It is late July and I am watching grown men literally clambering over each other to get close to the fence that runs around the Los Angeles Chargers’ training-camp field in Costa Mesa, California. Practice has just drawn to a close and the fans are seven or eight deep, desperate to get hats, balls, t-shirts and even babies autographed by the star player who has just finished a round of media commitments, including one with yours truly.
Entering his 15th NFL season and with over 50,000 passing yards in his rearview mirror, quarterback Philip Rivers remains as popular as ever, his reputation as one of the most respected team leaders in the league and a stand-up guy who does things the right way very much intact.
On this gloriously sunny morning, Rivers answers every shout of his name with a smile, a signature and the occasional selfie. The impromptu meet and greet ticks past the 20-minute mark. Lost at the edge of the crowd and out of Rivers’ eyeline stands a small boy, maybe eight or nine years old, quietly pleads: “Mr Rivers? Mr Rivers?”
As the crowd of autograph hunters thins, it looks as if the young lad – standing patiently with his grandmother – is going to miss his big shot. Rivers is the last player on the field and the team bus parked no more than 15 feet away, rumbles impatiently. But rather than turn away to board and escape to the sanctuary of the team hotel, Rivers heads back to the kid he had clearly seen all along. With the bulk of the crowd now gone, the star signal-caller spends a good two or three minutes chatting with the youngster, decked out in his Rivers 17 jersey.
Rivers chats, hugs, poses for pictures and signs the shirt, making yet another young fan’s dreams come true. It is a classy and heart-warming example of a superstar who “gets it”.
The seven-time Pro Bowler remains a class act on the field as well. His ‘unique’ sidearm passes may never win too many style points yet they get to the receiver on time, on target and with more than enough velocity to make him one of the very best in the business. He’s utilised that method to the tune of nine 4,000-yard seasons in the past 10 years and remains the most vital player on a talented Chargers team that, yet again, is dreaming this is their year.
After winning six of their last seven in 2017, the London-bound Chargers (they take on the Tennessee Titans at Wembley on Sunday, October 21) have high hopes and, with a true franchise quarterback at the helm, writing them off would be foolish.
Philip, let’s start with your memories of playing in London against the New Orleans Saints in 2008…
It’s been a long time. It’s been 10 years, but it was a great experience that our team really enjoyed. We didn’t come away with a win but we experienced the week there and the fans were great. The one thing that stood out to me 10 years ago was how many different NFL Jerseys were there. There were so many different jerseys there and it had a little bit of a, for us, soccer feel because there was constant noise and a buzz which was cool. I’m looking forward to going back.
Let’s look at the Chargers and the psyche of this team. You started 0-4 last season but came back strong. What does that say about this team?
It shows what type of character we have, the toughness we have and we’ve got make sure we keep that as we go into this year. It’s a big emphasis for us to get off to a better start, start fast, so we don’t have to play catch up all year long. We have high expectations for our team in our locker room and we are looking forward to the 2018 season.
Has the way the Chargers finished last season raised expectations or do you think they were already high?
I think they were already high. I think the one thing is that we don’t fall into the trap of listening to all the expectations on the outside now. Last year, people didn’t think we were going to do much. This year, everyone is thinking that we’re going to win the division and that’s something that we haven’t done since 2009. So we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us – it’s okay to hear that, but we can’t think that we’re going to be great. We’ve got to make sure that we focus in and bear down.
You’re now in your 15th season in the NFL. What is the thing you have most learnt about being an NFL quarterback since you’ve been in the league?
There is a lot. I think it’s not to ride the rollercoaster – the ups and downs of the season, the ups and downs day to day. The ups and downs of interviews, working with the press, lots of different things. You’ve got to be very steady and just keep staying the course. I’m thankful to still be in this league 15 years later, still excited about it, still enjoying the practices, meetings and games on Sunday and the whole season.
Would it be fair to say that you still have a lot of fun out there?
I do enjoy it… I really do enjoy it. I play the game as I did when I was a 10-year-old in North Alabama in the backyard. I like to play with that demeanour – it’s still a game. We are grown men playing a game – it is serious and there is a lot on the line but we should remember that this is the game that we grew up playing. I think that approach works best for me.
With extensive experience under your belt, what do you feel are the keys to being a successful NFL quarterback?
You’ve got to be smart and you’ve got to understand both your own offense and what the defense is doing. You’ve got to be tough. But I think that at the top of the list you have to be a leader – you’ve got to be able to get the guys around you to pull together and push towards a common goal. Those are the first things that come to mind – leading the guys, being tough and being smart. Also, you’ve got to be able to make plays. There are a lot of guys that we would be able to find here in L.A. who could go out there and throw it and just play catch. They would look really good but there is a lot more to it when you get out there in a game.
And I guess you don’t need to have perfect technique? You are an example of that…
Correct. I grew up a coach’s son and, as a little boy, I would go to his practices. I was the ballboy and the waterboy and I was throwing a big football when I was five or six. You know, my elbow has gradually come up a little bit as I’ve gotten stronger but then it just became who I was. I stuck with it – it has got me this far, so no reason to tweak it now.
Absolutely. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Tell me about the talent on this Chargers team…
There are a lot of guys who can make plays. I think we are very diverse. We have a group of receivers that are big and fast and can do a lot things after the catch. We have a good tight end group (which has since been boosted by the re-signing of Antonio Gates), a running back group with Melvin [Gordon] and Austin [Ekeler] who complement each other very well and our guys up front – it starts with them. It’s a real close group, it’s a tough group and they have a lot on their plates so it’s a smart group. They love to play physical and that’s really what makes it go in the run and the pass game. We feel like we’ve got a chance to be a great offense but it doesn’t just happen – we’ve got to work at it and keep preparing.
What does head coach Anthony Lynn bring to your team?
I think he brought a great deal of focus last year and a demeanour that was very steady. In the midst of a move to Los Angeles and an 0-4 start, we needed that from the leader that was standing in front of the room. We needed that steadiness. He gave us that and I think that filtered down to the rest of the guys. We stayed steady and kept believing. He played in this league, he won championships in this league and therefore I think he has a very good perspective as both a coach and player and he keeps a nice balance. I think the guys really enjoy him and what he’s trying to do.
You don’t wear a red jersey in practice but I would if Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram were coming after me! How good is that pair of pass rushers on your defense?
Thankfully, they understand to stay away from the quarterback! Melvin and Joey and that whole defense are a talented group. What they did last year was awesome and they are excited to build on that and have an even better year in 2018. Shoot, with those two guys rushing, the secondary, the linebackers and the interior it’s a heck of a defense.
You probably knew I would ask about the van at some point, right? What have you got in there and why did you choose to stay in San Diego when the team moved to Los Angeles?
I’ve got a big family – there are 10 of us in total with eight children – so we decided to stay in San Diego. We’ve been there for 13 years so it was going to be tough to make the move. It’s only about an hour door to door to work every day so myself and (then back-up quarterback) Kellen Clemens did it every day last year. There are two reclining seats in there and they go fully horizontal. I’ve got a 35in television to study film on, and it has WIFI in there so I can get updates on my iPad. It’s a mobile quarterback office that worked well last year so we are going to stick with it this year.
You gave the game away there, Philip. You mentioned chairs that recline all the way back before talking about televisions where you can watch film!
Well, it’s also important that I get my rest (laughs)!
Are things easier on the entire team now it is your second season in Los Angeles?
It’s way easier. We don’t have to ask ‘Where we are we going for the walkthrough? Where is the practice field? Where are the hot tubs? Where are the meeting rooms? Where are the dining rooms?’. We know all those things because we are settled in and we can just focus on the football part and trying to win football games.
This article originally appeared in Issue XL of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE