Cook: Disability doesn't stop Rivera

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It didn't take long to figure out what former Steelers No. 1 pick Gabe Rivera is doing these days.

There's commotion on the other end of the telephone before Rivera says to someone in his San Antonio home, "Can you grab me a diaper?"

"Taking care of the young ones," Rivera said later. "Three grandkids."

You can't beat the work, Rivera said. But he clearly didn't mind the interruption this week to take a congratulatory call about his selection to the College Football Hall of Fame.

Do you have any idea how exhilarating it will be for Rivera to be inducted? Do you know how great he feels to be remembered all these years later? He last played college football at Texas Tech in 1982 when he was a star 300-pound defensive lineman. "Senor Sack," they called him then.

"Pretty cool," Rivera said of his Hall call. "Awesome, really."

But the letter announcing his Hall selection also had to bring some sadness for Rivera. It was a reminder of what could have been for him in football. The Steelers were convinced they were going to build a championship team around him -- just as they had done with another defensive lineman from a Texas school 14 years earlier -- when they drafted him instead of a pretty fair local quarterback named Marino. Sadly, Rivera was paralyzed from the chest down in a drunken-driving car accident during his rookie season.

It is a story worth retelling.

"Maybe someone can learn something from what happened to me," Rivera said.

Surprisingly, there wasn't much outrage when the Steelers picked Rivera with the No. 21 overall pick in the '83 draft even though Pitt star Dan Marino still was on the board. The team appeared stocked at quarterback with four-time Super Bowl winner Terry Bradshaw, who was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, and quality backups Cliff Stoudt and Mark Malone. The Steelers also had earned much acclaim and won plenty of trust with their drafts during the Chuck Noll era, going back to the first in 1969 when the team took North Texas State defensive lineman Joe Greene in the first round. Greene quickly became the best player in franchise history and was the anchor of four Super Bowl teams.

Marino also had what the scouts called "character issues." Art Rooney Jr. -- son of the Steelers' legendary owner -- ran the team's scouting department at the time. He wrote in his wonderful 2008 book "Ruanaidh" that there were whispers that Marino was using hard drugs at Pitt. That explains why Marino fell all the way to the Miami Dolphins with the No. 27 pick.

"But that's not why we didn't draft him," Rooney Jr. said this week.

Due diligence convinced the Steelers that Marino wouldn't bring heavy baggage. "Chuck loved him," Rooney Jr. said. "I remember Danny working out for us and, afterward, the kid telling us, 'Please draft me. I want to stay in Pittsburgh.' "

It didn't happen.

The final call was Noll's.

"Chuck said he thought we should go defense and build the team like we had before," Rooney Jr. said. "To me, it made sense. But it never made sense to my dad. Right up until he died [in August 1988], he would tell me, 'You should have taken Marino.' "

Marino became a star of Mario Lemieux-like proportions in South Florida even though he failed to lead the Dolphins to a Super Bowl title. Bradshaw played one game for the Steelers in '83 before retiring after the season. Stoudt and Malone never lived up to expectations.

Who knows how good Rivera would have been?

"I think he would have been a great one," Rooney Jr. said. "He really was a force."

"I know I had the skills," Rivera said. "But only God knows how it would have turned out."

On the night of Oct. 20, 1983, Rivera left a North Side tavern to drive to his North Hills home. His car skidded on rain-soaked Babcock Boulevard in Ross Township and collided head-on with another vehicle. The other driver wasn't hurt seriously, but Rivera was thrown through the back window and left paralyzed.

"I just keep going and going and going," Rivera said of his past 28-plus years in a wheelchair.

Insurance and the NFL's disability plan have helped with the bills. So have the Steelers, who bought Rivera more than one customized van. He said it means a lot to him that he still hears regularly from the team's former P.R. man Joe Gordon and former equipment man Tony Parisi.

"I'm doing all right financially," Rivera said.

Sores and infections are much bigger problems for Rivera, 51. "If I don't stay on top of things, I'm going to have big problems." He said doctors have told him he probably will live 10 fewer years than usual because of his spinal cord injury.

Rivera is trying to make the most of his time. When he's not changing diapers or going with his granddaughter, Hailey, 4, to her pre-kindergarten graduation party, he helps to run a program for children, ages 5-13, at the San Antonio Inner City Development Center and tries to teach them life skills. Certainly, he's qualified to teach about the consequences of poor decision-making and how to deal with unimaginable adversity.

"I just try to stay positive about life," Rivera said. "If not for the accident, I wouldn't have met the kids that I'm working with. Hopefully, they can learn something from me. I hope I can make a difference in their lives."

Sounds like a good reason to keep going and going and going, doesn't it?

roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published May 18, 2012 12:00 AM


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