For many, Gabe Rivera’s death in mid-July brought back memories of his glory football days in Jones Stadium. The legacy of ‘Señor Sack,’ the nickname he got in his sophomore year as a Red Raider, is legendary. He was named to the SWC all-decade team for the 1980s and inducted into the Texas Tech Hall of Fame in 1993.
Former Red Raiders quarterback Ron Reeves who played three seasons with Rivera, says Rivera was fortunate to have a wife who helped him find his future. Rivera, who met his wife after running over her foot with his wheelchair at the San Antonio zoo, spent two decades tutoring and mentoring at a nonprofit, community-based program.
“I think from my perspective looking at Gabe’s life, there’s a whole lot of redemption that happened,” Reeves says. “His wife, she’s widowed now, she was a big factor in kind of getting Gabe to, ok we’re here, let’s move on, let’s see what we can do.”
Rivera had a quiet, subtle wit. Reeves says you had to pay attention to catch his humor. Joe Hornaday, the sports information director at Tech during Rivera’s time as a Red Raider, says Rivera was a prankster, remembering that the 6-foot, 3 inch incoming freshman made a joke the first time Hornaday met him.
“He made some kind of joke, so that was him all the way after that. In the locker room, he would hide guys’ helmets and always had a big smile on his face—just a real cut-up kind of a guy,” Hornaday says.
Rivera was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft – ahead of quarterback Dan Marino, who went on to enjoy a stellar career with the Miami Dolphins. Rivera’s NFL career ended in the middle of his rookie season after he suffered a spinal cord injury in a drunk-driving accident.
Rivera never walked again. He passed away July 16 from an inoperable perforated bowel in a San Antonio hospital. He was 57.
Don Williams, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal’s longtime Texas Tech football writer, recounted a former Texas Tech coach’s comment about Rivera following his death. As is sometimes the case with highly talented athletes, Rivera at times slacked off in practices. That coach reminded Rivera of his potential and the importance of working hard.
“With the Steelers, at that first training camp, he went up there to Pennsylvania. He was really good, there was no harsh criticism but just if he really got after play after play, the sky was the limit for him, so they kind of needed to motivate him a little bit at times just because the game did come so easily to him,” Williams recalls.
One thing is certain, Rivera enjoyed big meals. Hornaday says Rivera joked with him when Hornaday said the team was going to MacDonald’s for ‘A’ hamburger.
“Gabe kind of laughed and said, ‘a hamburger,’ you know in today’s time, he could have been in those competitions about how much you can eat in a short time because he could put it away.”
Hornaday got humorous about how many hamburgers Rivera could devour at one sitting. Reeves says Hornaday attributed a quote to him about the two players’ visits to MacDonald’s, which used to show the billions of hamburgers the chain had served.
“Joe Hornaday ended up giving me credit saying, “Quarterback Ron Reeves likes to go to McDonald’s and eat with Gabe and watch them change the numbers on the sign.’”
Hornaday’s favorite memory of Rivera is his performance against Washington in 1982, when the Huskies were No. 1 in the country. Texas Tech lost 10-3 but Rivera’s performance - 10 tackles, four pass deflections, four quarterback pressures and a sack - earned him The Associated Press’ national lineman of the week. And garnered him national attention.
Rivera loved coming back to Lubbock through the years, Hornaday says.
“He just liked being back seeing the old guys,” he says. “Never did I ever get any feeling that he was upset about his situation, he always had a smile and was happy to be back and reliving all the memories that he had.”