Senor Sack …the Steeler that never was
In a little over twenty-four hours, thirty two young men will have the honor of being selected in the first round of the NFL draft. As in every draft some will be bona fide superstars, maybe a Hall of famer or two, some will be pro bowlers or solid starters for years. Others will become backups or career journeymen, wash-ups and mere footnotes in draft history. A remaining few will have their careers cut short by injury, preventing them from ever taking flight and robbing them of the ability to show us what they could have been. All sports have their share of such players, but the spotlight always seems to shine brightest on the NFL. The NFL network dedicated an entire top ten to draft busts and various pro football sites always wheel out their list of draft disappointments for each team.
No team was more disappointed in 1st round draft picks than the Steelers in the 1980’s. Only the Bengals in the 1990’s made more historically bad choices during one decade. While they did select one true Hall of Famer (Rod Woodson) and two solid players (Louis Lipps and Keith Gary), the rest were absolute flops. 1980’s 1st rounder Mark Malone and 1982s Walter Abercrombie were give the impossible task of replacing two future Hall of Famers in Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris, while the rest of the decades choices (Daryl Sims, John Reinstra, Aaron Jones, Tim Worley and Tom Ricketts) were just plain awful.
And then there was their 1983 1st round choice, Gabe Rivera from Texas Tech. Senor Sack, as he was known.
Rivera proved to be neither a flop nor a solid starter.
He never had the chance.
By 1983, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White were gone as were occasional starters Steve Furness and John Banaszak. Coming off of a season in which they sacked enemy quarterbacks 34 times, second only to Oakland, the Steelers were hungry for more and with their first round pick, they selected Rivera, the 6-2 294 lb. consensus All-American defensive tackle from Texas Tech, affectionately known as Senor Sack, ahead of future Hall of Fame quarterback and hometown hero Dan Marino. Senor sack started slowly, but as his NFL career progressed game by game, Rivera began making an impact stopping the run and pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
It was a career that lasted exactly six games and produced two sacks.
Aside from injuries derailing careers, some players such as Jamarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf destroyed their careers with a series of bad decisions that displayed an amazing depth of immaturity. On the night of October 20, 1983, six games into his promising NFL career, Rivera made his own bad decision that not only cost him his football career but nearly his life as well. Driving home that evening from the Steelers’ practice facility, Rivera was involved in a two car collision, the impact sending crashing through the back window of his car, crushing his spinal column, puncturing a lung and bruising his heart. It would be ten days before doctors could determine whether or not Rivera would be permanently paralyzed from the waist down or not. As it turned out, he would be.
So why was driving home that night a bad decision on Rivera’s part? Two reasons: he was speeding and he was legally intoxicated. During his stay at Texas Tech, from 1979 to 1983, Rivera had a history of traffic violations, being involved in a total of five, several for speeding. In a series of bad decisions involving motor vehicles, Rivera’s final one was obviously his most destructive and near fatal of all.
Athletes at times feel they are above certain laws that apply to the rest of us, namely that they are in some ways invincible. Since Rivera’s injury we know that is by no means the case. From Ben Roethlisberger’s near fatal motorcycle accident to the Dallas Cowboys’ Josh Brent killing teammate Jerry Brown via car accident last year, athletes have proven time and again, that not only are they above such laws of invincibility, but that they prove to be the most fragile of all. And on that October night in 1983, Rivera robbed himself and Steelers fans of the opportunity he had been given to become the teams, great defensive lineman.
Today, the affects of the accident have left Rivera with very little memory of his playing days. There was the memorable time he chased down SMUs Eric Dickerson, and not only tackled him, but ripped Dickerson’s helmet off as well. Rivera is no longer bitter over what life has dealt him; he has moved on with his life and met his second wife while he was in his wheelchair. Still regarded as the best defensive linemen in Red Raiders history, he was elected in the college football Hall of Fame in 2012.
Rivera’s story should be recounted to every rookie in every sport, how one very bad decision can change their lives in a second. Sadly, as history shows, as long as athletes believe in their own invincibility there will be more Rivera’s. Six games were all Steelers fans had to see of Rivera, six games were all he was able to show them.
Senor sack….the Steeler that never was.