ATHENS, Ala. (WISH) — A 20-minute drive to the south from the Tennessee-Alabama border leads to the heart of this magic trick.
The year 1999 was a tricky time to be a top quarterback prospect inside the state that holds football second only to religion. This is thanks to, in part, a quarter-century of being captivated by legendary Alabama Coach Bear Bryant and his archrival three hours to the west.
Who knows if Byrant and his houndstooth fedora would have picked this quarterback either. After all, he was different.
The throwing motion is a story within itself, but we’ll get to that later.
At the core, this kid checks out. He was the son of a highly respected high school ball coach. He was a two-way talent, with a knack for snagging an interception in the secondary, leading the state of Alabama in interceptions for an entire season.
Of course, this would be only minutes after hitting a pass-catcher inside a tight window downfield for a touchdown strike. Soon, the street leading into Athens High School would carry his legacy: Philip Rivers Drive.
“He (Rivers) means a great deal to our town,” former Golden Eagles Head Football Coach Allen Creasy said earlier this week. “He has been on a football field every day since he was 5 years old.”
Back in 1999, Creasy was following Golden Eagles Head Coach Steve Rivers’ lead. Steve’s son, Philip, was racking up local prep headlines and drawing Tommy Tuberville, then Auburn University’s head coach , among other big names in the college game into the home press box.
On the sidelines? This was a foreshadowing of two decades of similar scenes.
“He was fiery, he was emotional, and he was demanding” of teammates, Creasy said. “But, from Little League Baseball all the way until today, I never have seen a team that didn’t get better because he was on it. When he was playing Little League ball as a catcher, they were the best club. When he was quarterbacking (at Athens), we had one of the best teams in Alabama.”
Any avenue leading to a team being “the best” starts and ends with dedication in the eyes of Rivers. One Friday night, during Rivers’ senior season at Athens, depicts this notion perfectly.
Amid the 1999 season that ended with a Golden Eagles quarterfinals appearance in the Alabama High School State Playoffs, Auburn’s Tuberville made the trek 200 miles north to Athens.
Cozied up with the locals in the home press box, Tuberville was ready to watch the Athens gunslinger. Some report Tubberville already knew that fellow star senior Jason Campbell, out of Taylorsville High in Mississippi, was his future Tigers quarterback.
Others will tell you, Tuberville wanted Rivers — and bad. Either way, knowing one of the two most influential people in the state was watching that night, Rivers made sure Athens put on a show.
Once the game kicked off, the strategy called for one thing and only thing only: running the freaking football.
“He came over after an early series and said, ‘We need to keep running it! We are killing them with it,’” Creasy said.
When the game was over, Athens celebrated a blowout victory. Rivers had only thrown five passes.
“Shows you right there, no matter who is watching, all Philip cares about is winning,” Creasy said.
After admitting much of his career relied on the internal drive that arrives as a kid, the 38-year-old smiled ear to ear, handing credit to two others who played a key role.
“You know, my dad, I was around him every day,” Rivers said. “But, being around Coach Creasy, watching those guys coach together, it kind of helped trigger some of that early passion for the game.”
Auburn did end up sending a scholarship Rivers way. Technically, the door to an eventual starting quarterback spot was open. Still, the indication, according to some, was Rivers likely wouldn’t beat out Campbell.
If he wanted to be a Tiger, Rivers might need to move to tight end.
Meanwhile, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the Crimson Tide were en route to an SEC West Championship during the fall of 1999.
Armed with a pair of sophomores, Andrew Zow and Tyler Watts, running a two-quarterback system, Head Coach Mike DuBose wasn’t interested in the 2000 high school class.
Instead, a prized junior prospect, who had a father with his own legacy with the Crimson Tide, was inbound to Alabama: Brodie Croyle. Croyle’s injury-plagued collegiate career found promise his senior year, leading Alabama to a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas Tech.
He left Alabama with the program’s single-season mark for passing yards.
Later, Croyle’s NFL career fizzled due to another rash of injuries, officially retiring from the pros in 2012. Back in Athens, the phone kept ringing for Rivers. One area code was popping up over and over: 984, which is in Raleigh, North Carolina.
This is where NC State’s Joe Pate comes in. Pate led the Wolfpack’s recruiting efforts of Rivers, and ironically his wife had attended Athens High School.
Once during an early visit to the high school, Pate and Steve Rivers were chatting in the field house ahead of a Golden Eagles practice.
Coach Rivers asked Pate if he had a moment to watch some old film of his team from over a decade back.
“Sure?” Pate said.
The overhead projector fires on.
Rivers “shows me this old highlight of an Athens running back breaking through the line of scrimmage for a 70-yard touchdown run,” Pate recalled. “Then he rewinds the tape, hits for ‘play’ again, and says, ‘Now keep an eye on the sideline. You see that little boy sprinting, nearly step for step, alongside our speedy running back? You see him feverishly waving that white towel over his head as he runs? Coach, that is Philip.’”
He was 7 years old at the time. Pate is adamant he never promised Rivers the starting quarterback spot as a freshman during the recruiting process. Although, in the back of his mind, he knew the Wolfpack wouldn’t have a solidified No. 1 when he arrived on campus for his freshman season.
During the previous spring, a visit to an Athens practice showed Pate all he needed to see. At that time of the year, college staffs were not permitted to speak directly with their recruits. After an invite from Coach Rivers to stand on the practice field, right behind the huddle, Pate stopped talking and just listened.
Play after play, one voice rang with the tone of the ACC’s future all-time leading passer.
“I would hear Philip say, ‘Now this play is going to work, if everyone just does what you are supposed to do, it will work,’” said Pate.
Eventually leaving Athens with all the game film he needed, Pate noticed another critical puzzle piece. That odd, three-quarter motion delivery? It is going to play just fine, moving forward.
“Not one pass I saw him throw during a high school game got batted down at the line of scrimmage and looking back at NC State, it never was a problem either,” Pate said.
Had Rivers been only 5-feet-10, he may have had to call a significant audible. Soon, Wolfpack Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow would consult with then Seattle Seahawks Head Coach Mike Holmgren about Rivers motion.
Ultimately, Chow received the quarterback guru’s blessing: Don’t change a thing. Philip was ready to charge ahead — as Philip. Rivers signed with NC State and immediately found his form in Raleigh. Mission complete for Coach Pate.
It is important to note that the runner-up in the race for Rivers turned out to be the Ole Miss Rebels, not Auburn, according to Pate.
Rebels Head Coach David Cutcliffe was prepared to potentially bring two freshman quarterbacks to Oxford, Miss., in 2000. The other was Eli Manning.
“I wonder how things would have played out had Philip and Eli both arrived together at Ole Miss?” Pate said.
Coach Pate still laughs about that one. Instead, we watched the pair trade jerseys to open the 2004 NFL Draft.
Top overall pick Manning bolted from the Chargers for the Giants in exchange for the No. 4 selection — Rivers sporting his dad’s old No. 17 and headed for San Diego.
A couple years earlier, Pate had returned to Athens to scoop up a promising offensive tackle, James Newby.
Newby, who happened to live three houses down the road from the Rivers, stuck with the Wolfpack despite an offer from Alabama and his farming family’s allegiance to the Crimson Tide.
Looking back to their high school days, Newby pointed out Rivers would sometimes disappear on the Athens sidelines when the offense wasn’t on the field. Where did he go? He is with the defense. Playing safety.
“He was ferocious,” Newby recalled. “He just knew how to read the play, anticipate where the ball was going. I don’t think a lot of people know about that story.”
His defensive days are done, but down in Alabama, some legends live on forever. Everyone we spoke with closed their interview with virtually the same line: Philip deserves a grand finale and, with the Colts, he can pull it off.
“I’ll see you at the Super Bowl,” Creasy said.
With this great of a tale already on paper? Why not?