March, 20 2023
Gabe Rivera was a beloved figure in Lubbock, Texas for his larger-than-life appetite both on and off the field. Affectionately dubbed “Seṅor Sack” by fans of the Red Raiders, Rivera made a big impression during the 1979 season in his first collegiate action. He recorded five unassisted tackles and a sack in a 21-7 loss to eventual national champion USC. Press accounts of his residency in the USC backfield also included details of an offseason trip to McDonald’s in which Rivera consumed fourteen Big Macs for lunch. When asked if he ate all that fast food on a dare, the freshmen replied, “Naw, I was just hungry.”
Rivera played to a high level and had many memorable games on a national stage. During his sophomore season he keyed a goal-line stand against SMU’s famous “Pony Express” backfield. On back-to-back plays he stonewalled Eric Dickerson and Lance McIlhenny to preserve a 14-0 shutout. The following season, his blocked extra point allowed the Red Raiders to secure a 39-39 tie with TCU. When the Red Raiders played top-ranked Washington his senior year, Rivera knocked down four passes at the line of scrimmage and recorded a sack, although the Huskies prevailed, 10-3.
Following a consensus All-American senior year, Rivera was the first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a surprising choice as many thought the Steelers would take local quarterback Dan Marino. Rivera had a lot to live up to, not just trying to make fans of the Steelers forget Marino, but also legendary defensive lineman “Mean” Joe Green, who had retired in 1981.
Rivera got off to a strong start, recording two sacks in his first six games. Tragically, he was seriously injured in an automobile accident on October 20, 1983. He suffered paralysis from the chest down and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Rivera worked with high school players that suffered spinal cord injuries for several years with the non-profit group Gridiron Heroes before his death in July of 2018. Rivera was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012.