Gabe Rivera’s voice has a real growl to it these days. It sounds like it’s being filtered through rocks and industrial machinery. He sounds like he is not feeling well and, indeed, he had postponed an interview for that reason.
The reason is, 30 years ago, Rivera had some drinks, got behind the wheel of his 1983 Datsun 280-ZX and crashed it into another motorist in a little town called Ross Township north of Pittsburgh. It was about 9 p.m. and raining. When paramedics arrived, they found Rivera immobilized in some weeds. His heart was bruised, his shattered ribs had punctured his lungs and his spinal column was crushed. He’d somehow been ejected through the back window, all 6 feet 2 and 293 pounds of him. The other driver was OK.
And just like that, Gabe “Senor Sack” Rivera, Texas Tech All-American, Pittsburgh Steelers’ first-round draft pick, son, brother, expectant father, was paralyzed from the chest down.
Authorities charged him with driving under the influence and other driving offenses, but the Allegheny County District Attorney at the time, Robert E. Colville, eventually dismissed the drunk-driving charge, saying, “There is no punishment that the law can give that would be comparable to the loss he has had.”
Said Rivera of the incident: “I don’t remember anything. I know I was drinking and wasn’t wearing a seat belt.”
Rivera had been a stunning prospect. He had that rare gift the best defensive linemen have — he was a dump truck that drove like a Corvette. Everybody from the old Southwest Conference days seems to remember the time Rivera chased down SMU running back Eric Dickerson and ripped off his helmet. He was a consensus All-American as a senior.
“It just came pretty natural to me,” said Rivera, 52.
So, as the draft approached, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s career was winding down, and the Steelers knew it. Bradshaw turned 35 in 1983 and would play in just one game that season. Pittsburgh had the No. 21 pick, and prolific Pitt quarterback Dan Marino was still on the board when Rivera got the phone call: “Would you like to be a Pittsburgh Steeler?” he remembers the guy on the other end asking.
“It was a really exciting surprise,” he said.
And that’s about it. That’s about as much as Rivera can remember about his football career, which lasted through six games of his rookie season with the Steelers. Sometimes another person will tell him about something they saw him do, and it will knock loose a rusty memory. That happened with the Dickerson play last year when Rivera was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
But, for the most part, the accident didn’t just take away his career, it took away his memory of it.
It also damaged his immune system, and he has to be careful any time he gets a cut because he is highly susceptible to infection. But he isn’t great about physical self-examination and isn’t crazy about seeing the doctor.
“That’s exactly what it is,” his wife said.
Her name is Nancy, and they met about 15 years ago at the San Antonio Zoo when Gabe ran over her foot with his wheelchair. He tried to play it off, but Nancy suspects it was not entirely an accident.
“I think he meant to nudge me a little bit,” she said.
Either way, it worked. They went for dinner a few nights later and have been together ever since. Nancy was attracted to his kindness. She describes him as a faithful Christian who cares about others and is generous with his time. He isn’t able to work, but he volunteers at a nonprofit community organization called Inner City Development in his native San Antonio. He does a lot of tutoring and mentoring there. Mostly for teenagers.
“It keeps them from getting in trouble,” he said.
The daily routine is a grind. “Trying to stay healthy,” is how Rivera describes his day-to-day existence. It takes him a couple hours to get out of bed and ready for the day each morning, but once he’s done that he lives independently. He refuses to use a motorized wheelchair because he doesn’t want his upper body to atrophy, and he and Nancy like to play pool, go swimming and visit grandkids in Dallas.
It isn’t easy, but it wasn’t always this easy.
For several years after his accident, Rivera was mad at God and the world. He thought about what should have been. So many of his cohorts in that 1983 draft class went on to become one-name legends. Elway. Marino. Dickerson. Dent. Bruce Matthews was in that class. So were Darrell Green and Jim Kelly. Seven Hall of Famers.
“I do think about it,” he says. “I know I had the ability.”
The anger about his football career dissolved in time. He started looking at it like he got a second chance at life, even if it wasn’t the kind of life he had once dreamed of.
Gabe and Nancy married 13 years ago, and he spent the first 4 1/2 years of their marriage bedridden. It was a difficult time. He was bummin’ hard.
And now it was time for Nancy to give him a little nudge.
“If you hadn’t had the accident,” she said. “You wouldn’t have met me. Get over it.”
Nancy tells that story over the phone. She’s out and about and Gabe is at home. She doesn’t know that a couple hours earlier, Gabe had told the same tale.