Philip Rivers' career goes South, but in good way as high school coach in Alabama

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There’s still life in his throwing arm. Even at 39, his legs feel good. He also could have made millions as a TV analyst. But that’s not the focus of Philip Rivers.

The longtime Chargers quarterback, who spent his final season with the Indianapolis Colts, has relocated his wife and nine children to this quaint community on the eastern shoreline of Mobile Bay. He’s the head football coach at St. Michael Catholic High, which opened in 2016 and has ambitious plans for a sprawling sports complex that includes a football stadium, a baseball diamond and a track surrounding a practice field.

Rivers has big plans too. He and wife, Tiffany, want to continue raising their kids here — they range from toddlers to a college sophomore — with Philip following in the footsteps of his dad, Steve, who was a high school football coach in Decatur, Ala., a five-hour drive north.

Steve Rivers never won a state championship, but he has a drawer filled with “trophies,” letters and thank-you notes from former players grateful for his impact on their lives. Philip wants the same.

“I told the principal, 'Do I believe and think we’ll win a state championship here? Yeah, I hope and think we will, and I’ve told these boys that,’ ” Philip said this week, standing on the sideline during a break between two-a-day practices.

“But definitely, without a doubt, that’s the reason I’m in this level, because of those trophies in the desk drawer. … Not in a prideful way, but just in a way that you hope you can positively impact these young men to be better people in the community. Better in their faith, better in, shoot, as a businessman, better as a husband, better as a father.”

This is not glamorous stuff. Rivers and his coaching staff — most of them teachers who were already at the school — oversaw a two-day training camp at a waterfront retreat, beginning the days with a Catholic Mass, and then cooking breakfast for the players.

The offensive line coach was flipping pancakes. The defensive coordinator was scrambling eggs. Rivers, a five-time Pro Bowl selection who is fifth all-time in NFL passing yardage, has done everything from sorting laundry to painting the lines on the field. Two of his daughters attend the high school and, as typical teenagers, they’re sometimes embarrassed to bump into him in the hallways. He is as regular as they come.

Even in this football-crazy region, which produced NFL stars such as Ken Stabler and Julio Jones, he doesn’t cause much of a stir. After all, college football is king here, and Rivers played at North Carolina State, not Alabama or Auburn.

Retired Chargers and Colts quarterback Philip Rivers now coaches high school football in Fairhope, Ala.
Retired Chargers and Colts quarterback Philip Rivers now coaches high school football at St. Michael's Catholic in Fairhope, Ala. (Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

“In the South in general, there’s so much college football that even here — not that I feel like I’m a big deal anywhere — but it’s not as big of a deal,” he said. “It’s cool. Like, 'Yeah, you played in the NFL for a long time, but … how’s LSU gonna be?’ Or, 'Hey, Roll Tide!’ or, 'War Eagle!’ That’s really what it is here.

“So early on, I would get recognized and I’d hear this: 'Hey, coach!’ I’d be a little confused, like, 'You’re talking to me?’ Then they’d welcome me to town.”

And that’s just what Rivers wants. Despite his boyish exuberance on the field, an energy that could grate on opposing fans, he is disarmingly unassuming in person, friendly to everyone, thoroughly unimpressed with himself.

“We realize he’s just one of us, a regular guy,” said Walt Dupre, who coaches the offensive line and teaches biology. “But a lot of the young kids are kind of flocking to him when we were out at the spring game. It’s sort of worn off for us already.”

Rivers brings that same daggum energy in practice that he unleashed in his G-rated trash-talking tirades. Only now he uses it to pump up his players, lining up at defensive back — he doubled as a hard-hitting safety in high school — and dispensing his wisdom about proper drop-backs, how to slide in the pocket, how to run through a full 10 yards before making your cut. ...

He’s tireless, and his 9-year-old son, Pete, is in the middle of it all, tossing simulated shotgun snaps.

It’s all pretty heady stuff for Josh Murphy, a rising junior at St. Michael and a good athlete who can throw a tight spiral and has moved from backup to starting quarterback this season. He was a Drew Brees and Matt Ryan fan who didn’t pay a lot of attention to Rivers until last season, when word spread he was headed to the school as soon as he retired. Imagine that — an NFL star.

“Couple years ago there started to be the chatter, then I got to meet him at a football camp when he came down,” Murphy said. “From there, I started to watch his games. It was weird. You’re rooting for him, but at the same time you’re wanting him to come be your coach.”

When Rivers arrived, Murphy was a bit intimidated, but those star-struck feelings soon evaporated into the sweltering summer air.

“We’ve gotten to know him,” Murphy said. “He’s not some celebrity. He’s this great guy that we’ve all gotten to know as our coach. Other teams, when they see him, they all want to shake his hand after a game. People ask for pictures after games and stuff like that.

“But when we first started practicing in the spring, I’d get nervous before practice. I’m going to be throwing footballs in front of Philip Rivers. But over time, it’s just gotten to be more natural. You still have those times where you’re like, 'Wow, I’m in this position to be coached by him.’ But at the same time, he’s just coach.”

Retired NFL quarterback Philip Rivers and younger brother Stephen are coaches at St. Michael Catholic High in Fairhope, Ala.
Retired NFL quarterback Philip Rivers and younger brother Stephen are coaches at St. Michael Catholic High in Fairhope, Ala. (Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

"Let’s not rule it out. Who knows?"

Philip Rivers, on returning to NFL this season

Rivers had a case of butterflies recently, but for a different reason. He’s played football his whole life and spent 17 years in the NFL. So it’s not surprising he felt that old muscle memory in late July when pro players started reporting to camps.

Does Rivers think about returning to play? You bet your bolo tie. Tom Brady just won his seventh ring at 43 and turned 44 this week. Rivers has fuel left in the tank.

“I really felt in concrete in January,” he said of his retirement. “The time was right, and I still feel that way. But then as the spring went and the summer started, I kind of said there’s no reason to go rush to retire a Charger, because that’s what at first I was thinking to do.

“Then I thought, just coach and maybe it will motivate you to stay in shape. I was getting a little heavy because I didn’t have that clock to say, 'Hey, it’s time to get ready to go.’”

He’s committed to coaching the St. Michael team, and the school has games until late October, and might play a few more weeks if the team makes the playoffs. That leaves plenty of time for the back half of the NFL season, and Rivers is leaving open the door if there’s a team that wants him and the situation feels right. (He has given no indication he’d be willing to return to Indianapolis to replace the injured Carson Wentz, whose foot surgery is expected to keep him out from five to 12 weeks. Rivers is dedicated to the task at hand.)

“It’s funny, some of my children are still asking, 'So, Dad, are you playing in December? You gonna play this year late if somebody wants you?’ I go, 'I don’t know. Let’s not rule it out. Who knows?’ ”

Rivers was more definitive when it came to working in TV. He talked to networks and informed people in that world who say he has Tony Romo-like qualities when it comes to energy and the ability to explain the game.

“I do think I’d have fun doing it, and I do think I’d do it pretty well,” Rivers said. “I love the game and I like to talk about it. But for our family right now, you go from having eight or nine road games a year to having 17 weekends when I’m gone.

“Even some of the early conversations with [agent] Jim Denton were, 'Hey, I think you can still coach.’ I was thinking, 'I’m going to coach here while I’m preparing for an NFL game during the week? And our game? And then fly?’”

There are St. Michael quarterbacks in the pipeline. Gunner Rivers is learning the position as a seventh-grader, and Pete is right behind him.

Retired NFL quarterback Philip Rivers talks to his players at St. Michael Catholic High in Fairhope, Ala.
Retired NFL quarterback Philip Rivers is the head football coach at St. Michael Catholic High in Fairhope, Ala. (Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

What’s more, Rivers is getting to work with his brother, Stephen, who is 11 years his junior and coaching the St. Michael receivers. The whole family is invested.

“When we were growing up, I was the water boy and I just thought he was the coolest thing,” said the 6-foot-7 Stephen, who played quarterback at three colleges — Louisiana State, Vanderbilt and Northwestern (La.) State — and is now a packaging salesman.

“We shared a room. He was in the full bed, I was in the twin bed. We had a Peyton Manning poster, Dan Marino poster, Steve Young poster. We thought that was cool. And all of a sudden, here he goes. He’s one of those guys who was on the wall. It was crazy.

“I never thought he was going to retire. In my mind it’s like, it’s never going to end. So when he did, it hit me. This is our chance to live close to each other, so I asked my work what they thought about me transferring down here. They let me. So I’ve got four kids, Philip's got nine, and a lot of them are close in age. They spent the last month playing more than they have their whole lives together.”

The Rivers families are home. Well, sort of.

“I had lost a little bit of my Southern accent,” Philip said. “But for my children, being in California forever and then one year in Indy and now back here, when they’re immersed in it completely, not just on a summer trip, they couldn’t get over it. They were enamored with it. Like, 'Oh, my goodness. The accents here. Everybody.’

“The young ones, this is all they’re going to know. They’re going to be like I was growing up, my ones who are 2, 5 and 7, all of them.”

Rivers still has traces of Southern California in him. His assistant coaches tease him when he says “soda” instead of “Coke,” and that the family dog has a very San Diego name: Dude.

“It was really cool one practice back in the spring,” he said. “Dad was down here, Stephen was coaching, Gunner was helping, Pete was helping. And I looked around and thought, 'Wow. Here we are.’ ”

Clear out a desk drawer for the letters.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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