SAN DIEGO — The most meaningful pass of Philip Rivers ‘ life wound up in the arms of the pope.
It happened in May, when the San Diego Chargers quarterback and his extended family visited the Vatican and were in a crowd of thousands for a Wednesday papal audience. Rivers, a devout Catholic, had a prime spot in the crowd and was holding the youngest of his six children, Pete, who will turn 2 in October.
“I was about 10 yards away, and the crowd kind of opened up,” Rivers said. “Pope Francis just kind of motioned like, ‘Bring him to me.’ Pete was like, ‘No! What are you doing?!” But we passed him to the pope. It was awesome. The pope kissed him, blessed him. We got great pictures of it.”
That moment was a highlight of what has been an incredibly trying — and unexpectedly gratifying — two years for the Pro Bowl passer, who is in the most turbulent stretch of his nine-year NFL career. His team is coming off a 7-9 season, one that cost coach Norv Turner his job and kept the Chargers out of the playoffs for a third consecutive year.
Rivers, meanwhile, has gone from elite to inconsistent, committing a combined 47 turnovers in the last two seasons. Shoddy pass protection and a dwindling cast of capable receivers are partly to blame, but Rivers has absorbed the bulk of the criticism, and accepts that.
“Last year was the first losing season I’ve ever been a part of,” said Rivers, 31, sitting outside a coffee shop near team headquarters. “You feel like you let down so many people. You realize that your play affects so many people’s lives. You’ve got to be careful trying to think about that often because that’s too much. But it’s the truth. It’s a tough business.”
Real life can be tougher. Rivers and his wife, Tiffany, got that reminder after the season when their 5-year-old son, Gunner, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. The couple has four girls, two boys, and another child due in October.
“He’s football all the time, nonstop energy all the time,” Rivers said of Gunner. “And late in the football season last year he didn’t want to play as much, he started to lose weight. He had to pee all the time. We took him in, and his blood sugar was 700 [the acceptable range is closer to 80 to 100, Rivers said]. He’s dying there right in front of you. It’s terrible.”
Gunner was admitted into the hospital, and his situation was stabilized. Meanwhile, a family so fortunate in so many ways struggled to catch its breath.
“When he came home from the hospital, he was showing his sisters all the diabetes-related stuff he got,” Rivers said. “To me, I don’t know why, that was the toughest day. I got home and, shoot, I lost it. I was bawling, crying. He was so excited to show them, and I was just thinking, ‘Man, his life’s changed forever.’ I remember the one thought in my head was, ‘Gosh, you’re going to have to prick his finger to go play catch in the yard. Goodness gracious.'”
Over the days that followed, Rivers said, he and his wife went from a sense of overwhelming sadness to gratitude.
“A couple nights in, we were starting to get the hang of it,” he said. “I just remember how thankful we were that he’s going to be healthy. He’s going to be fine. He’s here. If this is our burden, then we can live with this.”
That’s typical of Rivers the football player. He refuses to dwell on the negative and is unwaveringly positive, something that comes through in his voice, his facial expressions and his occasionally over-the-top, fist-pumping exuberance on the field.
“He’s eternally optimistic, always upbeat and has an endless amount of energy,” Chargers center Nick Hardwick said. “He’s a terrific leader for us.”
But as Rivers’ statistics have slid since 2010 — a season when he completed 66% of his passes for 4,710 yards with 30 touchdowns and 13 interceptions — questions have percolated about whether he’s the right quarterback to guide the franchise.
Rivers hears the doubters and has learned to tune them out. Mostly.
“The thing that’s gotten to me this off-season is, ‘Who’s going to fix Philip?'” Rivers said. “That phrase, I almost laugh it off. That drives me nuts, really.