OPINION: Chargers' quarterback Rivers has Tupelo connection

TUPELO – Tupelo’s Mike Gunner has been a fan of the New Orleans Saints since their playing days at Tulane Stadium.
He’s suffered through the end-over-end passes of Billy Kilmer, winced as Archie Manning scrambled for his life and has marveled at the on-target spirals of Drew Brees. So it goes without saying he’d love to see the Saints in the Super Bowl this season … just not against the San Diego Chargers.
If the Saints wake up from their season-ending slumber to win the NFC and the Chargers capture the AFC crown, Gunner will cheer for the West Coast team in Super Bowl XLIV (that’s 44) in Miami.
He has to.
Why? Well, blood is thicker than water … and Gunner blood flows through the veins of San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers. He’s Mike Gunner’s great nephew.
“If it’s the Saints and Chargers, I’m a Charger,” Gunner said, then laughed.
Rivers, one of San Diego’s superstars, leads his team against the New York Jets on Sunday in what constitutes the quarterfinals of the NFL playoffs.
Gunner, his wife Martha, and his sister, Charlotte, will be glued to the TV and cheering for Rivers, the grandson of Mike’s brother, Robert, a 1945 Tupelo High graduate and his wife Joanne. Their daughter, Joan, is Philip’s mom.
“We’re really proud of Philip,” Gunner said. “He’s a fine young man. He’s a student of the game. His father (Steve Rivers) is a coach and Philip grew up going to practices, listening to and watching his dad.”
Rivers played his high school ball in Decatur, Ala., and Athens, Ala., before signing with North Carolina State, where he played in five bowl games – which included a Senior Bowl – and was the MVP in every one. He exited college having passed for 13,484 yards and 95 TDs.
In the 2004 NFL Draft, he was taken in the first round by the New York Giants but traded immediately in a deal to the Chargers for Eli Manning. Rivers is the reason San Diego eventually shipped Brees to the Saints.
“They’re friends; they still call one another and talk,” Gunner said.
The Chargers haven’t regretted that move. Rivers has passed for 14,951 yards, 106 TDs and has a career quarterback rating of 95.8, second-best all-time in the league behind Steve Young. His QB winning percentage is .719, which ranked second to Tom Brady at .764.
Gunner last saw Rivers in June at a family reunion in Nashville. “We had a picture shot. There where 228 of us, and Philip was on the back row.”
Rivers and his wife, Tiffany, have four children – three daughters and a 2-year-old son named “Gunner” – and are expecting a girl next month.
Gunner attended a Chargers game against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville a few years ago and sat in a luxury box, provided by Philip, with other relatives.
He enjoyed it, but he prefers cheering for Philip from his favorite seat – the one he watches all the Chargers’ games from – “The one right there in my den.”
Contact Gene Phelps at 678-1593 or gene.phelps@djournal.com

Gene Phelps