Rivera embraces role as pioneer

As a player and a coach, Ron Rivera has been a pioneer.

Drafted in 1984 by the Chicago Bears, Rivera became the first person of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent to play in the NFL. When he was hired as coach of the Carolina Panthers in 2011, Rivera became only the third Latino to become a head coach in the NFL.

As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, Rivera discussed being a pioneer with ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas:

Q: When you were coming into the NFL, were you aware you were making history?

A: I honestly wasn't aware of it until I got drafted and people started asking me to come talk to different Hispanic groups and I was like, "Hey, that's great." But it wasn't something I gave a lot of thought to. I guess that all goes back to my father (a native Puerto Rican, who was in the United States Army) and the military environment. You don't see color and you don't see race. The only thing you see is rank.

Q: Tell us a little about your parents?

A: My mother's family migrated from Mexico to Colorado and then to the Salinas Valley of California. My father was based there, they met at a USO event and the rest is history.

Q: How did you get interested in football?

A: We moved around a lot in the military, so it wasn't like if I had grown up in Puerto Rico and been exposed only to soccer, baseball and volleyball, or Mexico, where the main sports are soccer and baseball. Football was around as much as anything else. I also had a couple of uncles on my mother's side that played against Joe Kapp in high school in the Salinas Valley and I guess you could say they were my early role models in football.

Q: How involved was your family in the Hispanic culture and traditions?

A: Well, both sides of the family were Catholic, very Catholic. But, even there, there were some differences. On the Mexican side, it was just Christmas Day. On the Puerto Rican side, it was the Three Kings, so you got presents for 12 days. The food is also a great part of the culture and something that I really enjoy.

The Puerto Rican side was focused more on fish, chicken, rabbit and rice, while the Mexican side was more beef and tortillas, but my mother mastered both Mexican and Puerto Rican foods. My wife (Stephanie) is Filipino, but she's mastered it, too. My mother gave her a recipe book with all the favorite family recipes as a wedding gift when we got married in 1984.

Q: You said when you were first drafted, you were approached to talk to Hispanic groups. Was that something you found yourself embracing?

A: Absolutely. I was like, "Hey, I have a great opportunity to be a role model." I've talked to lots of groups through the years. At one point, when I was in Chicago, I worked with the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund and that was a truly great experience.

Q: Have you seen the popularity of football grow among the Hispanic community?

A: The NFL has done a great job of promoting the popularity of the game. There now are youth leagues in Puerto Rico and Mexico. You're starting to see more and more young men with Hispanic surnames come into the NFL and that's a wonderful thing.

Q: I know you're a humble man, but is there a part of you that sees that and thinks that you might have been responsible for opening some doors?

A: I'd like to think so. I've had some Hispanic kids come up and say I was their role model and that's very gratifying. He wasn't a football player, but my idol growing up was Roberto Clemente. The man died trying to help out earthquake victims in Nicaragua and that left a huge impression on me. I've always felt it's very important to try to give back to the community.