As overtime began in last Thursday's Georgia Tech-North Carolina
State game, Steve Rivers fidgeted compulsively in section 5, row
J at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. He spit on the concrete,
hitched up his pants and scanned the field, much as he has for
the last 29 years as a high school football coach. At the same
time Philip Rivers, the Wolfpack's 18-year-old freshman
quarterback, was eyeing the Yellow Jackets' defense before
reaching for the snap on the second play of OT. "Be smart," Steve
said, as if speaking into his son's ear. "There's no safety
support. The fade is open."
In the huddle Philip had called a slant to sophomore receiver
Koren Robinson, but he had also reminded Robinson to look for
"the sign." As Philip settled in behind the center, he tugged on
his face mask--the signal to Robinson to change his pattern from a
slant to a fade--and audibled. Moments later Philip lofted a
delicate pass to the right corner of the end zone, and as it
sailed through the air Steve cried, "There it is...There it
is...There it is!" Robinson gathered in the pass for the
23-yard touchdown that won the game 30-23.
That the Cardiac Pack trailed Georgia Tech by 13 points at
halftime and by three after three quarters hardly fazed the
younger Rivers, who had already led a pair of dramatic comebacks
in sparking N.C. State to an unlikely 3-0 start. In his college
debut against Arkansas State on Sept. 2, Rivers had to play
through leg and hip cramps that required him to take saline
solution intravenously. Still, he converted two fourth-down plays
during a rain-soaked, last-minute, game-tying drive. He then
engineered touchdown marches in two overtimes to win the game
38-31. A week later the Wolfpack trailed by 12 with 4:29 left at
Indiana, but Rivers tossed touchdown passes of 26 and 47 yards,
the latter with 54 seconds remaining, to steal a 41-38 victory in
his first road game. "The kid is officially potty trained,"
Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato said after that game. "We don't have
to put Pampers on him anymore."
During each of N.C. State's comebacks Rivers has put on a headset
and delivered the same message to quarterbacks coach Norm Chow,
who spent the last 22 seasons as an assistant at BYU. "He'll tell
me, 'Coach, don't worry, we're going to win,'" Chow says. "I'm
thinking, Aren't I supposed to be telling him that? There's
really no substitute for the poise of a coach's son."
In the mid-1960s Steve Rivers was the quarterback at Sylacauga
(Ala.) High, across town from where his father, Ken, had played
quarterback at B.B. Comer High. Steve signed with Mississippi
State, tore up his knee and played sparingly as a reserve safety.
In '72 he began his high school coaching career, at Decatur
(Ala.) High. Philip is his father's son. Both he and Steve are
unmistakably confident yet refreshingly humble. They finish each
other's sentences and use "Gaaaaw-lee!" as an expletive. Steve's
wife, Joan, swears that Steve's and Philip's voices are so
similar that she has trouble distinguishing between them on the
phone. Naturally, Philip wears the same number, 17, his father
wore. As a starting college quarterback Philip is living his
daddy's dream, but this is no repeat of the Marv and Todd
Marinovich saga. There was no father-imposed blueprint for Philip
to follow from birth. This is simply the tale of a gridiron
lifer, his oldest son and the magnetic pull of the pigskin in the
Deep South. What else would Steve's boy want to be?
Posters of Troy Aikman, Dan Marino and Joe Montana served as
wallpaper in young Philip's bedroom. When his grandmother Lois
gave him red-and-white number blocks for his fourth birthday, he
lined them up as two football teams and ran plays on the carpet
using shoestrings as sidelines. Later, when he played in the
backyard of the family house, Philip spray-painted yard lines and
used orange pylons for end zone markers. Philip attended Steve's
practices after school, and at the dinner table, conversation
centered on topics like defending against the wishbone. Philip
lived for the spectacle of a Friday night in autumn. "He once
asked me, 'Mom, when I get big, can I play quarterback in the
game and be the drum major at halftime?'" Joan recalls. "He
always wanted to be the leader."
Philip had to settle for being the starting quarterback (and
occasional free safety) for three years at Athens (Ala.) High,
where Steve was the coach. As a senior last season he threw for
2,025 yards and 15 touchdowns and was voted the state's player of
the year, but because of his unorthodox throwing motion, which
looks more like he's launching a javelin than a football, many
marquee college programs shunned him. Alabama and Auburn offered
him a look at quarterback but suggested he might make a better
safety or tight end. "Recruiting is in the eye of the beholder,"
says assistant Joe Pate, who courted Rivers for the Wolfpack. "I
concentrated more on the results of his throws, and I realized he
was the best quarterback that I'd ever recruited."
On Jan. 8, only two days after Chuck Amato had replaced the fired
Mike O'Cain as the North Carolina State coach, Rivers became the
first prospect Amato visited. The Wolfpack's 1999 starting
quarterback had been senior Jamie Barnette, and Rivers was
enticed by the possibility of starting as a freshman. Already
possessing enough credits to graduate from high school, Rivers
signed with the Wolfpack a week later, loaded his car and made
the 414-mile drive to Raleigh. The kid voted Mr. Athens High
School gave up his spot on the basketball team and a chance to
take his high school sweetheart, Tiffany Goodwin, to the senior
Then, on just his ninth day in Raleigh, a freak blizzard dropped
20 inches of snow on campus. "Those first two weeks I felt really
homesick," Rivers says. "I kept wondering, What am I doing here?
But by the time the snow melted, I was ready to compete for the
starting quarterback job."
Still, Chow, who has coached the likes of Steve Young, Jim
McMahon and Ty Detmer, was concerned enough about Rivers's
delivery that he made a special trip to Seattle to visit an old
friend, Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, to show him videotape of
his new passer. Holmgren screened the tape and asked, "Does he
throw strong and accurately? If so, leave him alone."
The Wolfpack's receivers were also skeptical of Rivers. "At first
we thought, This is just another freshman with some hype, and
there's no way he's going to start," Robinson says. "Then we
caught his throws and changed our minds."
Also, any doubts about Rivers's toughness were erased during a
scrimmage in spring practice, when he threw 22 passes after
breaking the index finger on his throwing hand. Surgery on the
finger forced Rivers to sit out the spring game, but Amato had
chosen his starting quarterback. "In my wildest dreams I never
thought he'd be so good this quickly," Amato says. "He's 18 going
After passing for 300 yards in a game only once at Athens High
and never throwing more than 24 times in a single outing, Rivers
is averaging 42 attempts and 320 yards per game. He ranks third
in the nation in total offense and his 13 touchdown passes have
already matched the ACC rookie record. "Being so young has given
me more motivation," says Rivers, who has been intercepted only
four times. "I don't ever want to lose a game and hear people
say, 'He's only 18, what do you expect?'"
The strength of the 6'5", 221-pound Rivers is another asset.
Before he hit Robinson streaking across the middle for the
game-tying touchdown against Georgia Tech, Rivers first had to
break free from the bear hug of 287-pound tackle Bryan Corhen.
"That play tore my guts out because we had him sacked," Yellow
Jackets defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "We threw a bunch of
blitzes at Rivers, and you expect a freshman to get rattled, but
he stayed courageous in the pocket [even while being sacked seven
times and intercepted twice]."
Rivers has kindled an excitement for football in Raleigh rarely
seen since the overachieving 1967 Wolfpack and its celebrated
White Shoes defense, led by a linebacker named Chuck Amato,
climbed as high as No. 3 in the polls. Despite having a roster
with only seven senior lettermen, Amato is the first Wolfpack
coach to debut 4-0 since 1917, and nobody is more shocked by that
accomplishment than he is. "If you told me this summer that we'd
be either 4-0 or 0-4, I'd have bet the ranch on 0-4," he says.
Amato credits much of Rivers's precocity to his being a coach's
son, but the Rivers family influence hasn't stopped there. Last
summer Steve and Joan moved, with their two younger children,
Stephen, 7, and Anna, 2, to Raleigh after Steve accepted the
coaching job at Wakefield High. Philip, who lives in a dorm,
tries to come home one night a week, and the Riverses eat dinner
in front of the television, often dissecting a tape of N.C.
State's most recent heroics. Philip occasionally even finds
himself drawn back to one of his father's practices. Steve says
that he and Joan decided to make the move because they hated the
idea of not supporting their son in person and because Philip
still wants to hear his father's postgame comments firsthand.
An hour after the Georgia Tech game father and son were standing
inside the N.C. State field house, gazing over the end zone where
the winning touchdown had been scored and chatting about how
three great finishes add up to one great start.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER BULL'S-EYE Rivers leads the nation in scoring passes after tossing three in an overtime win over Georgia Tech.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT BROWN RESILIENT The Jackets kept Rivers on his heels in the first half but couldn't stop him from hooking up with Robinson in overtime.
"IN MY WILDEST DREAMS I NEVER THOUGHT HE'D BE SO GOOD THIS
QUICKLY," SAYS CHUCK AMATO. "HE'S 18 GOING ON 28."