With a win-loss record of 12-4, the Los Angeles Chargers are having their best season since 2008. Kellen Clemens, who served as Philip Rivers’ backup from 2014 through 2017, is happy for the team but not regretful that he is off the roster.
While the Burns, Oregon, native, has been spared many injuries that would likely have occurred, had he been a starter, 14 moves in eight states in 13 professional seasons are enough for him. He is now selling into Walla Walla, a small town in southeastern Washington whose redundant name brings to mind the “Catholic twins” Clemens and Rivers were.
Although Clemens and Rivers have different names, their lives did parallel each other quite well: Both were married Catholic NFL quarterbacks in their 30s whose biggest daily ambition off the field was to get home in time to have dinner with their families and tuck their kids into bed. Reaching this goal was made easier by their living in the same neighborhood, which facilitated carpooling.
Now the retired Clemens looks to the pool of teams in the NFL playoffs that start this weekend, which includes three he has played for: the Los Angeles (formerly San Diego) Chargers, Los Angeles (formerly St. Louis) Rams and Houston Texans.
You’re currently a free agent, so are you looking to play for a team in 2019?
I tried out for a couple teams last summer, and neither one wanted to sign me. Instead of being disappointed, I was actually relieved. I’ve been playing football a long time, and the moves have taken a toll on my family. We’ve moved about 14 times in 13 years, so the rejections by the two teams last summer confirmed for me that it is time to settle down in one place. That place for us is Walla Walla.
What are your plans as far as work?
I’ve gotten a lot of offers for high school, collegiate and professional coaching, but, because of the extensive travel often required in the collegiate and professional ranks, I’m far more likely to do something in high-school coaching, where travel is limited, not only in miles, but in months, since there’s almost no need to go far in the offseason. I don’t mind traveling here and there for a few speaking engagements during the year, so I’m looking into doing that through CatholicSpeakers.com, but flying every week doesn’t appeal to me.
Then there are business acquisitions I’m looking into, but at the moment I have not decided on anything that will be long term. I’m just enjoying getting back into small-town life, coaching my son’s AAU basketball team, reading books from Dynamic Catholic and helping to home school the kids.
Is there a good Catholic church in Walla Walla?
We have three dedicated, ambitious priests here who shepherd three “cluster” churches. The priests want to bring us closer to Christ through the sacraments, which are made available throughout the week. We also have an extension of the sacrament of Holy Communion in Eucharistic adoration outside of Mass.
There’s even a Latin Mass about an hour away from us that we should get to at some point. I went to one with Philip, and it was incredible — so quiet you could hear a pin drop. It was unlike anything I had encountered before, but I want to encounter it again and experience the difference between what they call a “low Mass” and a “high Mass.”
Three of your former teams — the Chargers, Texans and Rams — are in the playoffs this year. Do you think any of them have a realistic shot at winning the Super Bowl?
I haven’t been paying all that much attention to football this season, but of those three teams, I think the Chargers have the best shot. They have been great on offense all season — with the only exception of the recent loss to the Ravens — and I think they will do well in the playoffs. The Ravens and the Chargers are two of the hottest AFC teams right now, so I think whoever makes it out of their wild-card game will make a run. That team will most likely face the Saints or Bears in the Super Bowl, since they seem to be the best NFC teams.
Did you learn a lot from Philip Rivers in your four years with the Charges?
I learned a lot from Philip during our four years together. He is a consummate pro, and his preparation is second to none. Philip has played the game at such an incredible level for so long, and he was generous with his wealth of experiences and some of the subtleties he has mastered that go into playing the QB position at such a high level. He was an amazing teammate and friend.
Two of the best nontechnical things I learned for playing football — which can be applied to any other field — came from Chad Pennington when I played with him for the Jets. He had a heart as big as Texas, and he taught me a lot about football and life, but maybe the two best things were about identity and serenity.
The lesson related to identity was that football is something I do, not who I am. That’s huge, especially for young athletes today, because there is so much pressure to win. From a competitive business standpoint, people don’t tend to care about you as a person, but how you measure up to others. If an athlete gets caught up in it, he’ll judge himself solely on his athletic achievements, which is a dangerous thing to do. Even if he does reach all his goals, he’ll have to leave the game at some point, which would mean for him that his whole identity is being lost.
That leads to the lesson Chad taught me about serenity. Imagine a small circle representing those things in life you have control over and a second, larger circle surrounding the smaller one that represents your concerns. The task, then, in order to be serene and efficient, is to try to make your concern circle as small as your control circle. That way, you don’t worry about things you have no control over. Instead, you use all your time and energy on things that you can actually make decisions about and have an effect on.
Did Philip have an influence on you in relation to Catholicism specifically?
I had been a practicing Catholic for many years before joining the Chargers in 2014, but the way Philip lives out his faith took me to another level. I was his shadow for four seasons, which included many tough situations, yet he never wavered in being a Catholic man.
Even when people would come up to him and say he played a great game, they would sometimes add something about how it’s too bad he has so many kids. I don’t think they meant to be mean, but any parent would not be pleased at being told one or more of their kids were not wanted. Philip didn’t care, though. He knows who he is, so criticisms will not deter him from doing the right thing.
Philip is very competitive, so you might see him yelling on the field, but it’s not four-letter words he’s using. I never heard him utter a single curse word. That’s in contrast to what can happen in NFL locker rooms, which aren’t always the holiest of places. When Philip yells, he’s just showing his exuberance for the game — how he wants to do the best possible thing on every play.
Did you go to Mass together?
We did, and we prayed the Rosary on the way to work, as well. I lived near him in San Diego, so we would carpool early in the morning. It was around a 20-minute drive, which is just enough time to complete a set of mysteries.
The whole Rivers family is a phenomenal group of people. Philip’s wife, Tiffany, is so dedicated to her husband and children that my wife, Nicole, and I felt so blessed to be around them. We even asked them to be the godparents of our most recent child, who was born earlier this year.
In San Diego I was also part of a Catholic men’s group with Philip, Mike Sweeney and other guys, which was very helpful. There is strength in numbers, and it was encouraging to interact with other men who had the same priorities I had. They all wanted to be loving leaders of their families, guiding them on the path to heaven.
One of the takeaways from that group was reading at least one chapter of the Bible per day — not just rushing through it, but carefully reading it and meditating upon it, maybe studying what saints have said about it, looking at a map of the region it refers to, etc.
You played two seasons with Greg Zuerlein when the Rams were still in St. Louis. Were you able to do any Catholic things together?
I was with Greg in his rookie season and the following one. By the time I left the Rams, Greg had married Megan, but they didn’t have any kids, so she would help my wife look after our three kids at Mass. That image is in contrast to the Christmas card we recently got from the Zuerleins, which shows them with four kids — the total we have now, too. They’ve caught up to us, but still have a way to go to reach Philip and Tiffany.
The biggest thing for any Catholic athletes would hopefully be to use the platforms we were given to have a positive influence on others. The first interview we did apparently was an example that, since I was told about a mother who named her child “Kellen” because of what she read. I guess “Kellen” means “slender” and “Clemens” means “kind,” but I’m not sure I measure up to either of those adjectives.
Was there anything left in your career that you would like to have done that you didn’t get to do?
Early in my career my goal was to be a starter and lead a team, but when that didn’t happen and I got older, my role changed, and my main contribution was helping behind the scenes to make other players better. That was where I found a great deal of joy on game day — watching my teammates I had worked with have success. Even though I was rarely playing on Sunday, it was my way of still feeling like I was contributing to the team.
This year has been different, as I have watched from home, but because I have personal relationships with many of the guys still playing, it has been fun because I know how hard they have worked for their opportunity at the post season.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book, Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015), contains numerous
Catholic sports interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.