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Ron Rivera, '85 Bears inseparable even as Super Bowl looms

Ron Rivera is bringing his former Bears teammates with him to the Super Bowl in his travel bag.

The Panthers head coach packed his Super Bowl XX ring for his trip to Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday. He won’t wear it against the Broncos in the Super Bowl, but he wants it nearby nonetheless.

“It represents everything that you’ve gone through and the people that have played,” he told reporters last week. “It’s not necessarily about the ring. It’s about what it stands for.”

It stands for his 1985 Bears teammates.

When they gathered Tuesday to commemorate 30 years since their victory, the man they call “Chico” greeted them via Skype. His excused absence was the greatest in sports — he was getting his team ready for the game of their lives. Rivera and Broncos coach Gary Kubiak will be two of only seven men — including former Bears coach Mike Ditka — to both play and coach in a Super Bowl.

“That’s wonderful, what ‘Chico’ is doing,’” said William “Refrigerator” Perry, who lives in South Carolina. “I hope for the best, that they keep on doing it.”

Some knew Rivera would make a good coach during his playing career from 1984-92, all as a linebacker for the Bears.

Last week, he stressed to his players what Ditka told the 1985 Bears — to enjoy the moment and to continue doing what got them there. Since taking over the Panthers in 2011, he’s tried to emulate Ditka, but to a point. He’s less old-school; no team in football dances more than the Panthers.

“We partied off the field,” former Bears defensive tackle Steve McMichael said, “like this Carolina team is partying on the field.”

Yet the Panthers remind the 1985 Bears of themselves.

“That team looks a lot like we did back in the day,” former quarterback Jim McMahon said. “Very dominating on both sides of the ball.”

Former Bears linebacker Jim Morrissey said Rivera, one of his best friends, deserves the acclaim.

“He works so hard,” he said. “He’s got a great team — kinda similar to the ’85 team in a way.”

Asked how the Panthers reminded him of the 1985 Bears, Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary had a one-word answer: “talent.”

Morrissey once recommended Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who played alongside his son Mike, to Rivera before the 2012 draft. Kuechly has since become a three-time All-Pro, playing alongside veteran linebacker Thomas Davis, defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, and, perhaps the league’s best cornerback, Josh Norman.

“Kuechly on defense — great leadership over there, he and Davis,” Singletary said. “When you look on the offensive side of the ball, (quarterback) Cam Newton is really growing, and he’s still not where he’s going to be as a player. Tremendous talent.

“Ron is providing leadership. It’s something very special developing. I’m hoping he can finish.”

The Bears never had a quarterback like Newton. As with McMahon, some find Newton controversial, but McMahon was never the likely league MVP. Newton’s critiques this year are limited to end zone celebrations.

“He might not get back there, so why not enjoy it?” McMahon said. “He had a helluva season, and Ron’s doing a great job coaching over there.”

McMichael said that, if his old Bears teams had Newton, “you wouldn’t have heard of San Francisco or the Giants — We would have been the team of the ’80s.”

Instead, Newton led one of their own to the Super Bowl.

“I’m rooting for Ron,” former linebacker Otis Wilson said. “I hope they go all the way.”

McMichael hasn’t called Rivera — the same superstitious nature kept him from recording the “Super Bowl Shuffle” — but said he was “happy whenever that Bear tree succeeds.”

This season, it has.

“I hope they win,” McMichael said. “Peyton Manning — beat him down.”

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com