There he is, No. 69, a 300-pound Texas Tech nose guard chasing an Arkansas quarterback and catching him after a 40-yard sprint. Did I see that right? I rewind the video. It happened. Gabriel Rivera outran 190-pound Brad Taylor, tackling him at the 17-yard line, saving a touchdown. I’ve never seen anyone that big run faster, hit harder, or make bigger plays than the one christened, “Señor Sack.”
Three years after his passing, you can find his name in the Texas Tech Ring of Honor, digital displays of his exploits in the College Football Hall of Fame. There’s a book on Amazon, Señor Sack: The Life of Gabe Rivera, and there are tales in Lubbock, like the time he knocked the helmet off SMU running back Eric Dickerson, now in the NFL Hall of Fame. In Pittsburgh, there is speculation about what might have been. The Steelers drafted him with the 21st pick of the 1983 draft, ahead of Dan Marino, envisioning an anchor on which to build a new Steel Curtain. Six games into his rookie season, a car accident rendered Rivera a paraplegic.
What is his legacy? As National Hispanic Heritage Month draws to a close, I suggest Rivera be remembered as one of the great Hispanic athletes in history. And one of the kindest. In the fall of 1976, he noticed a senior at Jefferson High School struggling in geometry. “Want some help?” he asked. The student agreed to tutoring from a sophomore. The impact remains clear 45 years later. “If it hadn’t been for Gabe,” says Suzanne Lozano, “I never would have passed geometry.”
Rivera (Jefferson Class of 1979) competed in four varsity sports as a sophomore. He played tight end and linebacker in football, forward in basketball, and threw the discus in track. In baseball, Rivera served as a 240-pound pinch runner. As former All-City third baseman Brent Johnson explains, “He was the fastest guy who wasn’t in our starting lineup.”
On the football field, Rivera did not realize his own power. Not at first. Wanting to toughen up a timid 15-year-old, Coach Mike Honeycutt put him in a drill called “batting practice” with the team’s best player, Johnson, an All-District linebacker. “You need to make this guy mean,” Honeycutt told Johnson. Johnson and Rivera laid on their backs. At the sound of the whistle, they jumped and charged into one another. Johnson, 6 feet tall and 197 pounds, slammed his helmet into Rivera’s grill. Rivera barely moved. Rivera answered with a light tap to Johnson. They did it again. Same result. Johnson issued a threat. If Rivera did not hit him harder. …
“The next time,” Johnson says, “he put his helmet under my chin and my chinstrap and helmet fly off. The only thing left is my mouthpiece. He blows me up. I was like, ‘I need medical attention.’ That was the last time we ever did ‘batting practice.’”
As sports editor of The Declaration, the Jefferson school newspaper, I covered each of Rivera’s football games in 1976. The first time he caught a pass, he knocked down multiple defenders across the middle and carried two or three more on his back. “A guy his size,” Johnson says, “was never intended to be tackled.”
After one game I just knew: In two years, Dave Campbell’s Texas Football is going to feature him on its preseason super team. Sure enough, Rivera appeared in the 1978 issue, in the same “Friday Night Heroes” spread as a fellow named Eric Dickerson. By then, Rivera stood 6-foot-3, weighed 280 pounds, and possessed a legendary appetite. He admitted to eating 14 hamburgers at one sitting, 27 tacos at another. Ted Borcherding, a football teammate, competed with Rivera in the discus and ate with him at track meets.
“I’d have a bologna sandwich, chips, bean dip, and twinkies,” Borcherding says. “Gabe would eat whole chickens. It was like eating in medieval times with Gabe. He would pick up a roaster, tear it apart at the rib cage, and stick a whole chicken leg in his mouth. He’d pull it out and the bone would be stripped.”
Writers who covered Southwest Conference football fell in love with Rivera. He charmed with his wit, impressed with his friendliness, and wowed with his speed — 4.9 seconds in the 40 as a 300-pound freshman and later, 4.8 or 4.7, once he trimmed down to 285 pounds. Some were so taken with his legend, they believed stories without checking for verification. One wrote that Rivera ran the 100-yard dash in 10.3 seconds as a Jefferson sophomore. Newspaper reports and sports agate from the spring of 1977 indicate only that he competed in the discus and shot put. Might Rivera have run a 10.3 in practice? “LOL,” writes one former teammate. “No.”
Some regard Rivera as the greatest football player in Texas Tech history. In four years, he collected 321 tackles, made 14 sacks, deflected 11 passes, and recovered six fumbles. After he was named an Associated Press All-American, San Antonio held “Gabriel Rivera Day.” The AP reported, “Townspeople lifted a margarita and crunched a taco in honor of ‘Señor Sack,’ who gave quarterbacks the quakes and centers the headaches.”
A promising NFL career started with two sacks in the first six games. On Oct. 20, 1983, Rivera stopped at a bar after Steelers practice. He drove away, intoxicated, on a rainy night and crashed into another vehicle. The impact sent Rivera through the rear windshield of his Datsun 280 ZX.
He never walked again. In time, Rivera turned the accident into a mission of service. He volunteered at Inner City Development, a nonprofit on the West Side, teaching middle school students math and grammar. He talked about his accident and warned the youth not to repeat his mistake.
“Over a 20 year period, from 1998 to 2018, Gabe volunteered about 25 hours per week,” says Patti Radle, co-director of Inner City Development with her husband, Rod. “The children loved him. And they had a great deal of respect for him. They competed to go in the specially made van he had made for himself. He took kids roller skating and other field trips. He was on Inner City’s board of directors for about 14 of those 20 years.”
After attending an event for Inner City Development in July 2018, Rivera fell critically ill. Nearly two dozen volunteers crowded around his hospital bed to say goodbye. Was there anything he’d like to say? Rivera’s wife, Nancy, offered this: “Don’t drink and drive.” A man who had shown much kindness moved his head in agreement. Later that same day, he passed.
Fans remember a beast, a body-slamming nose guard named to the SWC All-Decade Team for the 1980s. Friends remember a tender soul, a tutor who helped a classmate pass geometry at Jefferson, a mentor who poured himself into helping inner city youth. Gabriel Rivera was all that, a smiling, fun-loving legend, forever young in old highlights, making an impossible play. Roll the video one more time.