Thank You, 17.
I remember when it all started. I was 10 years old, walking through the outer dividers of formerly named Jack Murphy Stadium. The Murph then became Qualcomm and the Q, in many ways, represented what I thought of San Diego. A congregational second home for warm, ever-sunny getaways from my Bay Area birthplace. It was there, at my first Chargers game in 2004, that my mom gave me the choice of becoming a fan, also warning me of the ambivalent emotions which inevitably accompany such a commitment. She’d seen seasons of accomplishment end in disappointment and disappointing campaigns end with optimistic anticipation of the next season. The circle of football fandom, I guess. That same year a G-rated trash-talking, Alabama-bred, awkward-armed gunslinger named Philip Rivers became a part of the franchise. He was a polarizing player from the moment he donned the powder blue, but I never anticipated the impact he would so clearly have on me and the way I view sports.
Two years passed before Rivers became the starter in 2006. He wasn’t the most popular player on a team with the league’s MVP and 11 Pro Bowl selections — only the 1973 Miami Dolphins and 2019 Baltimore Ravens had more. Part of it was because, when Rivers was drafted, he wasn’t the Chargers first choice. Part of it was due to the circumstances under which he was handed the job. Regardless, Rivers gave it his all, contributing to the best regular season in franchise history. Unfortunately, the short playoff run culminated in a fumbled away three-point loss to New England, serving as a microcosm for what would follow the rest of his career: close, but no cigar.
For some reason, I identified with this agonizing and oddly attractive quality that Rivers embodied better than any quarterback of his era. The hard-luck loser. Either he couldn’t get out of his own way or he didn’t have enough help to get over the hump. It always seemed to be one or the other. Yet, whether it was a thrilling victory or heartbreaking loss, he consistently invited individual blame while deflecting praise towards others. It’s a team game. This attitude never changed. As an underachieving athlete myself (for very different reasons), I tried to model my often-irrational competitive behavior after Rivers. If he, who carried the heaviest burden in the most results-driven sport, can cope with mind-boggling results year after year, I had no excuse. I still wrestle with my competitive fire, but Rivers, by example, has helped extinguish some of those flames.
When I started high school in 2008, I was reminded of Rivers and the Chargers shortcomings on what seemed like a weekly basis. Growing up in the East Bay, being anything but an Oakland Raiders fan was considered an offense. Being a fan of the Chargers — during a period in which they beat the Raiders 13 straight times from 2003–09 — was outright treasonous. I was afraid of getting jumped my entire freshman year, on or off-campus, for wearing any powder blue clothing. I once took my girlfriend to a Chargers-Raiders game at the Oakland Coliseum and my parents wouldn’t let me wear my first and still favorite jersey (number 17) for fear of abuse. I remember clenching my fists like Arthur every time Rivers dropped back to pass, but kept it together, knowing that a beer could come flying in my direction at any moment if my cover was blown.
For the most part, though, being a lonely Chargers fan was fun. They felt like my team, which made Rivers my quarterback. It was most rewarding when our family road-tripped down to America’s Finest City every holiday break. I’d usually get to go to one game a year. It was like waking up on Christmas morning. We’d meet up with my godfather, a three-decade-long season ticket holder, and he’d shower my brother and I with “free swag” frugally finagled throughout the years. Then, he’d show us the tailgating ropes. We’d follow him and his powder blue and gold Shawne Merriman jersey around the Q’s “octorad” exterior as flags with lightning bolt logos flew over us. We took pictures with hometown fans and I even got to meet the Charger girls once. All before the main event; which to others was watching the team win or lose, but to me, was watching number 17 put on a show.
When I went out of state for college in 2012, it made things both easier and more difficult to watch my favorite signal-caller. While I never saw Rivers play in-person for several more years, a new friend introduced me to internet game streams. Previously residing in Northern California, the Chargers were never on television unless it was a national broadcast or they played one of the local teams (OAK & SF). From that season on, I never missed a game. It was then I came to appreciate his essence and what I dumbed down to describe as “Phí.” It’s probably better articulated by Rivers himself as Nunc Coepi, a Latin phrase that means, “now I begin.” Every week of the season was a new beginning. Every week also seemed to present a new obstacle for Rivers and his team to hurdle. Sometimes they’d fall short, but that didn’t matter to me.
I enjoyed watching Rivers beat Seattle, and the feared “The Legion of Boom,” 30–21 in 2014, as much as watching him lose 27–20 in a 500-yard effort at Green Bay in 2015. And the postgame interviews. Oh, the postgame interviews. His Mona Lisa came after a 2013 Thursday night victory at Denver when the rattlesnake skin cowboy boots and bolo tie made their way onto the NFL Network set. With an unmistakable southern twang, he hollered, “I would’ve hoped that after 10 years people would’ve figured it out, I just like to play football!” It was peak Phí.
My last year in college also tragically coincided with the organization’s final season in San Diego. Although I did not live in the area until recently, my mom was born in Ocean Beach and grew up in Spring Valley. It was tough for all of us. Understandably, much of the community denounced the team and shunned them for the way ownership handled the move. What was already a small fanbase shrank to the point of irrelevance when the Spanos family fled north to become tenants in a newly rented home, taking the city’s beloved Bolts with them. After the season, Rivers expressed his genuine affection for the community that grew to love him, while trying to make the best of the situation, professionally. It was a difficult position he didn’t have to put himself in.
Furthermore, Rivers lived in San Diego during the remainder of his time with the Chargers, commuting back and forth to Los Angeles. Two years after the team moved, Rivers again expressed his emotional connection to San Diego, fighting back tears during an award acceptance speech at the San Diego Sports Association. “As I try out there every Sunday, with that bolt on my helmet and 17 on my back, play like crazy with that passion and fight like that’s the only way I know how, I hope that there are some of you still here in San Diego that can still say, ‘that’s our quarterback.’” Without being prompted, Rivers produced more heartfelt PR than the ownership and organization had my entire life.
That kind of commitment to self, family, and community helped push me after graduation to pursue my own calling. I left the west coast and traversed the country, taking various professional opportunities. My hope was to improve myself, but also find a place where I could build with others. I’m still searching for that place. Yet, whatever I had going on, I always did my best to make time each week to watch number 17. The number of touchdowns (or interceptions) he threw was inconsequential. I was addicted to the passion with which he played the game. It is the same passion he approaches life with. Everyone justifiably jokes about his scrunched faces or mini tantrums when a play didn’t go his way — there was a lot. But, you have to respect someone who wears their heart on their sleeve.
Despite the constant wisecracks, I later learned that even opposing fans cannot help but respect Rivers. It was at the AFC Divisional Round game on January 17, 2019, in Foxborough, MA. I flew out to New England, for what became Rivers final playoff game as a Charger, thinking it might be my last chance to watch my childhood hero in person. Turned out it was. The Chargers were badly beaten by the Patriots, but between jeers and jests from the Gillette Stadium crowd, there were signs of reverence. I’ll never forget what a self-proclaimed Bostonian, wearing a Tom Brady jersey and double-fisting a pair of overflowing beers, said after noticing my powder blue getup. “God, I hate that f***** Riv-ahs, but the Chah-gahs wouldn’t be s*** without him.” I nearly responded, “I could say the same about your guy.” Instead, I chuckled and nodded in agreement. He wasn’t wrong. I don’t know how the last 15 years of Chargers football would’ve looked without Rivers. All I can be is grateful that I will never have to find out.
I find it interesting how at a young age, we sometimes allow athletes to influence our character. Kids are impressionable to the point of forming one-sided connections created by an accumulation of experiences. Real-life entertainers begin as characters, often labeled heroes or villains, in the theatre of our minds. However, their careers don’t typically last long enough for us accurately reconsider them as we mature. But, every once in a while, a figure who checks every desired box for performance and personality sticks around until we can appreciate them for who they are, not just what they do. We start out just wanting to walk a day in their shoes and by the end of their careers, have lost track of the number of ways they’ve impacted us. I believe this is what separates who we view as great and who we admire as legendary.
Philip Rivers will forever be that kind of a legend to me. To some, he may not be a winner or even a Hall-of-Famer. That doesn’t matter. From the outpouring of affection I saw yesterday, it is obvious there will never be another like him.
And dadgummit, that’s all I could ask for.