Talented Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Gabriel Rivera could’ve been one of the greatest Mexican-American players in the history of the National Football League.
He could’ve joined the ranks of legends such as Anthony Munoz, Jim Plunkett, and Tom Flores.
Better yet, Rivera could’ve been one of the best defensive linemen in Pittsburgh Steelers franchise history.
Rivera’s combination of size and speed earned him the nickname “Señor Sack” during his heyday with the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
Rivera’s tremendous upside even made the Steelers pass up on their native son Dan Marino in the 1983 NFL Draft.
Alas, a tragic car accident in the fall of 1983 ended Rivera’s NFL career after just six games.
Had Gabe Rivera not made a fatal mistake in his rookie season, he would’ve wreaked havoc on NFL offenses for years on end.
Adrian Gabriel “Gabe” Rivera was born in San Antonio, TX on April 7, 1961.
Rivera attended Jefferson High School in San Antonio.
Rivera was a four-sport star for the Jefferson Mustangs: he was a football tight end and linebacker, basketball forward, track and field discus thrower, and baseball pinch runner.
Mustangs third baseman told SanAntonioReport.org’s Ken Rodriguez in 2021 that Rivera was their fastest player off the bench.
Mustangs head football coach Mike Honeycutt wanted Johnson to toughen up Rivera, who was already a 240-lb. behemoth as a sophomore.
Honeycutt made them do a drill known as “batting practice.”
Johnson and Rivera lay on their backs on the gridiron. When Honeycutt blew his whistle, the two players rammed into one another.
The 6’0″, 197-lb. Johnson rammed his helmet into Rivera’s body. The latter hardly moved.
Rivera promptly returned the favor the next time around. He hit Johnson so hard, his chinstrap and helmet went flying.
A stunned and dazed Johnson stood with only his mouthpiece intact. He told Rodriguez that was the last time they ever performed that drill.
Rodriguez was the sports editor of Jefferson High’s school newspaper, The Declaration.
He covered Rivera’s games and saw first-hand how bull strong he was on the gridiron.
Rodriguez remembered the first time when Rivera caught a pass – he carried at least two opponents on his back after knocking down other defenders across the middle.
Johnson told Rodriguez a guy Rivera’s size and strength was nearly impossible to tackle.
A strong case can be made for Gabe Rivera being one of the greatest stars in San Antonio high school football history. A linebacker and tight end at Jefferson in the late '70s, he went on to star at Texas Tech as a 6-2, 300-pound defensive lineman with 4.8 speed in the 40.
— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) July 17, 2018
Gabe Rivera was a gentle giant off the gridiron. When Rivera was a high school sophomore in the fall of 1976, he volunteered to tutor senior Suzanne Lozano in geometry.
Lozano passed thanks to Rivera’s timely intervention.
“If it hadn’t been for Gabe,” Lozano told Rodriguez some forty-five years later. “I never would have passed geometry.”
Rivera’s fame spread far and wide across the Lone Star State in just two years.
Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine featured Rivera on its preseason super team in its 1978 issue.
He appeared in the spread along with another Texas football legend, running back Eric Dickerson.
Rivera made All-City as a junior and became a Parade Magazine All-American selection a year later.
It came as no surprise the 6’3″, 280-lb. Rivera had a gargantuan appetite.
He ate fourteen hamburgers in one sitting. He also binged on twenty-seven tacos for a solitary meal, per Rodriguez.
Rivera’s track teammate Ted Borcherding witnessed his legendary eating habits.
“I’d have a bologna sandwich, chips, bean dip, and twinkies,” Borcherding told SanAntonioReport.org. “Gabe would eat whole chickens.”
Rivera tore a chicken leg off its body, put it in his mouth, and came out with the bone stripped off.
Despite Gabe Rivera’s massive size, he could turn on the afterburners. According to Rodriguez, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds as a 300-lb. freshman in 1975.
A slimmer Rivera tipped the scales at 285 lbs. in the next few years. Once some of the pounds came off, he ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.7- to 4.8-second range.
Up to fifteen big-name college football programs including the Notre Dame Fighting Irish wanted to recruit Rivera, per his biography “Señor Sack: The Life of Gabe Rivera.”
Rivera also planned to visit the Arizona Wildcats, Baylor Bears, and Texas Tech Red Raiders.
He decided to remain in-state and commit to Texas Tech in early February 1979.
Gabriel Rivera would become one of the most storied defensive linemen in Texas Tech Red Raiders football program history.
College Days With The Texas Tech Red Raiders
Gabe Rivera attended Texas Tech University from 1979 to 1982.
Many pundits consider Rivera the best Texas Tech Red Raiders football player not named Patrick Mahomes.
It was also at Texas Tech where the legendary Señor Sack was born.
The Red Raiders’ game against the top-ranked Washington Huskies on October 23, 1982 was a game for the ages for Gabriel Rivera.
Despite the 10-3 loss to the Huskies, Rivera gave the Washington offensive linemen all sorts of fits during the game.
He finished with 10 tackles, 1.0 sack, and four passes defensed.
Rivera’s imposing presence helped limit Washington to just 268 yards of total offense – a far cry from the Huskies’ season average of 415.4 yards per game.
Huskies head football coach Don James even called Rivera “Superman” and the “best defensive player I’ve seen” after the final whistle.
It was one of the rare times a losing defensive lineman upstaged a top-ranked squad in its own stadium during that era.
That game caught the attention of many NFL teams and agents who kept Rivera on their radars.
Gabe Rivera had 5.0 sacks, 62 solo tackles and 10 tackles for loss as a senior in 1982.
Regrettably, the Red Raiders were a terrible football team that won just four games that year.
In Rivera’s four years in Lubbock, TX, Texas Tech won just an average of three games per season.
When Gabe Rivera became an Associated Press All-American as a senior, the city of San Antonio celebrated “Gabe Rivera Day,”
According to The Associated Press (via SanAntonioReport.org), “Townspeople lifted a margarita and crunched a taco in honor of ‘Señor Sack,’ who gave quarterbacks the quakes and centers the headaches.”
Rivera’s other college football accolades included Honorable Mention All-American honors in 1980 and Southwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors two years later.
He also earned a spot on the Southwest Conference All-Decade Team as a senior.
Gabe Rivera finished his college football career with 14.0 sacks, 321 tackles, 34 tackles for loss, 11 pass deflections, and six fumble recoveries.
Happy Birthday to the late Gabe Rivera, “Senor Sack”, played a single season of Professional Football before getting paralyzed in auto accident, Southwest Conference Defensive Player Of Year, All American, Member College Football Hall of Fame; 4-7-1961 to 7-16-2018 pic.twitter.com/rM6PHntEhm
— Larry in Missouri (@LarryInMissouri) April 7, 2019
At the end of Rivera’s memorable college football career, he remained the same gentle giant who helped a fellow student pass geometry in high school.
“He was a great football player; but he was also a great guy,” Texas Tech Red Raiders assistant football coach David Knaus told KENS5’s David Flores in July 2018. “Gabe was full of life. He was a force of nature. He was the kind of guy you never forget.”
Alas, Gabriel Rivera’s promising National Football League football career would be cut short because of a tragic and life-altering mistake he made in his rookie year.
Pro Football Career
The Pittsburgh Steelers made Gabe Rivera the 21st overall selection of the 1983 NFL Draft.
The Steelers, who won four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s, had missed the postseason in two of the past three years.
Several members of that fabled dynasty such as “Mean” Joe Greene and Lynn Swann had already retired from professional football.
The other remnants such as Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, and John Stallworth were at the pinnacle of their gridiron careers.
For their part, Bradshaw and Harris were entering their final season in Pittsburgh in 1983.
Pittsburgh was a team in transition. Clearly, the Steelers needed some new blood to reclaim their Super Bowl contender status.
Gabe Rivera was their man.
The Steelers wanted him so badly they passed up on native son and Pitt Panthers quarterback Dan Marino (the Miami Dolphins eventually drafted him six picks after Rivera).
When Rivera got the call from the Steelers, he was pleasantly surprised.
“It was a really exciting surprise,” Rivera told FOX Sports in April 2013.
— Black and Gold Nation – The Offseason (@B_GNation1) September 13, 2017
Gabe Rivera got off to an impressive start in his young NFL football career.
He had 2.0 sacks in six games for the Steelers, who were seeking to resurrect their vaunted “Steel Curtain” defense of the 1970s.
However, the night of October 20, 1983 would change Gabriel Rivera’s life forever.
According to KENS5.com, Rivera stopped for dinner at Julian’s, a local bar, after practice on that rainy Thursday evening.
By the time Rivera returned to his brand-new Datsun 280 ZX’s steering wheel, he was already legally intoxicated.
He crossed the center line of Babcock Boulevard in Ross Township which is roughly fifteen minutes north of Pittsburgh.
Rivera smashed his car into an auto that 48-year-old Allen Watts was driving in the opposite lane at around 9 p.m. Eastern Time.
The 22-year-old rookie defensive lineman, who didn’t wear his seatbelt, was thrown through his car’s back window. He landed approximately fifteen feet from the freeway.
Watts sustained multiple abrasions and was released shortly from the hospital.
On the other hand, the Steelers released a statement (via The Washington Post) saying Rivera sustained serious spinal and internal chest injuries.
Rivera also suffered memory loss, per The Associated Press‘ Ralph D. Russo (via The Washington Times).
He was treated for his injuries at Allegheny General Hospital. Steelers owner Art Rooney, Sr. attended daily morning Mass with Rivera’s mother during his ordeal, per KENS5.com.
— PGH Sports History (@PGH_Sports_Date) October 20, 2018
Rivera fracture his spine at T5-6 and eventually became paralyzed from the chest down since that fateful day.
To compound matters, Ross Township police charged him with drunken and reckless driving.
Fortunately, the district attorney dismissed them claiming Rivera had already endured enough suffering.
The accident took its toll on Rivera’s immune system. When he got cut, he became highly susceptible to an infection, per FOX Sports.
It typically took Rivera a few hours to get out of his bed on his own every morning. Once he cleared that hurdle, he lived independently throughout his day.
For instance, he never wanted to use a motorized wheelchair because he didn’t want his upper body to decrease in size.
On the other hand, using the conventional wheelchair helped him develop his upper body and get some exercise.
Rivera was angry at God and the world for several years after his accident.
“From the accident in ’83, it took maybe five, six, eight years to get control (of my life),” Rivera told The Associated Press (viaThe Washington Times) in 2014. “At one time, I just changed my life and started going forward.”
— Kathy Kas (@PghNittany) July 18, 2018
The thought of several members of the 1983 NFL Draft class having Hall of Fame careers also haunted him.
Among those fellow draftees who are now enshrined in Canton include John Elway, Dan Marino, Eric Dickerson, Richard Dent, Bruce Matthews, Darrell Green, and Jim Kelly.
Sadly, Gabriel Rivera could’ve been one of them.
“I do think about it,” Rivera told FOX Sports in 2013. “I know I had the ability.”
Despite enduring the bleakest period of his life, Rivera found solace in his only son Timothy’s birth just three weeks after his career-ending accident.
Rivera had been married to his first wife and college sweetheart Kimberly for just five months at the time of his tragic road mishap.
He would later marry his second wife Carmen whom he met during physical therapy.
Post-Football Life And Death
Gabe Rivera and his third wife Nancy lived in the San Antonio, TX area in the years following his tragic accident.
He met her at the San Antonio Zoo in awkward fashion in 1998.
Rivera accidentally ran over her foot with his wheelchair. Nancy Rivera suspected otherwise.
“I think he meant to nudge me a little bit,” she told FOX Sports some fifteen years after they first met.
Whether it was accidental or not, it worked in their favor: they went out for dinner several nights later and eventually got married.
Nancy Rivera told FOX Sports her husband’s kindness, generosity, and Christian faith attracted her to the former Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle.
The couple loved to shoot pool, swim, and visit their grandchildren in Dallas, TX.
Whenever Rivera moped and sulked about his 1983 automobile accident, Nancy reminded him he never would’ve met her had it not happened, per FOX Sports.
Rivera volunteered at the non-profit organization Inner City Development from 1998 to 2018. He was a member of the board of directors for fourteen years.
RIP Gabe Rivera aka Señor Sack! San Antonio legend. Whats even more satisfying about this gentelmen, he stated helping out the westside of san antonio and inner city kids. Need more great people in this world like this man. My father was a big fan, sad day for mexicans in the 210 pic.twitter.com/bPTSLZAR0s
— Joseph Burciaga (@JosephBurciaga1) July 17, 2018
He taught middle school students math and grammar. He also discussed his accident with his students and told them never to drink and drive.
“He told us what had happened to him and he didn’t want us to make the same mistake,” Ozzie Torres, an Inner City Development volunteer, told Flores in the summer of 2018.
Inner City Development co-director Patti Radle told SanAntonioReport.org Rivera volunteered twenty-five hours weekly.
Radle told Rodriguez the middle school kids adored and respected the former NFL nose tackle. They rode in his custom-made van when they went on field trips and roller skating.
According to Flores, twenty volunteers crammed into two vans that went to St. Luke’s Baptist Hospital to say their final goodbyes to an ailing Rivera on July 16, 2018.
Nancy Rivera earlier called Radle’s husband and co-director Rod to inform him she put her husband in hospice care.
The volunteers, whose ages ranged from 18 to 20, went to hospice care in groups of three to four to bid Rivera farewell.
Rod Radle told Flores that Gabe Rivera was “lucid” and “cognizant” when the volunteers spoke with him.
When the last of the volunteers left, Radle was the last visitor from Inner City Development.
He asked Rivera if he wanted to say anything to the other volunteers at the center.
Nancy Rivera asked him to tell them not to drink and drive. Her husband shook his head and told Radle to relay the same message.
Gabriel “Señor Sack” Rivera passed away at 9:25 p.m. in his hometown of San Antonio, TX on July 16, 2018, per Flores.
Rivera fell ill during an event at the Inner City Development Center. He spent three days at a local hospital before succumbing to a perforated bowel and colon.
Nancy Rivera confirmed her husband’s cause of death to Flores. She also confirmed doctors couldn’t perform surgery on him because he had no stomach muscle.
More than two hundred people attended Gabriel Rivera’s memorial service at University Methodist Church, per KENS5.com.
Rivera became a member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012. He joined the Texas Tech Red Raiders’ Ring of Honor two years later.
The San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) Hall of Fame inducted Gabe Rivera in 2016.
He remained a staunch Texas Tech Red Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers fan in the years following his tragic accident, per KENS5.com.