CHARLOTTE – Bank of America Stadium served as a perfect forum Sunday for fans to stand and cheer for their heroes.
As is typical, Carolina Panthers fans showed their support for their favorite NFL team. But last Sunday also offered a unique opportunity for both Panthers fans and the Panthers themselves to salute their heroes in the military.
"It's good for our guys to understand that, for them to realize and recognize that there's somebody else out there doing their jobs so that we can do ours," head coach Ron Rivera said. "On a personal note – you guys know my history as far as that's concerned – I think it's really important."
It is personal for Rivera, who grew up on military bases around the world as his father, Eugenio, served in the United States Army. The Salute To Service hat that Rivera wore in Sunday's victory over the Green Bay Packers, featuring a pin representing his father's rank, along with his jacket has been sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame for inclusion in the NFL Experience exhibit at Super Bowl 50.
And Rivera, for the second consecutive year, has been chosen as the Panthers' nominee for the league-wide Salute to Service Award.
"I thought it was really cool, and I wanted to make sure I had a pin of the chief warrant officer rank to put on my hat so that when I gave it to them, it would be a way to honor my father," Rivera said. "I've always been proud of who my dad is, proud of the fact that he served his country."
Jason Aikens, collections curator for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, explained why Rivera's gameday gear was selected for the display.
"We feel the fact that his father was in the military and that he has become such a great success would make a great story for the exhibit," Aikens said.
Rivera said both his father and the military environment he grew up in influences him to this day.
"There were a lot of lessons about leadership I learned growing up in the military – about respect, the chain of command – things that you have to pay attention to as a leader," Rivera said. "It also helped me realize that you should give back – so I try to be involved with as many things as I can."
Because of how he's honored and supported the military community, Rivera is again up for the Salute to Service Award sponsored by the NFL and the USAA, the NFL's official military appreciation sponsor. Panthers defensive end Jared Allen won the award last year when he played for the Chicago Bears, and cornerback Charles Tillman won it in 2012 - also with the Bears.
Finalists from among the 32 nominees will be announced in January, and the winner will be recognized at the "5th Annual NFL Honors" awards show in San Francisco on CBS on Saturday, Feb. 6, the night before Super Bowl 50.
Rivera has embraced the large military contingent in the Carolinas. He makes annual visits to the region's military bases, including Ft. Bragg and Camp Lejeune, to spend time with troops, wounded warriors and Special Operations Forces, but his personal engagement with Armed Forces members is a particular passion. Rivera regularly hosts service members at training camp, practice and on Panthers game days. However, it is the personal, often out of the limelight moments that Rivera cherishes - assembling gift bags on his own for a group of visiting Navy SEALs or staying in touch with a phone call or note to troops he has met.
Rivera and his wife, Stephanie, serve as USO of North Carolina ambassadors, donating both their time and financial resources to support USO events and active duty troops.
View photos and read about the 46 fallen heroes being honored by the Panthers.