Philip Rivers needs one thing to make his long journey complete

If you were lucky enough to call him your quarterback, if you were lucky enough to coach him, you are rooting long and hard for Philip Rivers to win that elusive Super Bowl, because it feels like an injustice to them all that he hasn’t.

“He is the leader,” former Jet Jerricho Cotchery told Serby Says by phone, “He’s the guy, when you look at him, you’re gonna see the troops right behind him. Because they know they’re being led on the right direction.”

Cotchery was Rivers’ go-to guy at North Carolina State in the early 2000s, caught 200 career passes and 21 touchdowns. He was asked why teammates felt compelled to follow Rivers.

“He cares,” Cotchery said. “He cares about winning. He cares about getting better. He cares about the team getting better. He cares about having his teammates get better. That’s one of his strong suits — he really cares about his teammates, and so when you got a leader that really cares about his teammates, 1) you’re looking at a true leader, but you’re looking at a guy that you’re willing to go to battle with. He’s a guy that definitely cares.”

Rivers is a guy that has cared from the time his father was the head coach at Athens (Ala.) High.

“He was at every practice, he was around all the time,” Allen Creasy told Serby Says. “It was obvious when he was that age, that he saw things and he understood things that most children don’t understand. All the other kids are down there climbing on the goalpost, and he’s watching the offensive drills. He’s paying attention. He was very conscientious toward the game, in everything. Not to say that he didn’t have a good time and he wasn’t a kid, but you could tell that from a mental standpoint, he was probably well ahead of all the young assistant coaches that were there. And he was super-, super-competitive. He never wanted to lose at anything. He was always one that you wanted to do your best because he’s doing his best.”

Creasy, who retired three years ago after 16 years as Athens’ head coach, was the defensive coordinator for Rivers’ father Steve even before Philip played for them. With that sidearm throwing motion that would scare some college programs away.

“When he was young, that’s how he had to throw it,” Creasy said, “because the ball was too big for him to hold. He was out there throwing the ball around with the high school kids when he was 6, 7, 8 years old, and he couldn’t hold the ball, so he had to kind of sit it on his palm and push it. So that’s the only throwing motion I ever saw him have.”

Grant Lauderdale was Athens’ quarterback his senior year, when Rivers was a sophomore.

“I just assumed I was gonna lose my job ’cause I heard how great Philip was,” Lauderdale said. “Usually by halftime, I was out of the game and Philip was playing if we were up three or four touchdowns.”

Athens was a powerhouse.

“From a chemistry standpoint, Coach Rivers really just didn’t want to make a change and disrupt things,” Creasy said.

So young Rivers, just 6-foot2 and 190 pounds or so at the time, mostly played outside linebacker.

“But he would still come up and hit you,” Lauderdale said.

As a junior, and in big moments as a senior, Rivers became the starting quarterback and free safety as well. And he was the punter. And he once ran back an onside kick for a touchdown.

“You couldn’t throw the ball with him on defense without him being there when the ball got there,” Creasy said. “He had a great knack for knowing where the ball was gonna be. He looked kind of like a baby giraffe running back there sometimes, but he always seemed to get there.”

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But his father was a quarterback. He wore No. 17 long before his son did. Young Rivers was born to play quarterback.

“He’s really good in the locker room,” Lauderdale said. “He had a way of connecting with people and makes them want to play well for him. He can influence people in the locker room, and that was probably his best attribute.”

Lauderdale is now a senior VP at ServisFirst Bank.

“I can’t tell you how much mileage I’ve gotten at cocktail parties,” Lauderdale said, “being able to say that Philip Rivers was my backup.”

As a starter on an Athens team that didn’t need to air it out, there was much more to Rivers than his arm and his accuracy. He was driven to win. Driven to be great.

“The game where I realized that he was truly special, we played Shades Valley and they had two linebackers, one went to Alabama and one went to Auburn, they had been a perennial powerhouse in the playoffs in the classification above us, and we were playing them early in the year his senior year,” Creasy said. “Philip rose to a different level, you could tell that the game wasn’t gonna be too big for him and he was willing to do whatever it took to put the team in position to win. Toward the end of the game, he started pulling the ball down and running it. I’d seen him play since he was a little boy, and to me that’s the game that he grew to be a man as far as football is concerned.”

Chase Jones was a receiver and linebacker at Athens.

“I remember one game we were tired, very tired, and I was tired trying to catch my breath,” Jones recalled. “We needed a stop when it was third-and-4.”

On their way to the defensive huddle, Rivers exhorted Jones: “You can’t be winded. Get ’em pumped up. We gotta stop ’em. We gotta stop ’em. It’s now or never.”

Jones added, “He would get me excited so I could get everyone else excited.”

There was this one occasion when Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville showed up to scout Rivers.

“Our running game was working very well,” Creasy recalled. “Philip comes to the sideline to get the play and then go back and call it in the huddle. He came to the sideline and Coach Rivers asked him, ‘What do you think?’ And Philip said, ‘Let’s run it.’ At the end of the game we threw it five times with the coach from Auburn there to see him play. That never entered into Philip’s mind. It never ever was about him, it was always about the team.”

It was always about his teammates.

“He was real tough, man,” Athens TE Maurice Franklin said. “If you go to war for him, he’ll go to war for you.”

In a season when the NFL is tainted by incidents involving Reuben Foster and a Kareem Hunt, there thankfully is Philip Rivers.

“He never drank, he never smoked, he didn’t cuss — he was that kind of guy,” said John Romine, a linebacker/tight end at Athens High.

Romine remembers the bus rides to road games.

“He’d be leading whatever chants there were,” Romine said.

Cotchery is now an assistant wide receivers coach with the Panthers.

“Unbelievable teammate,” he said. “When you’re out in the locker room, he’s hanging out with the guys, he’s right in the thick of things, joking around, and doing whatever we’re doing at that particular time to enjoy that setting, to just have fun as a group.”

Even if that meant talking trash with his own defense.

“That was every day in practice,” Cotchery said. “I don’t know how he was before he got to N.C. State, but I knew we had a bunch of Florida guys on the team that talked all day long. He was already a natural competitor, so he wasn’t gonna let those guys get the best of him.”

At anything.

“It doesn’t matter what he’s doing, he’s trying to beat you,” Cotchery said. “I can remember our freshman days back at N.C. State and he was right next door to me, and I remember all of those ‘Madden’ games. He was trying to take it to me, he was trying to take it also to my roommate at the time. Shooting pool, playing pingpong, didn’t matter what it was, he was trying to beat guys.”

Even with a musical video project he and Jones worked on together.

“We took German together and he wouldn’t want anyone to get a better grade than us,” Jones said. “He would probably kill me if I told you what the video was about.”

Chuck Amato was hired as N.C. State coach when Rivers arrived there.

“When he got done with classes, he would walk over to the football office, and him and [offensive coordinator] Norm Chow would get in the room and shut the door and they wouldn’t come out until it was time to go eat dinner,” Amato told Serby Says. “He was just a sponge.”

Rivers, husband and father of eight, was always one of the guys.

“He was a great leader, and he was absolutely selfless,” Creasy said. “And just like you see Philip on the field now, that’s how he is in the driveway playing basketball. He is a super competitor, and demands that everybody be a competitor around him. And every team that he has ever played on became better because he was part of it. He’s never a negative leader, but he will hold players accountable for how they play and how they commit.”

Cotchery recalls how thrilled the N.C. State team was the day Rivers’ number was retired.

“He has a great calming presence as far as, ‘We’re gonna get this done,’ ” Cotchery said. “You always get that feel from him. You always feel like you have a chance with him. We always had a chance every week we stepped on the field because he was in the huddle.”

Rivers completed 25 consecutive passes last Sunday against the Cardinals. He turns 37 on Dec. 8 and is playing 10 years younger. He quarterbacks a team that has a Super Bowl chance. No one would cherish it more.

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