It was 2006. The Broncos were 7-2 and preparing for a “Sunday Night Football” showdown at home against the 7-2 Chargers. San Diego was getting hot behind their first-year starter, quarterback Philip Rivers.
The Broncos jumped out to a 24-7 lead and looked in control. Then, Rivers brought the Chargers back to ultimately defeat the Broncos 35-27. Late in the game, Rivers ran up to the Broncos crowd and saluted the fans in attendance, mocking the Broncos famed Mile High Salute.
I hated Rivers. I hated him so bad for that.
The Chargers would finish that season 14-2 and with the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. I was thrilled when the Patriots were upset the Chargers in the divisional round. I was even more happy when Chargers players complained postgame about the Patriots dancing on their logo at midfield.
In my mind, The Chargers got was coming to them. They mocked the Broncos, so the Chargers deserved to have the Patriots have fun at their expense. After Rivers disrespected the Broncos, I wanted him to lose every game the rest of his career.
The next few seasons, I found myself cheering against Rivers as much as I cheered for the Broncos.
Rivers was “fiery” and always willing to rile up opposing players and their fans. Rivers would passionately argue with refs and flail his arms at penalties. He would rile up the crowd when on the road. The dude never stopped.
Rivers most famous trash talk to the Broncos was on Christmas Eve in the 2007 season. Cameras caught what appeared to be Rivers screaming from the sideline at Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler appeared displeased. I don’t think anybody was able to confirm if Rivers was actually yelling at Cutler. He could have been cheering on his teammates. Based on his previous behavior, we decided it was Rivers. True or not, it was one more reason to hate him.
What made it worse was that Rivers was beating the Broncos regularly. From 2006 to 2011, the Broncos record against Rivers was 3-9 with many of the losses being lopsided affairs.
Somewhere along the line, my view of Rivers started to change.
I think it started in 2007 when I watched Rivers play the AFC Championship Game against the undefeated Patriots on a blown ACL. Week in and week out, he played like he knew he could win every game. Rivers was never afraid of any opponent. It was hard not to respect him.
Then, I found myself starting to actually like Philip Rivers. I was entertained and admired that he played his butt off from the opening whistle to the very end of the game. I don’t ever recall a game where Rivers didn’t leave it all on the field.
However, being the agitator that he was, he was so good at making me hate him again once he played the Broncos. He would trash talk our star defensive players, Chris Harris Jr. and Von Miller, and whine to the refs. Rivers never let me like him too much, as he was always there to remind me that he’s the villain and I’m supposed to show disdain for him.
Regardless of either team’s record, every time the Broncos played Rivers and the Chargers, the stakes were high. No matter where we were at in the season, beating Rivers mattered. Even in recent down years, victories over Rivers gave us some bright spots in extremely forgettable seasons.
When the Broncos needed a win badly, Rivers was the last guy I wanted to play.
Rivers relentless play meant I never felt comfortable with a lead. In 2013, Rivers came to Denver on Thursday night and stole his one victory against the Peyton Manning-led Broncos. A few weeks later, the Broncos played Rivers in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Broncos won, but man, was I nervous.
The back and forth with Broncos Country and Rivers was fun. Booing Rivers loudly was one of the best parts of attending Broncos games. When Rivers would get upset at the refs, he would flap his arms and have a conniption fit and we all cheered. In the event that the Broncos defense was able to sack Rivers, the crowd would go nuts. Broncos Country wanted Rivers on the ground for running his mouth.
One of the best moments came in 2014 when the Broncos scoreboard operator put Rivers on the screen for fans to boo. Famously, this drew the ire of Manning. Manning felt it was disrespectful to Rivers. Manning was bounced out of the playoffs by Rivers twice in his career, so there was no doubt that he had great respect and knew what a dangerous competitor Rivers could be.
I remember that night when Rivers was on the scoreboard and was booed, he flashed a smirk. As much as we loved hating him, he loved us for hating him. I think Rivers loved playing in Denver because it always felt important. We put a lot of emotion into playing Rivers. Rivers lived in our heads and he knew it.
The legend of Philip Rivers is only enhanced by the fact that despite being one of the biggest trash talkers in NFL history, he never used cursed words. Which is hilarious. He managed to infuriate opponents and fans without being vulgar. He used good, clean, wholesome trash talk.
Some say Rivers isn’t a Hall of Famer. I disagree. The numbers are there and he played for an organization that let him down over and over again. The Chargers are lifelong losers. The Chargers fired head coach Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 record and replaced him with the mediocre at best Norv Turner. Turner, like John Fox with the Broncos, never knew how to push elite talent over the top. They wasted Rivers prime seasons.
Rivers was acquired by the Chargers in a draft-day trade with Giants in exchange for Eli Manning. Manning wisely refused to play for the Chargers. Rivers was a better quarterback than Eli Manning, but Manning has two rings. Had the trade not happened, and Rivers stayed with the Giants, he might have two rings.
Throughout his career, teammates never spoke poorly of Rivers. The first time I met Orlando Franklin, I couldn’t wait to ask him what it was like to play with Rivers. Big O explained to me that Rivers was an amazingly nice guy to every player on the team. He was respectful to everybody he interacted with.
For sports to be enjoyable, you need a team to love and you need a team or player to hate. A bitter rival makes being a fan truly fun. For the past decade and half, Rivers was by far the Broncos biggest rival.
The Raiders and Chiefs might feel like bigger rival teams, but as far individual players, Rivers is the greatest villain Broncos Country has ever known. Rivers provided Broncos fans many great moments over the years. I’m not a fan of players on other teams, but I’m a fan of Philip Rivers. It was so fun cheer to against him and I’ll miss booing him every season.
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