'Old' Rivera Leads the Line

At the highly tender age of 29, Marco Rivera is amused over being described as an "elder statesman."

In specific reference, of course, to his seniority in the Packers' starting offensive line these days.

"It is odd," he admitted, chuckling heartily when the question was posed. "You're 29 and you could be the young guy on the line. I guess it's just because you've got such young guys, like you have Chad (Clifton) and (Mark) Tauscher, who are two-year guys (and 25 and 23, respectively).

"Now, Mike Flanagan is just as old as I am," Rivera added with a twinkle, stretching a point, "but he's never started. Now this is his year to start."

But, it was interposed in the interests of accuracy, isn't Flanagan actually younger than he?

"Yeah," Marco graciously conceded, "he is a year younger.

"But it's nice, you know, that I have a few years left in me," he added, comforting himself in the process. "So I'm not that old."

This having been spread upon the record, does he feel like an elder statesman?

"I do," Rivera promptly affirmed, "in the sense that I've been starting here for a few years now (three) and I know what is expected. I know what it takes for the offensive line to play well and I try to be there for Tauscher and Chad, you know, sometimes (for) Mike Flanagan and Mike Wahle, when they have questions.

"When I see that their confidence is maybe slipping a little bit, I probably try to talk to them a little bit because I've probably experienced everything that they've gone through and are going through."

The sixth-year pro didn't mention it but he also has arrived at a point in his career where he is held up to his younger colleagues in the O-line as a role model, having graded out as the team's top lineman in 2000, when he started all 16 games and helped the Packers average more than 100 yards rushing per game (102.7).

Reviewing that season-long performance, Rivera noted, "I'm coming off a year, last year, where I kind of took the year and pushed myself and tried to be the best that I could."

The 6-4, 310-pound Penn State alumnus apparently achieved his objective, his efforts having prompted Larry Beightol, his position coach, to enthuse, "Marco epitomizes what it takes to be an offensive lineman in the National Football League. He really is a guy that is so darn competitive – he brings it every play, of every game, of every season, of every year."

Such appraisals have to be music to Rivera's ears these days, considering the dues he had to pay in reaching his current professional plateau, a process which involved spending his entire rookie season on inactive status and investing a spring season with Scotland in the World Football League before earning a backup berth in Green Bay's offensive line in 1997, appearing in 14 games.

Beyond that, it was noted that the current offensive line – young though it may be – already appears well on the way to melding into an effective, disciplined unit.

"I think so," Marco agreed. "We are a young line together and we are jelling at the right time. We had a good camp, and we have exceptional athletes on the line.

"We're going to come together – we're going to keep coming together as the season goes on," Rivera predicted.

Speaking of Flanagan, has working alongside him rather than the veteran Frank Winters made any difference in how he approaches his own "game?"

"I had to adjust a little bit to Mike," Marco acknowledged. "He's the new center. At first, when we came into camp, he wasn't sure about some calls. And he plays a different style of center than Frankie. Frankie's more of a power type, coming off the ball-type center. Mike is more of an athletic type, where you have to react a little faster to what he's doing, because he'll come off blocks a little faster, so you've got to get there just a little faster. So I had to change my game a little bit, but now we're on the same page – now I know exactly what he's doing on every play."

As the "old man" up front, does he find his younger colleagues looking to him for leadership or counsel?

"They do. They come to me when they have some questions about the scheme or assignments," he rejoined. "Basically, I'll be there to answer their questions. I know how confusing our offense can get at times, especially being the West Coast offense, it could get confusing for an offensive lineman.

"But I try to be there for them. I know last year I depended a lot on Frankie, even though I knew what I was doing. And, last year, Tauscher depended a little bit on me. And I made sure – knowing that he was a rookie – that I was there for him. And the same this year. The more time we spend together, the more encouragement and self-confidence he's going to get in his game."

It must be gratifying, it was suggested, for him and his linemates these days to read and hear the offensive line being referred to as a team strength coming into the new season, rather than a question mark.

"Yeah, for the last few years, you know, that was one of the concerns coming in," Marco conceded. "But now it's nice. But all the credit goes to our coach, Larry Beightol. He has instilled in us the work ethic and the knowledge to be where we are right now. I mean he gives us the confidence. He prepares us better, I think, than any other coach could ever prepare us."

And how, following his vintage year in 2000, does he see his role?

"This year, I just reflect back on that (the year he has just had). You know, what could I do different from last year to improve my game this year? So I'm trying to concentrate on some of the aspects from last year, like run-blocking, because you can always improve on your run and pass-blocking. So I'm trying to concentrate just a little bit more on the little points that make a good offensive lineman. So that's my role this year. My role basically is to try to be the best player that I can be for the Green Bay Packers.'

Is he nearing the top of his game or does he feel there still is room for professional growth?

"I feel that there's still a lot of room for improvement," Rivera assured. "I can only go as far as I allow myself to go. I think that the older I get, the wiser that I get. And for some strange reason, I just kind of developed later in my life.

"You have young guys come in and play right away. I came in and kind of had a couple years on the shelf. And then, later on, I started playing better. So I kind of think that I have a few years of football left in me...that I'm going to be better."

On the subject of professional growth, Rivera gives substantial credit for much of his development to his spring with the Scottish Claymores of the WFL in '97.

"I kind of look back on that World League experience and say if there's something that pushed me to the player that I am today, that's because I went out there and I applied what I learned here in Green Bay," he said.

"At that time, Tom Lovat was our offensive line coach, so I went out to the World League and the state of mind I had was, 'I'm going to go out there, get a job done and improve my game and come back here and see if I'm a good football player."

"I came back here, the Packers were impressed with me in camp and I ended up starting the next year."

Had there ever been a time when he thought he might not make it, or had become discouraged?

"I did get discouraged a few times," Marco admitted. "I got discouraged my rookie year here – coming into camp (in 1996), being on a Super Bowl team, looking at the talent that was on this team, I was thinking to myself, 'Oh, my God, do I have a shot to make this team?' They pretty well had their starters...their backups. And that camp was a really tough and long camp for me and I ended up looking over my shoulder once or twice. It was like, 'Well, am I going to be here or am I not going to be here?'

"But the Packers, you know what, they held on to me and I owe 'em a lot because I was a low-rounder and a lot of people didn't think I was going to amount to much. And, you know, through the hard work and the determination, here I am...."

Having been with the Packers on their drive to Super Bowl honors in 1996, even though an inactive member of the roster, and then helped the Green and Gold return to the "Big Dance" in 1997, did he see any similarities in the current club to those teams, aside from Brett Favre at quarterback?

"I think this team has a little more chemistry and more of a brotherhood than we did in '96, "Marco asserted. "This year, this team here is more like a family atmosphere than it was in '96. In '96, we had a bunch of great players and we were confident.

"This year, we have a bunch of great players, we're confident and it's more like a family atmosphere in that locker room. And that brings us a long way, because if you look at last year, we won those last four games of the season, and that's kind of the feeling we had. And it's here this year again."

"I think a lot of exciting things are going to happen with this team this year," he said, with conviction. "Coach Sherman has a fire in his eye, and I've always said that's a kind of a trickle-down effect. It comes from the top all the way down, and he is the top guy.

"And that fire, we can feel it, and I can look in his eye and see that he wants to get ready, and that gets me ready to play. And I know he's all business, and he can look in my eye and know that we're all business and that I'm all business. And we're going to get something special done this year."

Away from football, it was noted, his family has been touched by the terrorist tragedy that devastated the heart of New York City a week earlier.

"My sister's husband is a demolition expert," Marco said, adding, "He was called in about 2 o'clock Wednesday morning (the day after the attack on the World Trade Center) to help with the clean up. They brought in all kinds of heavy machinery and it's taken a toll on him. He's been working long hours. He worked for 26 straight hours when he first got there. He came home and went back for another 30 hours.

"But it's a dangerous job. I spoke to him last night. He's a little depressed just because they haven't found anybody alive. It's a lot of victims, a lot of people. I mean, it's indescribable. And he's going through that. That will affect him. I hope not too much. But I try to cheer him up. I'm so happy that he's doing something because I know, being an American, I wanted to help those people in any way that I could, and he's actually there, doing something about it. So it's prideful."

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