SAN DIEGO – Philip and Tiffany Rivers drove south along the Pacific coast a few years ago, towing a vehicle full of children back to San Diego after a day at Disneyland in Anaheim.
A realization crystalized sometime during that drive for the NFL quarterback and his high school sweetheart-turned-wife. It was then they felt a spiritual calling to help kids without permanent homes.
The Rivers of Hope Foundation, a result of that vision, has raised more than $650,000 in two years. A big portion of its mission involves raising awareness for abandoned or orphaned children.
It’s also a large reason why Rivers is one of three finalists for the prestigious Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award.
“It’s humbling,” Rivers said. “I think San Diego can be proud because particularly with this foundation, it’s really a community effort.
“When we first got started, it really wasn’t about us re-inventing the wheel. We’ve partnered with a lot of groups that had been tackling this way before we had.”
The backbone of Rivers’ foundation involves a 5K run and a football camp, which raise awareness and funds, but also allows the Pro Bowler to directly impact a few hundred kids.
Rivers of Hope also includes several programs aimed at explaining the plight of some of San Diego’s children whom, as Rivers said, endure difficult, life-changing circumstances through no fault of their own. Trying to match those kids with loving, permanent parents who will nurture and provide for them emotionally and otherwise is something Rivers takes serious.
“It took until Year 7 (of my career) because I really wanted to find that focus that I was passionate about,” Rivers said. “I think that’s why it’s been successful the first two years.
“(And) I really see (my celebrity) as a responsibility. I hear that debated a bunch. Are players role models? I really think so.”
The quarterback also has a penchant for last-minute trips. He drove to Phoenix and back last offseason to speak at a men’s Catholic conference after his flight didn’t work as planned.
Earlier this month, he drove to Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA in Los Angeles with less than 24 hours’ notice to grant a rush request from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. A terminally ill seven-year-old boy named Jaime wanted to meet Rivers.
“That’s what he wants before he’s not going to be here anymore. You don’t turn that one down,” Rivers said. “Here’s a little seven-year-old in the hospital. He’s hooked up to every machine known to man and he was happy.
“In a selfish way, it’s really impactful to me as a person. You think it’s tough losing six in a row, fumbling a snap. That ain’t nothing. Those kinds of moments can be powerful.”
Rivers recalled the story of two young girls, six and eight years old. They’d bounced between foster homes and the ritual had conditioned them. Seeing a social worker approach their house, the younger girl told her sister, “Pack your bags. We’re going again.”
But the family in that house adopted the sisters.
“Hearing a six-year-old (say that), at that little, they’re aware and they’re affected greatly,” Rivers said. “This cause is more about awareness (than money). The more recognition it gets, the more awareness it creates for the kids.”
Baltimore’s Matt Birk and Chicago’s Charles Tillman are the two other finalists for the award. The winner will be announced Saturday on NBC during an awards special to air from 6-8 p.m. PST.