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Senor Sack: Gabriel Rivera

Author Jorge Iber discussed his new book on the Texas Sports Hall of Fame Podcast. The book covers the life of Gabe Rivera.

The story of Gabe Rivera is exciting, tragic, and beautiful. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him instead of quarterback Dan Marino in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft. Rivera’s promising NFL career soon ended in a terrible car accident. The man who was Senor Sack was left paralyzed for life after playing only six regular season NFL games. A book by Texas Tech faculty member Jorge Iber explores his life and career.

Who Was Senor Sack?

Gabe Rivera is a member of both the Southwest Conference Hall of Fame and the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame, both of which are housed on the grounds of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in Waco. Rivera is also enshrined in the Texas Tech Ring of Honor. He attended Jefferson High School in San Antonio and was a Parade All-American in high school. He went on to star at Texas Tech and earned consensus All-American honors.

Rivera raised eyebrows as a freshman in his first-ever college game. He knocked down experienced USC offensive linemen and slammed future NFL quarterback Paul McDonald to the turf for a sack. Midway through his freshman year, Rivera gained a starting role.

Rivera earned national prominence as a senior after a tremendous game against the #1 ranked Washington Huskies. He was named AP’s Outstanding Lineman of the Week after he made 10 tackles, blocked 4 passes, and recorded a sack against the nation’s top-ranked team.

1983 NFL Draft

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Chuck Noll decided to draft Gabe Rivera over future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino. Many people ask, “Why didn’t the Steelers draft Dan Marino?”

The reason was that the cornerstone of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty was defensive tackle Joe Greene. Greene was the first player Noll ever selected. Noll thought that since drafting a defensive anchor before a quarterback yielded incredible results in the past, he could duplicate the success with drafting a defensive player first in 1983. He selected Senor Sack over Marino, a hometown favorite who played college ball at Pitt and grew up in Pittsburgh.

What Might Have Been for Gabe Rivera

Dan Marino was an instant star in Miami. He led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl in his second NFL season. He was one of the, if not THE, most talented quarterbacks of the 1980s.

Gabriel Rivera played only six regular season games for the Steelers. He notched two sacks in those games. Although Joe Greene stands as one of the greatest defensive linemen in NFL history, what Gabe Rivera’s NFL career might have been can only be speculated. The people that witnessed his college career understand how he could be viewed as a defensive anchor. Rivera was a tremendously disruptive player who could run a 4.8 40-yard dash as a defensive tackle.

Rivera’s career ended abruptly after a car accident paralyzed him. We will never know how great Gabe Rivera might have been in the NFL.

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Gabe Rivera’s Life After the Accident

Rivera never played football again and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Jorge Iber, author of the book Senor Sack: The Life of Gabe Rivera, told the Texas Sports Hall of Fame Podcast that Rivera eventually became a pillar of the San Antonio community. He mentored young people and became a positive and important influence in their lives.

Iber noted that Steelers owner Art Rooney became friends with Rivera’s mother after the accident.

Rivera passed away in 2018.

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