He's not the biggest, fastest, or most talented player on West Virginia's roster. Yet it is hard to imagine the Mountaineers being in the position they currently find themselves in -- one win away from a national championship game appearance -- without the contributions of senior cornerback and kick returner Vaughn Rivers.
The Pittsburgh native is one of several Mountaineer seniors who will run out of the tunnel for the final time on Saturday night as the 100th edition of the Backyard Brawl comes to Morgantown in primetime.
Rivers came to WVU with Perry Traditional Academy teammate Eric Wicks as part of Rich Rodriguez's third recruiting class at West Virginia prior to the 2003 season, and has been a contributor for all four years of his varsity career. In the process, he has been a part of something special, the likes of which have never before been witnessed in this college town nestled in the West Virginia hills. When he came on board, the program was just making its way up the mountain. As he prepares to leave, he does so as that same program nears the peak of all it has worked for since his arrival and prior.
"It's been a total transition," Rivers says. "It's amazing to see Coach Rod, hear the words, and see the vision he spoke to you five years ago, then to see it all come together and happen. It's amazing. I'm just glad that I was a part of it."
His numbers as a defensive back are modest, just 65 career tackles in four seasons with a pair of interceptions, but what Rivers brings to the table cannot be measured in statistics alone.
Generously listed at 5'9", 170 pounds, he just might be the toughest player pound for pound on the team. With each punch that knocks that tiny frame to the canvas, he gets up only to deliver a haymaker of his own.
In four seasons, Rivers been the team's consummate Renaissance man, playing field corner, boundary corner, slot receiver, and returning kicks. He's come to practice early, stayed late, and never said no to a challenge laid in front of him by the coaching staff or his teammates. He's made plays for his team, and given up plays to the other team, but not once has he said "I can't" or "I won't."
Despite that small frame, it is he who holds down perhaps the most daring position on the field -- punt returner -- as 11 players much bigger than him sprint full speed ahead hoping to knock his block off, only to watch him break their grasp for productive returns, saving valuable field position for one of the nation's most productive offenses.
For his career, he shows 65 returns for 723 yards with one touchdown, the latter statistic perhaps equaling the number of times he has called fair catch.
This tough-as-nails persona that Rivers carries with him between the lines stands in stark contrast to the well-spoken, accommodating young man who sits down for interviews and patiently listens to questions from reporters once a week before providing well-thought out and insightful answers to queries he has likely heard a dozen times.
Reared in the Steel City as a boy, he will leave Morgantown as a man, with four Big East championship rings in tow and perhaps an even bigger ring waiting for him in January.
After growing up hoping to be a Panther, he has fully embraced being a Mountaineer...and then some.
"I love it," he says with a grin from ear to ear. "I couldn't imagine playing five years anywhere else. This is the best decision that I've made in my life so far. I'll never forget it. I'm thankful for the experiences I've had here."
Of course he hopes that the best experience for he and his teammates is yet to come. But first, there is Pitt, the same program he grew up admiring, only to be given a nothing more than a passing glance by the Panthers when it came time for his recruitment. They were looking for the biggest, the strongest, and the fastest, none of which applied to Rivers despite his gaudy high school accomplishments at Perry.
Now, for one final time at Mountaineer Field, Rivers will take to the turf wearing different shades of blue and gold than he saw himself in growing up, with the unspoken opportunity of college football's Holy Grail waiting on the other side of 60 minutes, Backyard Brawl style.
"I couldn't have written my story any better," he sums up. "Me and Wicks came from Pittsburgh after not being recruited by Pitt. To be able to play them in our last game (in Morgantown), in the 100th Backyard Brawl with a chance to go to the national championship…I couldn't ask for anything else."
Indeed he could not. Chances are, however, if the Mountaineer coaches asked anything else of Rivers, he would surely deliver.