Gabe Rivera was an unrelenting menace to offenses. The standout defensive lineman for Texas Tech from 1979-1982 went on to become an All-American, a first-round NFL draft choice and later a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the Texas Tech Ring of Honor.
Rivera, whose NFL career was cut short by a car accident, passed away July 16. He was 57.
Pittsburgh sportscaster Bob Pampeani at KDKA-TV profiled Rivera a few years ago after speaking to him in San Antonio.
“He was known as ‘Senior Sack’ at Texas Tech. A 300-pounder, who could run—a rare combination of size and speed that allowed him to dominate the South Western Conference,” Pampeani said. “During the 1983 NFL draft, Rivera was rated as the top defensive lineman available, and the Steelers with the 23rd pick in that draft thought so highly of him they passed over Dan Morino to select Gabe Rivera as their number one pick.”
One of Rivera’s teammates remembers him as an affable and valuable member of the program.
“He was a kind person, who cared about doing the right thing. He was a unique individual. I hate that his disability kind of killed some of the fun that was Gabe because he just couldn’t do the things where you would get to kind of see him out of his element a little bit. Those were things that were memorable prior to his accident that I’m sure that he missed being able to do,” Ron Reeves, former teammate of Rivera says.
He played quarterback for three of Rivera’s four seasons in Lubbock. Reeves always enjoyed seeing Rivera when he returned to Lubbock for various football events through the years
Rivera’s physique gave him a big edge. He’d recorded a 4.8 second 40-yard dash while playing for the Red Raiders. Don Williams, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal’s longtime Texas Tech football writer, says he was reminded of Rivera’s build after seeing a photo posted on Facebook in the days following the player’s death.
“For two or six three and three hundred pounds, he had a rare combination of strength and the thing that set him apart was his speed, quickness and agility for a man that size, was a freakish for a man that size. It was uncommon,” Williams says.
Sadly, Rivera’s NFL career was short-lived. In his rookie season in 1983, Rivera was intoxicated when he had a high-speed wreck that permanently paralyzed him from the waist down. Initially, he struggled to stay upbeat, but finally realized his life could still have meaning. Here’s Rivera talking about his challenges in another clip from Pampeani’s profile.
“I think most of the time when I was in the hospital back then, I always had positive thinking…my attitude was always, ‘it’s a wonderful day.’ Whether it may or may not be, I made sure to wake up with a smile. It just carries over and my body is like, ‘ah I’m alright, I’m going to be alright.’ Sometimes you don’t have a good day in practice, or good day in the game…I don’t know if that’s what gave me the kind of attitude, but it feels good and I always pray to God that I’m alive, at least I’m alive and enjoying the life and stuff,” Rivera said.
The Red Raiders tallied a 13-28-3 record during Rivera’s four seasons. He earned an All-America honorable mention as a sophomore, and was Southwest Conference defensive player of the year and a consensus All-America as a senior.
Joe Hornaday, Texas Tech sports information director at the time Rivera played in Lubbock, remembers what led to Rivera’s nickname.
“I can’t remember if it was Keith Samples or myself, that came up the second year with the nickname, ‘Senior Sack,’ because it was so obvious that he was going to be in the back field a lot. And he was.”
For more on Rivera, listen to part two of this story.