Thank You, Phil

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Nick Hardwick
·12 min read
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Last week, Philip Rivers retired from the NFL after 17 incredible seasons. Under normal circumstances, he would have held a press conference. It would have been huge. Media would have packed into a conference room and former teammates and coaches from all over the country would have flown in to celebrate an amazing man, an unbelievable football player, and the best teammate anybody could ask for.

I know I would have been there.

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

But unfortunately, these are unusual times.

So, as his former teammate, former center, and someone who is honored to call him a good friend, in place of speaking at a press conference, I wanted to write something to let the rest of the football world know just what the NFL is losing when a guy like Philip Rivers decides to hang it up.

So here it goes.

Love you, pal.

I have to start with his competitiveness.

And this story just about sums it all up.

Back in 2011, during the lockout, pretty much our entire team worked out together at the University of San Diego. Phil set the whole thing up. Monday through Thursday were conditioning days, and Friday was an activity day. We played pickup basketball, soccer, ultimate frisbee — schoolyard stuff to keep ourselves entertained and cut loose and compete a little.

At least that was the plan going in.

After the first Friday, Phil basically scrapped conditioning and went straight to what I would call Highly Competitive Recreational Activities (HCRAs) five days a week. Every day, we were like a bunch of kids getting together in the neighborhood. It turned into a sports summer camp for grown men, and Phil was the camp counselor, orchestrating the whole thing.

It was intense, too. The competition. The trash talk. Phil would go at it with Eric Weddle, Shawne Merriman, Quentin Jammer, Shaun Phillips — mostly defensive guys, but really anybody he was going up against.

That’s another thing he’s legendary for.

He’s a Hall of Fame trash-talker.

Now, Phil doesn’t cuss. So when you hear him say things like “dadgummit” or “golly” — or one of my favorites, “That aggravates the stew outta me!” — it’s funny. I don’t know if he has a country bumpkin thesaurus that I don’t know about or what. But I definitely find myself wondering sometimes where he comes up with this stuff. From the outside, it sounds kinda corny.

But if you hear him on the field, during the game, it’s not corny at all.

It’s Phil.

It’s sharp, witty and very cutting.

He’s so prepared and so intelligent that he knows where everybody on the field is supposed to be at all times. Especially the defense. So most of his trash talk is calling out opposing players for being out of position or not making a play. Either that, or letting them know that whatever they tried to do didn’t fool him.

Fifty-three didn’t do his job there!

That’s the first play you’ve called out right today, 55!

Y’all think that’s a good blitz? We saw that doggone thing coming a mile away!

It cut guys pretty deep. Made them doubt themselves. And it gave them one more thing to think about as they went back to the huddle.

And it kept us all, in a word, entertained.

Only Phil could make the most mundane game — a 1 p.m. game in the middle of the season against the Jets or Bengals or [insert bad team name here] — feel like a playoff game. If he sensed that our intensity was low, within the first five minutes he’d find some way to rile up the opponent to the point where it turned into a street fight and we had no choice but to turn up, because we had to protect Phil.

Gregory Bull/AP Photo
Gregory Bull/AP Photo

He was a master motivator.

One way or another, Phil would get the absolute most out of you.

I remember a pregame speech he gave back in 2012. It was the last game of the season. We were 6–9, out of the playoffs, and we all knew that our coach was going to get fired. If there was ever a game you weren’t going to get up for, this was it.

So before the game, Phil gathers everyone around him in the locker room, and he basically said something like this:

I want you to go back to when you were a little kid, dreaming of being a pro football player. Now, imagine you’re that kid, and somebody tells you that you’re gonna have the opportunity to go play in an NFL game.

Well, guess what?

In 10 minutes, that’s going to happen. Someone’s gonna come in here and tell you it’s time to go out, and you’ll get to go out and play in an NFL game. And I don’t care if it’s preseason, Week 17 or the dadgum Super Bowl. You have to give absolutely everything you have. You have to play as hard as humanly possible.

Do it for the little kid inside you who dreamed of being here. Because what waits for you out on that field is that dream. You get to go live it. Right now.

This is the moment.

And I’ll tell you something … you go into a game with a group of men, united by that mentality?

You don’t lose.

Lorenzo Neal once said, “We’re grown men, playing a kid’s game and getting a king’s ransom.”

When I hear that, I think of Phil.

Nobody I’ve ever played with brought such a childlike enthusiasm to the game. We’d be in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out divisional battle — beat up and bloody and exhausted — and Phil would come back to huddle like, “Gol-LEE ... how fun is this!”

We came into the league together in 2004. We basically grew up together. I watched him grow as a father, a husband, a professional — he grew up in all the ways necessary to be successful and to be a good man.

In every other way, he’s still just a big kid.

Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Since I retired in 2014, I have watched every snap Phil has played. A lot of his former offensive linemen have. We didn’t necessarily need to see him win — although I don’t think anybody deserves it more than him, just based on the way he’s lived his life. But we were always watching.

I think it’s burned into our DNA that Phil’s our guy, and our job is to protect him. Keep him upright. And in a strange way, I don’t think we’ve ever stopped protecting him.

That’s why we watched him play.

To make sure he didn’t get hurt.

To make sure he got home safe.

We just had a special relationship with him. When you’re an offensive lineman, there’s nothing better than having a quarterback who’s tougher than you and will fight for you the same way you lay yourself on the line to protect him. Because you know that if the roles were reversed, he’d do the same for you.

I remember during the 2007 season, I sprained a ligament in my right foot in Week 6. I missed four games, and when I came back, I was still in some pain and wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to play. But the mentality back then was, It’s just a minor tweak. Get back out there. You’ll be fine. So the trainers shot my foot up with lidocaine to numb the pain, and I went out and played.

My first game back, we played the Ravens. We ran an outside zone where I had to reach to my left to block the nose guard, so I had to put a crazy amount of torque on my right foot to get there. I got it done, but my foot lit up in pain. Even with the lidocaine. Didn’t matter. My foot was on fire.

Back in the huddle, Phil could see that I wasn’t in a good place. He was like, “How you doing, Nick?”

I was shell-shocked.

“Not good, man. Not good at all … I don’t know if I can keep going.”

And he was like “C’mon, Nick. One more play. Just give me one more play, Nick.”

I’ve never wanted to quit so bad in my life. The pain, the burning — I could feel myself doing more and more damage with every step.

And Phil just stayed with me, very gently: “I know, man. I know. But can you give me one more play?”

He coached me through the rest of the game like that.

And through the next eight games.

All the way through the AFC championship.

“C’mon, Nick. One more play. Just give me one more play, Nick.”Philip Rivers

Phil and I often talked about being the chicken or the pig. It’s an old fable about being involved vs. being committed. The chicken donates the eggs for breakfast. But the pig? He sacrifices his whole self. He gives the ham and the bacon — he gives you everything he has.

And I didn’t know it at the time, but for that whole AFC championship game, while Phil was asking me to fight through the pain and sacrifice myself for the team … he was playing on a torn ACL.

The pig is committed.

In that game, we were all pigs. I had to get major reconstructive foot surgery that off-season. I needed a plate, seven screws and three wires inserted into my foot. Phil played with the ACL. Gatesy played with a toe injury that needed surgery. Shawne Merriman played through a knee injury that needed surgery.

We were the walking wounded going into that game.

But we battled.

Still, we ended up losing to the undefeated Patriots.

And that’s the closest any of us ever got to reaching the Super Bowl.

Denis Poroy/AP Photo
Denis Poroy/AP Photo

There’s been a debate about whether or not Philip Rivers is a Hall of Famer.

I’m not sure why.

I’ll let everybody else debate the numbers and how much titles matter. As far as I’m concerned, Super Bowl or no Super Bowl, Phil’s résumé speaks for itself.

What I will do is tell you what I look at when I think of a Hall of Famer.

I look at how the guy changed the game.

I don’t think a lot of people are aware of this — and please excuse me as I get technical for a minute — but Phil really changed the game of football when it comes to blitz pickup and a quarterback’s ability to swing and control protection.

Before Phil, you couldn’t really take a protection that was designed to go to the left and swing it all the way back to the right past the center. Everything basically had to start or stop at the ball. He was so sharp and had such a mental rolodex of defenses that he was able to move protections around and ignore the “rules” that offenses had operated under for so long.

He was one of the first guys who said, “O.K., we’re going to take a key left and make it a key right.” Or, “We’re going to take a scat right and make it a scat left.” This didn’t just shift the protection toward the direction the blitz was coming from. This changed everybody’s individual responsibility to make sure we had our five linemen — and maybe a running back — blocking the defense’s five or six most dangerous guys.

This didn’t just shift the protection toward the direction the blitz was coming from. This changed everybody’s individual responsibility.Nick Hardwick

That’s why Phil never really threw hot routes or had sight adjustments with receivers. He was counting on us picking up every single blitz, which allowed us to throw the ball deep more often and not have to do a lot of checkdowns.

This really forced the Rex Ryans and the Mike Zimmers of the world to evolve. Blitz packages like the Amoeba and the Double A-Gap Mug — these more sophisticated packages that have emerged over the last 10 years or so — were basically built to combat what Philip was able to do at the line. It forced modern blitzing in the NFL to become what it is today.

So the imprint Phil has left on the game as we know it is massive.

In my mind, that — along with his numbers, consistency and longevity — is more than enough to make him a Hall of Famer.

I don’t even think it’s a debate.

Orlando Ramirez/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Orlando Ramirez/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

And finally, more than anything, what the NFL is really losing now that Phil is hanging it up is a tremendous human being.

I can’t count how many times I saw a player for another team come over and have a skewed view of Phil. To them, he was just a trash-talker. Brash. He was a heel.

Then they’d come into the locker room and meet him for the first time, and after spending five minutes with him, they’d walk away feeling like they’d just gained a new best friend.

That’s just the charisma, charm and genuineness of Phil’s character.

Phil has always been about faith, family and football — in that order. He was like that on Day One in San Diego. He was already married with a daughter, so there was never any partying with Phil or going down to Pacific Beach and having a good ol’ time with him.

When he left work, he went home to his family. He’s still that way today. He has always been guided by his principles and has remained true to who he is.

That’s the mark of a great man.

So congratulations on a heck of a career, Phil.

And also ... thank you.

I can confidently say that I would not have become the football player I did if it weren’t for you. But I also know for a fact I wouldn’t be the man I am today if I didn’t have you in my life. It truly is an honor to call you a good friend, and I wish you, Tiffany and the kids the absolute best as you begin the next chapter of your lives.

Love you, pal.

Nunc coepi.