The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the Commanders’ locker room, sadness, relief and reflection

Commanders Coach Ron Rivera stands on the sideline during Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
5 min

In the Washington Commanders’ locker room Sunday, Coach Ron Rivera asked everyone but the players and coaches to leave. The Dallas Cowboys had just blown out the Commanders, 38-10, and everyone seemed to believe this was it. End of an era. Rivera was about to address his team for probably the last time.

In the summer of 2020, he recalled to his team, he was diagnosed with skin cancer. It was in a lymph node in his neck. He wanted a treatment called proton therapy, a more targeted form of radiation therapy. There was no proton therapy facility in North Carolina, where he had spent the past nine years of his life coaching the Carolina Panthers. But there was one just a short drive from the headquarters of his new team.

The treatment was grueling. He did three cycles of chemotherapy and 35 proton therapy sessions. Ever since, he has been cancer-free. Sunday was his birthday; he turned 62. His point, four players said, was this: Everything happens for a reason.

“He’s an incredible human being,” punter Tress Way said.

“He said we helped him. [He said] we were the reason he got through that, which meant a lot,” right guard Sam Cosmi said.

“To see how he overcame [cancer] and how he was still there for us — that’s much respect,” running back Antonio Gibson said. “That’s something you can’t forget about.”

Svrluga: Sam Howell showed what he isn’t: The QB of the future

On Sunday night, the Commanders’ locker room was mostly sad. There was some relief — no more losing, the streak stopped mercifully at eight games with the season’s end — but that was overshadowed by mourning for a room that would never be the same. Defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis tapped on his phone, and out of a portable red speaker came the somber a cappella of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” by Boyz II Men.

How do I say goodbye to what we had? / The good times that made us laugh / outweigh the bad.

“Really, bro?” offensive tackle Trent Scott called across the room.

All around, players hugged and shook hands. Run game coordinator Juan Castillo sat in front of an empty stall, talking with his offensive linemen. Linebacker Cody Barton, still in his white jersey, leaned against a folding table, seemingly reflective.

“It just gets very heavy,” Way said. “It makes your stomach uneasy. You just don’t know what’s going to happen to anybody. But that’s just the reality of playing … in this league.”

A ring of cameras formed around tight end Logan Thomas. Behind him, his 7-year-old son sat patiently, pulling on his dad’s huge, yellow gloves. After the reporters dispersed, Thomas turned to his son and slipped his shoulder pads over his head. This was the team Thomas had grown up rooting for, the one that had taken a chance on him as a converted quarterback in 2020, and now his contract was up. He didn’t know if he would be back. He took out his phone and snapped a picture of his son.

Marty Hurney, the executive vice president of football for player personnel, flitted in and out, wearing his signature backpack. General Manager Martin Mayhew, red tie loosened around his neck, chatted with his son. Rivera, Thomas and wide receiver Terry McLaurin cycled through a far corner of the room for interviews on the team’s postgame radio show. Players filtered out in crisp Jordans and expensive loafers.

There went McLaurin and defensive tackle Daron Payne, two foundations of the next era. There went backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett and defensive end James Smith-Williams, who would soon be free agents. There went receiver Jahan Dotson and running back Brian Robinson Jr. and cornerback Kendall Fuller.

The Commanders lost to the Cowboys. Let the offseason changes begin.

After about a half-hour, only a few players remained in the locker room. One of them was cornerback Jace Whittaker, a practice squad lifer who had, in the game, recovered a blocked field goal and sprinted 51 yards. Another was quarterback Sam Howell. He emerged in a gray sweatsuit, his hood up, and walked down the hall to the news conference room.

“It was a tough year,” he told reporters. He walked back to the locker room, did a radio hit and then grabbed his stuff. He was the last player out, at 8:06 p.m., and all that was left in the room was gear and bits of grass and half-full water bottles. Locker room attendants zipped around, loading up burgundy-and-gold gear bags. Someone removed the silver canisters that read “Chix broth” and “apple cider.”

Across the room, on one burgundy wall, was a phrase written in gold: “EVERYTHING WE NEED IS IN THIS ROOM.” It was Rivera’s refrain during the 2021 season, when the coach summoned the spirit of David vs. Goliath and started throwing a stone at the wall after every win. The Commanders’ playoff push had fallen short; the message had endured.

Not too long from now, the phrase will probably be painted over or peeled away. Someone new will have some new phrase. But Sunday night, when a disappointing era came to a solemn end and Rivera spoke to his players about what they had meant to him in a difficult time, the words still rang true.