CHARLOTTE - About the only hills in Chicago can be found on the homefields of the Cubs and White Sox, yet Ron Rivera still managed to have a mountaintop experience there.
Rivera, the Panthers first-year head coach, ended his playing days and began his coaching days in Chicago. He lived there for nearly two decades; his wife gave birth to their daughter there.
And early in his time there, Rivera played on a Bears team considered one of the greatest ever, a team that lost just one game and steamrolled its way to victory in Super Bowl XX.
Rivera often talks to his current players about climbing the mountain and about what awaits at the top.
Sunday, Rivera and the Panthers will visit the place where he reached the summit 25 year ago.
"Every game is big, but this has a little personal meaning for me because it's Chicago," Rivera said. "It's a great city with a great organization. Now I'm here in Charlotte - a great organization and a great city - so it will be fun."
Rivera's relationship with Chicago began in 1984, when the Bears selected him in the second round of the NFL Draft out of the University of California. He spent all nine of the his seasons playing linebacker there, then he began his life after football there – first as a football analyst on WGN-TV, then as a defensive quality control coach for the Bears.
He left in 1999 for a five-year stint as linebackers coach for the Philadelphia Eagles but returned in 2004 to serve as Bears defensive coordinator for three seasons before moving to San Diego and now Carolina.
"Through my playing career and coaching career, I guess all told it was 17 or 18 years I lived there," said Rivera, 49. "When you're there for a long time and your kids basically grew up there, there's a lot to it.
"It's exciting, and I'm not going to shy away from that. It will be the same when I get an opportunity to go back west, to play in San Diego and to play in the Bay area where I'm from."
Rivera won't be the only Panther who will travel back in his mind to his time in Chicago over the weekend. Tight end Greg Olsen was traded to the Panthers in the preseason after playing his first four seasons with the Bears; linebacker Jason Williams is a Chicago native; and defensive line coach Eric Washington coached the Bears line from 2008-10.
Washington worked with defensive end Julius Peppers in 2010, Peppers' first season with the Bears following eight with the Panthers.
"I still consider all of those guys good friends and great former teammates," Peppers said. "This is really just like another game to me, a game that we need to win."
Rivera won a lot of games in Chicago. In his last season as a coach there, the Bears reached Super Bowl XLI. In his second season as a player there, the Bears won Super Bowl XX – with the team of "Super Bowl Shuffle" fame.
"I knew it was something special, a special group of guys that came together and did what we did. But you didn't quite realize how big it was going to be or what type of impact it had," Rivera said. "It really kind of splashed onto the scene because there were so many great personalities on that team, starting with the head coach (Mike Ditka) and Buddy Ryan as the (defensive) coordinator, on down through Walter (Payton) and Jim McMahon and all the other guys.
"I've heard people say it was the first rock 'n' roll Super Bowl team."
It was a brash bunch, though Rivera was more proud than loud.
"I was in the background and I enjoyed it. It was neat," he said. "I was a second-year player, and it was my opportunity to be a backup and contribute on special teams and play here and there. It was a great situation."
Now Rivera is in another great situation, finally living out his long-held dream of being a head coach. He loves the Bears and the city of Chicago, but his heart is now with the Panthers and the city of Charlotte.
That's why when the '85 Bears make their White House visit next Friday - a trip postponed when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded two days after Super Bowl XX – Rivera will be in his office at Bank of America Stadium rather than in the Oval Office.
"Unless they send Air Force One to pick me up," Rivera said. "I'm throwing it out there just in case."