• Phil Houk

Philip Rivers: Early Coming Out Party was at Irish Expense

Updated: Jan 25

By: Phil Houk of Fighting Irish Preview

So, Philip Rivers rides off into his NFL sunset, an outstanding 17-year NFL career concluded. Having fulfilled one of two of his stated childhood dreams he will now check the box on dream number two by following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a high school football coach in Alabama.

Most fans’ knowledge of Rivers started in the fall of 2004 when he landed in San Diego after being chosen in the first round of the NFL draft. But Notre Dame fans got to know Rivers a little over a year earlier in the Gator Bowl played on January 1, 2003.

2002 was Ty Willingham’s first season in South Bend, coming on the heels of the Bob Davie era. Things started off well for the Irish that year with a 22-0 whitewash of #21 Maryland in the opener. Interestingly ND failed to score an offensive touchdown on the day. Their points consisted of 5 Nick Setta field goals and a 76-yard punt return by Vontez Duff. In fact, ND did not score an offensive touchdown until game three, and generating offense was a season long problem.

The 2002 Irish won a lot of games though. Led by a strong and opportunistic defense, they reeled off 8 straight wins to start the season and reached number 4 in the polls, their highest ranking since 1994. By mid-season the 2002 season had been dubbed the ‘return to glory” season in South Bend.

The Irish however stumbled in their ninth game, at the hands of old nemesis Boston College, 14-7. The Irish recovered to win their next two, but then lost a shot at a BCS Bowl game when USC, spearheaded by Carson Palmer’s 4 TD passes, blew the Irish out in the season finale, 44-13.

So, the 10-2 Irish headed to the Gator Bowl. Their opponent, the 10-3, NC State Wolfpack.

The Wolfpack was led by Head Coach Chuck Amato who had cut his coaching teeth in the early 70’s as an assistant under Lou Holtz. Playing QB at NC State was a junior class phenom by the name of Philip Rivers. Rivers hailed from Decatur, Alabama, and was the son of a High School football coach.

Overall Rivers had a great 4 years at NC state, he compiled a 34-16 overall record and during that time threw for over 13,000 yards and tossed 95 touchdown passes. Rivers also took the Wolfpack to a bowl game in each of his 4 seasons, going 3-1.

But in the run up to the 2002 Gator Bowl, Rivers who had operated mostly under the national spotlight at that point, was not well known. Despite some sparkling numbers, surely, he would be no match for what had been a very good Irish defense. Shane Walton a unanimous all-American that year had totaled 7 interceptions, also receiving all-American recognition were linebacker Courtney Watson and cornerback Vontez Duff. For the season the Irish had been the 9th ranked scoring defense in the nation, and they forced a lot of turnovers.

The Jacksonville, Florida game started off slow with the Irish taking a a 3-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. But Rivers got the NC State offense rolling in the 2nd, with three touchdown drives in route to a 21-3 halftime lead. Rivers was a sparkling 13-15 for 134 yards in the first half and finished the day 23-37 for 228 yards and 2 TDs.

Never known for his mobility, he even led the Wolfpack in rushing that day on 7 carries for 22 yards. The Irish defense managed to hold Rivers and the Wolfpack scoreless in the 3rd quarter, but Rivers broke through again with 10 minutes remaining to ice a 28-6 victory.

Rivers was named the game MVP.

What had started out as a very promising season for the Irish ended with losses in 3 of their last 5 games, including one Philip Rivers engineered beat down.

The next year the Irish went 5-7, followed by 6-6 in 2004, and the Tyrone Willingham era ended.

Philip Rivers however was just getting started, building off the momentum of his performance that had taken out the Irish, the next season he led another successful campaign at NC State. On the year the Wolfpack went 8-5, won the Tangerine Bowl and Rivers threw for 4,491 yards, 34 TDs and just 7 interceptions.

The following April he was the 4th overall pick in the NFL draft.

Now, 16 seasons in San Diego, one in Indianapolis and 63,440 yards and 421 touchdown passes later, he should be a lock for the NFL Hall of Fame.

And there is more to admire about Rivers than his on-field accomplishments. He is well known for being a man of simple tastes, a father of eight, married to his high School sweetheart, lots of charitable work and for being a devout Catholic. On game days he is known for his own brand of clever ‘family friendly’ trash talk.

It would seem that by all accounts, Philip Rivers is a first-class human being. But the first time he introduced himself to Notre Dame fans, their impression was not a particularly pleasant one!

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