Loss of brother weighs heavily on Panthers Coach Rivera

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It was the eve of another NFL season. Ron Rivera was ready for another trip down I-85. His Carolina Panthers, back-to-back NFC South Champions, were about to open training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Hope was high, optimism was everywhere, then came the news of July 28th.

Rivera sent out a tweet, that reminded us, he has other titles besides coach. On this day, it was brother.

The tweet read, "My brother Mickey passed today. He was one of my 1st & best teammates. Love u bro #RIP #Riverabrothers4ever

"It was hard," said Rivera.

He then paused, he looked down and repeated the same three words. Seven weeks ago, might as well have been yesterday.

"You try to prepare for it," said Rivera. "But all the memories, it really did come back and it was hard."

The tweet had a picture attached. A photo of the two holding a Panthers helmet.

"Mickey's favorite football team was the Raiders and I'd been trying to convert him to the Panthers," said Rivera, a smile now coming to his face. "But he loved Luke (Kuechly). So I got Luke to autograph the helmet and I gave it to him."

Mickey Rivera was Ron's big brother. There are four Rivera boys in all.

"I always wanted to be like Steve and Mickey, my two older brothers," said Rivera.

They were Army brats, sons of a Vietnam vet, a tight-knit group. It's why the news that first hit a year-and-a-half ago was so difficult.

"I'm at the office at 6 o'clock in the morning and my mom calls me, and calls me at 3 o'clock California time," said Rivera. "And I knew it wasn't good."

It wasn't. In fact it was awful. Mom had called her son to tell him his brother Mickey had pancreatic cancer. No cancer is good, but this one is really bad. It often hides in the body until it's too late to do much about it. Survival is often measured in weeks, not years.

"He never said 'why me' and its interesting because one thing he said that I'll never forget," said Rivera. "He said 'Ron don't feel sorry for me he said I'm going to beat this. he said who I feel bad for is the kids. He said when I go get chemo and I sit in that waiting room and I see those young kids I just think to myself some of them are never going to have the life I had and I've led a good life'."

Mickey, the big brother, in a fight no one wants, was still the one teaching life lessons.  Mickey told the Charlotte Observer last fall, "you can't live your life like you're dying, you have to live everyday."

"That was Mickey," said Rivera after reading the article. "His wife Rosemary also put a quote out there that basically said you lead the life you live because God believes your strong enough and it's amazing, those two quotes, I do think about a lot."

The words provided perspective, balance for an NFL coach in the midst of a 2014 season that was seemingly headed south.

"Being 3-8-1 and listening to all the noise on the outside it didn't phase me because I knew what Mickey was going through and it made what I was going through nothing," said Rivera.

Things turned for the Panthers late last year. The team won four straight, made the playoffs, won a playoff game at home. The best part, Mickey was there to see it all. The players gave Coach Rivera the game ball after the Arizona win. He handed it off to Mickey.

"I had it painted up for him with his name on it and all that and it was a nice little tribute to him," said Rivera.

Two days later, with Mickey still in town, the Rivera house erupted in flames. A lot was lost, but somehow that football survived.

"When the fire department let us go back into the house and we grabbed whatever we wanted, Mickey grabbed the ball. It's one of the things he took out with him. It was really nice," said Rivera.

Honoring Mickey's life is now a focus for Rivera. He has teamed up with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. It's an organization that helped him cope and learn. He attended support groups and got educated.

"I'm telling you the biggest mistake people make is they don't reach out soon enough," said Rivera. "They need to reach out sooner to people who are there and gather information."

This past week Rivera was front and center in uptown Charlotte's Marshall Park. He was waving a big purple flag. It's the color that represents pancreatic cancer. He was the honorary starter of "Purple Strides" a run and walk to support the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. His family had a walk team in Mickey's memory. (Donations can still be made here)

"Because the survival rate is so low people don't think it's worth the fight, but it is," Rivera said with a certain determination in his eye.  "This is survivable you can win, you can whip it."

It's the attitude Mickey carried, as long as he could.

"Quietly the doctors were saying 4 to 6 months. Mickey lasted almost 18, 19 months," said Rivera. "And that extra time that he got, my brother Steve says 'just know that Mickey beat it that long, that shows just how much of a fighter he was'."

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