told Ron he had had treatment, that doctors had traced the cancer back to Agent Orange from his time in Vietnam and that everything was fine.

“I’m stunned,” Rivera said. “I’m like, ‘What is with you guys?’ ”

In August, when Rivera’s mother shared the news of some tests, he knew something was up. He had seen this dance before, and it became clear Rivera-Munoz was hiding something. She asked Rivera’s brother to take her to a specialist weeks later, and she ordered him to not say a word. Eventually, though, John Rivera told his older brother he needed to fly out immediately.

When Rivera arrived, he learned what had been going on. His mother’s first question when he arrived: “What are you doing here?”

“She was private. She was quiet. She didn’t say much,” Rivera said. “… She was the wife of an officer. Everything was community service. … Her duty was her family, her kids and protecting us and shielding us from stuff.”

Over the past few years, Rivera has relied on a mantra: Focus on what’s important, not what’s interesting.

“I compartmentalize things,” Rivera said. “I’m able to separate them and put them in buckets.”

Rivera reminded his team of what’s interesting vs. what’s important last month, when its Thursday night game in Chicago turned into a wild day of news that could’ve easily been a distraction. More allegations had been made against Snyder, and there was a report that Washington’s highest-paid cornerback wanted out. Despite the whirlwind, the Commanders eked out a win over the Bears, and Rivera was feted with the game ball.

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Days later, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay declared “there [was] merit to remove” Snyder as owner. And days after that, the Commanders rallied to defeat the Packers, only for the top headline to be about the “sell the team” chants from the crowd. A week after that, Washington’s win in Indianapolis gave way to the news that the Snyders may be selling.

And with every controversy, Rivera is almost always asked for his reaction, a comment, a response of any sort. So, too, are his players.

“The hard part is a lot of the stuff doesn’t involve us,” Rivera said. “That’s one thing that I try to get across to the guys first and foremost. This stuff happened before us.”

When the outside noise builds, Rivera is able to cut through the pandemonium, a skill some players realize is a rarity. It’s one they deeply respect.

“I can think of coaches right now who couldn’t take on a task like this,” Leno said. “They wouldn’t be able to control what they can control.”

Before Rivera left for his mother’s funeral, his family framed an enlarged photo of her. It was taken at his wedding, and in it, his mother stands with a small smile on her face — a smile “that kind of tells you, ‘Hey, everything’s going to be fine,’ ” Rivera said.

The photo is Eugenio’s favorite, and it was featured at Rivera-Munoz’s vigil and rosary, as well as at the funeral and ensuing reception. That small smile was the same one she had had on her face when she last saw her son, at the hospital in California days after his team defeated the Packers.

Rivera knew what the smile meant as he left the hospital. Shortly after the coach returned home, his mother’s doctor called to confirm the news she had shielded him from for weeks.

She didn’t have long.

“I was the last one to know,” Rivera said, “and that was her wish.”

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