How Walter Payton, Buddy Ryan and the ’85 Bears helped shape Ron Rivera’s coaching career
12: 10 PM ET
John KeimESPN Staff Writer
- Covered the Redskins for the Washington Examiner and other media outlets since 1994
- Authored or co-authored three books on the Redskins and one on the Cleveland Browns
ASHBURN, Va. — Ron Rivera was chatting with former Chicago Bears teammate Walter Payton on the sidelines during a game in 1996. Rivera and Payton had a conversation about a defensive call. Rivera ended up taking a new career path with Payton.
Payton served on the Bears’ Board of Directors and was also doing TV work; Rivera was working at a local TV station.
“He was the one who got me my [coaching] job,” Rivera stated.
The Bears selected Rivera in the second round of the 1984 draft out of Cal, and he played nine seasons in Chicago, including the most celebrated in franchise history. The 1985 team remains the Bears’ only Super Bowl champion, and even though Rivera wasn’t a key player on perhaps Chicago’s most beloved team, he’ll still be viewed through that prism when he leads the Washington Commanders into Soldier Field for Thursday night’s game (8: 15 p.m. ET, Prime Video).
Rivera had a lot of memorable friends, including Buddy Ryan, a former defensive coordinator.
But Payton is the one who made him a coach. The two of them were standing next to the Dallas bench during the season opener when they heard a coach telling the linebackers to run towards the corner. Rivera told Payton that he would force it back inside, because “That corner doesn’t want to tackle anyone.” Rivera predicted the next time Chicago ran that play it would gain 10 to 12 yards. He was right. Rivera was correct. The corner handled the situation as Rivera had predicted. Payton turned to him, and asked, “Why don’t you coach?” “
” I said, “Walter, how do you get in?” He replied, “I’ll tell what.” Rivera remembered that he would be available to see Rivera tomorrow in his office.
Payton arranged a meeting between Rivera, and Bears chairman Ed McCaskey. Rivera spoke to Dave Wannstedt, the former Bears head coach, and Rivera was hired as a defensive quality control coach.
” The rest is history,” Rivera, a two time NFL Coach of Year, said.
In Rivera’s office at the Commanders’ facility, he has a Lombardi Trophy replica from the 1985 season — a gift from the Bears commemorating the 25th anniversary of that team. Malcolm Blacken, Washington’s senior director for player development, painted Rivera a picture of a blue-tattered Walter Payton Jersey. It is now framed in his office. Payton died of a rare liver disease and bile duct cancer in November 1999.
Rivera’s memories include a unique collection of people and talent: Ryan, coach Mike Ditka and Ryan, as well as quarterback Jim McMahon, defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator”, Perry, and many others.
“It’s part of me,” Rivera said of the ’85 Bears. “We were a cast. “
As former teammate Jim Morrissey said, they had heavy people rooting for the 325-pound Perry, wrestling fans clamoring for defensive tackle Steve “Mongo” McMichael, and then there was McMahon.
“He was insane every day.” Morrissey stated. “He had an impact on the defense as well as the offense. They were a crazy bunch of guys determined to win. “
And the memories remain strong nearly 40 years later.
‘He told me where to go, and the ball ended up where he told me to go’
While Rivera might not have been one of the main personalities, he did have an influence. He was known for his passion for studying and analysing the game.
“Ron loved to watch that tape because he had to be perfect in his job as Buddy’s offensive lineman.” Tom Thayer, a former Bears offensive lineman, said. Thayer is currently a color commentator on the Bears’ radio team. “He didn’t have the chance to make multiple errors. I could see his instant recognition of offensive clues. “
Because he backed up all three linebackers, Rivera needed to be familiar with each position. In 1986, he earned Player of the Week honors filling in for injured starting middle linebacker Mike Singletary.
” I remember Dan Hampton and McMichael giving Singletary trouble, so ‘You better get well,'” Morrissey stated.
Morrissey felt Rivera’s impact most during Super Bowl XX. Near the end of their 46-10 win over New England, Morrissey — a linebacker who was more of a special team standout — was inserted into the game. Ryan had never allowed him to practice with the defense because, as Morrissey stated, “He didn’t think I had that right.” “
Morrissey had no idea how to handle a particular look if it turned into a pass. Rivera told Morrissey to drop to his left after breaking the huddle. So Morrissey did — and promptly intercepted a pass, returning it 47 yards to the 4-yard line.
“He instructed me where to go and the ball went where he wanted it to,” Morrissey stated.
‘He always stood up for us’
To the outside world, McMahon was the “punky QB” who wore headbands, spiked hair and challenged authority. Rivera regarded him as a man who cared about his teammates. One training camp, Rivera thought it was before the ’85 season, the Bears had what he considered a brutal morning practice: full pads and physical.
As they were getting ready for the second practice, Rivera heard McMahon shouting at Ditka. “Hey, Iron [Mike]. Hey, Iron [Mike]. It was a very difficult day. What’s the matter with you, man? You’re not being serious. “
Rivera said that he believes it was a setup, but that it didn’t matter. The players were the ones who benefited.
“He got on Ditka and said, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” Rivera said, “He just kind of got on him, and Ditka goes, ‘Well, what do you want me to do about it?'” Rivera said, “He says, ‘Why don’t you give the guys the afternoon off?'” It’s all right. He gave a whistle and said, “Take it in.” We’re done.’ It was like everyone got fired up.
“From that point on, I felt that he always stood by us, Jimmy Mac. Always stood up for us. “
Another time, McMahon started riding a moped around training camp at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville campus, where the Bears held training camp. He bought his offensive linemen red scooters. Their new nickname was the Red Riders.
“He used do all those things,” Rivera stated. Rivera said that he paid the bar owner the last night before camp to make it more intimate for the players and their friends. “
‘It’s always about setting the standard’
Ditka was among the bigger personalities, made even more famous by skits on “Saturday Night Live.” Rivera is most fondly aware of Ditka’s philosophy.
” The most important thing I learned about Mike was that you have to set a standard,” Rivera stated.
Rivera remembered one training camp workout in the late 1980s when the Bears were having, as he called it, a brutal day. It was hot. Ditka was “motherf—ing” us all the time and wouldn’t quit. Rivera, who was also a player representative at the time, met Ditka after practice to discuss a matter.
The coach asked him a question. Why was he so hard on them that day?
“He replied, “Ronnie, you wouldn’t ask me to do anything I couldn’t do,” Rivera said. “I go, ‘Huh. ‘
” Then I realized what was happening. He was a Hall of Famer so his standards are actually quite high. He was pushing us. It’s all about setting the bar and making sure you push yourself to achieve it. “
Rivera also spoke about how Ditka handled Super Bowl week, New Orleans. Rivera stated that the Bears arrived one day earlier than they had to and that Ditka hosted a party for them. He announced that there would be no curfew on Friday and Saturday before the game.
” We had a great time and enjoyed it,” Rivera stated. Rivera said, “I think that’s why we are so unique, the personalities and the characters. They were all out there. The head coach was a personality. The defensive coordinator was a person. “
‘He was a tremendous, tremendous motivator and coach’
Tension existed between Ditka and Ryan, whether in practice or games. Thayer recalls intense practice sessions between Ryan and Ditka due to their competitive nature — Ryan on the defensive side, Ditka on offense. Thayer said that Ditka would shout at Ryan during nine-on-seven drills about Ryan’s particular look. Ryan would shout at his men that they weren’t working hard enough.
“He didn’t care who was carrying it, he just wanted them to give him some credit.” Thayer stated.
Rivera said that he heard the two argue during games about how to deal with a particular tactic of the opponent. Rivera claimed that he once heard Ditka shout at Ryan, “Hey! Rivera said that he heard Ditka shout at Ryan, “Hey! “
Ryan was viewed as a big personality. His players loved him and didn’t consider him a sarcastic coach. He was a combat vet, having served during World War II. He assumed a leadership position when his sergeant died. Rivera said that Ryan never spoke about the incident with his wife.
But Ryan passed some of the military mentality to his players. Ryan was not a yeller at meetings. He would rather get on players but not scream.
” Once you realize that he did the things that he did to keep your edge, to keep preparing, thinking, and thinking, you will be able to appreciate his efforts,” Rivera stated. Rivera said, “He was a tremendous, incredible motivator and coach. “
He was also a great communicator, explaining why he wanted a particular play done. Ryan used to stand about 30 yards behind the defense and signal in the calls. Rivera stated that he would not talk or shout so players had to learn and understand the signals. Occasionally, Ryan would quiz Rivera — whom he dubbed “Chico” after the main character from the 1970s sitcom “Chico and the Man” — about why they were running a particular defense.
Other occasions Rivera would ask them why they chose a particular look. Ryan would explain the chess moves that led to his thinking.
“He did a great job explaining the why,” Rivera stated. Rivera said, “That was one of the things I carried. I tried to make sure everyone understood why we were doing the things we were doing.” “
‘Now you guys have got to go out and do it’
The most famous song-and-dance video by a football team, “Super Bowl Shuffle,” was born in large part because of Bears receiver Willie Gault, who suggested it to a music producer. Rivera did not participate because he was not able to attend the Monday night game in Miami. It was also their first loss of season. Rivera said they left Miami around 1: 45 a.m.; the shoot was scheduled for 8 a.m.
“It was an open invite for everybody,” Rivera said.
One rehearsal took place on Saturday before the team left Miami. Many players had already decided not to attend. Morrissey, who was also in the video, recalled Gault walking down the aisle of the plane to Miami and asking who wanted to take part.
Because the Bears lost, and some players objected to it even before the game, only 24 players attended the video shoot, which took 10 to 12 hours. McMahon, Payton and others agreed to take part in the video shoot later in the week. They were then inserted into it.
” When it was published, Ditka said, “All right. Rivera stated, “Now you guys have to go out there and do it.”
‘Let’s go run some hills’
Payton loved running hills, a workout that became legendary. They were used to keep him in shape during camp and in the offseason. That’s how Rivera found himself running a set of 10 hills behind the football stadium at Wisconsin-Platteville.
Rivera was unable to practice one day due to a shoulder injury. Rivera was then able to run some hills after he received treatment. Rivera had no other choice but to say, “OK.”
Rivera then pointed to an approximate 50-foot hill with perhaps a 20-degree incline outside his Commanders office, and he said the one in Platteville was longer and steeper. Payton always ran 10; that meant Rivera had to do so as well.
” Rivera stated that Payton had just started running and that he was now following me. It was difficult to keep up with him. You’re right the first couple. He’s gone after that. He smokes people. He did it. This was not his only workout. One of the most amazing people. … He had a great work ethic. “
‘He knew how to test people’
Rivera called McMichael, the one-time defensive tackle and former professional wrestler, a “uniquely clever” guy. Rivera called it Cowboy wisdom. Rivera said McMichael (stricken by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS) is still sharp.
Rivera shared his favorite story about a player he called Mongo and Ming.
” We had a young man who ran back from Texas one summer, and Ming was dragging him down,” Rivera stated. Rivera said, “Every chance he had, he would wear down this kid. Ming would hit him, driving him to the ground. The kid would then get up and walk back to the huddle. Ming would respond, “That’s right. That’s right.’ The kid then came out and Ming had just lit him up, and threw him to his death.
” The kid popped up and pushed Ming. Ming turned around and hit Ming. Ming just kinda turned his head fast because he caught him on the cheek. He turned his head and said, “You’re going be fine now.” The pup doesn’t bark, he bites. That’s good.’ That was it. He stopped picking at the child. He knew that the child would be fine. He was able to test people. “
‘I saw the young man go up and dunk the ball at about 325 pounds’
When Chicago drafted Perry, the NFL did not have many 300-pound players. In fact, he was one of perhaps 15 in the NFL who fit in that category. Now? The Commanders have 10 such players on their 53-man roster alone.
He became a household name in 1985 in large part because Ditka used him on offense — and he rushed for two touchdowns that season, and another in the Super Bowl.
“His personality made him stand out at times.” Rivera stated.
But the 325-pound Perry, nicknamed “The Fridge,” wasn’t wanted by Ryan, who called him a wasted draft pick. Perry did however start nine games as an rookie.
“It was very rare to have a 300-pounder with his athleticism,” Rivera said.
He saw it both on the basketball court and on the football field.
” I would be happy to sign a Bible and confirm that the guy did indeed dunk,” Rivera stated. “I watched. We used to play basketball together. We lived in the same neighborhood. We would play basketball together at the same sporting club. I’m serious. I saw the young man go up and dunk the ball at about 325 pounds. That was almost unheard of in 1985. He was a great athlete and a good person. These were the personalities we had. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.