CHARLOTTE – On Nov. 16, 1987, head coach Ron Rivera, then a linebacker for the Chicago Bears, played a Monday night game at Mile High Stadium against the Denver Broncos.
It may have been a 31-29 loss for Rivera's Bears ("Had a chance to win," Rivera said. "Should've won."), but he came away with a special token for a California alumnus: an interception against Broncos legend John Elway, the linebacker's second of his career.
"It's one of those things where, when you go back and think about it, it was the beginning of my career," Rivera said. "I think it was my fourth or fifth year, and competing against John, first of all, was always a big thrill because he's such a dynamic player; he's a Hall-of-Famer and there's a lot of history between Cal and Stanford – a lot of history between he and I. We had played against each other. It was a big thrill, it really was."
Though that stadium may have been replaced by the Broncos' new home at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Rivera's experience as a player in that environment – specifically the elevation – is helpful entering Week 1 of the 2016 season.
When the Panthers board their plane for Denver on Wednesday, they will be approximately 735 feet above sea level. Thursday's game will be played 5,280 feet above sea level – a mile, as one might guess from the city's nickname. That difference of four-and-a-half thousand feet is no laughing matter, and can certainly have an effect on players.
But Rivera expects it to be a non-issue.
"It's really all about conditioning," Rivera said. "That was probably the biggest thing, making sure our conditioning was where it needed to be. You've got to hydrate, make sure we're eating properly and get our rest. What I really don't want to do is make the issue out of it that a lot of people do. I played in it, and we won up there when I played back in the day. I've coached there and won."
From 2007-10, Rivera coached for the AFC West rival San Diego Chargers and made a yearly trek into the Rockies to face the Broncos. His San Diego defenses went 3-1 in Denver, twice holding the Broncos to a single field goal.
Rivera downplayed the altitude issue, but he admitted it will play a role in special teams strategy. Rivera has collaborated with special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey, who coincidentally worked with the Broncos from 2005-06 as the assistant special teams coordinator, to formulate a plan for kickoffs and punts.
"There's a lot of things playing into it as far as strategy goes," Rivera said. "We'll hopefully be able to do some things that we're hoping for, planning to do."
Ultimately, Rivera knows the outcome dictates the discussion about the conditions in Denver.
"It's funny, when you lose it's a bigger issue," he said, "so we've got to go out there and make sure our conditioning pays off."
View photos from the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their game at Denver.