Commentary: Rivera set tone for line

Marco Rivera had some easy outs. In a long NFL season, Rivera could have taken a game or two off because of a legitimate injury, actually two legitimate injuries. And if you go back to December of 2001, three legitimate injuries.<p>

But not playing because of torn knee ligaments or a broken hand is not an option with Rivera. Not being there for his team doesn't cross Rivera's mind. When it comes to tough football players, throw in Rivera's name with anybody in the league.

Just when we all thought Brett Favre was the toughest guy in football, we get this out of Packer headquarters on Rivera:

"He may be the toughest guy in the National Football League, mentally and physically," said Packers offensive line coach Larry Beightol. "I don't know of one that I would say is tougher. He's just an old throwback. He's a guy that likes to mix it up play after play after play. He doesn't win every down, but he wins more than his fair share."

That's about the best compliment a lineman can receive, and Rivera is certainly deserving of the coach's kudos.

For the last five seasons Rivera has been a consistent force at guard along the offensive line. He finally earned the respect of defenses he plays against, NFL coaches and fans when he was named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad in December. The game will be played this Sunday in Honolulu.

Rivera has grown into probably the most dependable, hard-working offensive lineman since center Frank Winters started regularly along the line and Larry McCarren, who was the last offensive lineman to be selected to the Pro Bowl way back in the Bart Starr era. Winters played in the Pro Bowl after the 1996 season as an alternate.

"It doesn't matter who he's playing against," Beightol said. "He's played against all the guys that have to pick names. He certainly has acquitted himself in those situations."

Most of all Rivera has helped set a physical tone an offensive line must have in order to perform well, which includes playing through aches and pains, and knee sprains, if at all possible, and playing at a high level. That takes a lot of dedication, mental toughness and unselfishness. Add that to the fact that he also is a good chemistry guy for the line, well-liked by teammates and often joking around with them in the locker room, and you've got a Pro Bowler.

Knowing that, coach/GM Mike Sherman strung Rivera along a little when he met with the team to reveal its Pro Bowl selections, withholding Rivera's name until the end of his announcement before the team burst out in laughter and congratulated him.

"As you can see, it's been a long time coming for him," said tight end Bubba Franks, who along with safety Darren Sharper and wide receiver Donald Driver will be joining Rivera in Honolulu.

It probably wouldn't have come without the desire that Rivera has within. Rivera started every game at right guard for the fourth straight season, but this season has been his most challenging. He said he was very close to not playing the following week after injuring his right knee against Minnesota on Nov. 17. Same deal after tearing the MCL in his left knee earlier in the year against the Detroit Lions on Sept. 22.

In order to bounce back in time for the next game, it meant dragging himself out of bed early in the morning and receiving treatment on his knees in the Packers' training room until early in evening.

"By 8 o'clock (in the morning) you're spent," Rivera said. "Then you've got to do it again at lunchtime and before you go home. It's a pretty long day."

In December of 2001, he suffered a broken hand during practice and played in a pivotal game against the then-mighty Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field three days later.

Unless he breaks a bone, or suffers a season-ending injury like Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, the team can expect Rivera to be in the trenches on Sunday, opening holes for Ahman Green or protecting Favre. His work ethic obviously has rubbed off on the rest of the line, which when healthy, is one of the best in the National Football Football League.

"I really appreciate the fact that I'm at where I'm at right now," Rivera said.

For all practical purposes, Rivera was in pretty good shape the second half of the season. He wore knee braces for added support, but was walking on Cloud 9 when he received news that he'll be playing in the Pro Bowl.

"Last year I made Pro Bowl alternate and you're right there," Rivera said the day he was selected. "It's kind of like you need a little nudge to get in, and this year I got that. When I found out, I was just amazed because of all the hard work and everything that I've been through and being part of the Packers. It feels pretty good."

He deserves it.

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