Gabe Rivera: Beacon in a Football Wasteland
Some three decades after he played his final football game in a Texas Tech uniform, Gabe Rivera is being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Under more propitious circumstances, Rivera would have received this signal honor 15 years ago.
Two primary factors delayed the induction of this gridiron titan. First is the dreadful curtailment of his NFL career, almost before it began.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, seeking to reestablish the Steel Curtain defense which dominated the NFL in the seventies, selected Rivera with the 16th pick of the first round in the 1983 draft. In doing so, they passed up hometown hero, and potential successor to Terry Bradshaw, Dan Marino.
Marino, of course, went on to an NFL Hall of Fame career, and is regarded as perhaps the best pure passer football has ever seen. Many a Steeler fan has doubtless lamented the decision to take Rivera over Marino, but were it not for a drunk driving accident that left Rivera paralyzed early in his rookie season, those laments might never have been heard.
And that is because Rivera could have been as good a defensive lineman as Marino was a quarterback. Steeler coaches certainly believed Rivera had stardom written all over him.
Rivera was simply an element of nature. He packed 295 pounds on a six-foot-two frame, and 290 of those pounds were shoulder and chest.
Rivera was powerful enough to bulldoze centers and guards, and quick enough to beat tackles with speed rushes and swim moves. He was also an effort player with tremendous speed.
One of Rivera's most incredible plays came against the Arkansas Razorbacks in 1982. Arkansas' fleet option quarterback Tom Jones cut back on a keeper and bolted over the left side of the Red Raider defensive line. Rivera broke off his pass rush on the right side of the line, ran down Jones on the Razorback sideline and slammed him to the turf.
No other collegiate lineman makes that play. Few in the NFL would have.
But Rivera's senseless accident nullified what would have been a marvelous professional career, and doubtless erased him from the radar of those who vote for various honors.
The second strike against Rivera was the fact that he played for what, quite frankly, was one of the worst college football programs in America at the time. Rivera's stint in Lubbock was coterminous with Texas Tech's most recent football Dark Age.
Rivera began his Texas Tech career in 1979 with Rex Dockery, and concluded it in 1982 with Jerry Moore. During that span, the Red Raiders amassed a God-awful 13-28-3 mark. The 1981 team, Moore's first as Tech's coach, went 1-9-1. Suffice it to say that club was one of the very worst in Red Raider history.
Despite playing in such a bleak football setting, however, such was Rivera's dominance that he earned honorable mention All America honors as a freshman, and consensus All America plaudits as a senior. Be that as it may, there can be no doubt that had Rivera played for the renowned Razorbacks or Longhorns, the honors would have come his way more quickly.
Be that as it may, Rivera was certainly a glimmer of light for Red Raider fans who desperately needed something or someone to cheer. Texas Tech didn't win many games in this era, but in the person of Senor Sack, produced one of the greatest defensive linemen to ever play the game at the collegiate level.
With any luck, more people will soon come to appreciate his greatness. And Rivera's induction into the College Football Hall of Fame is a major first step toward restoring him to his rightful place in college football history.