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Starkey: Gabe Rivera finds peace

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Sunday, May 20, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

Lucky to be alive?

One man felt that way. The other did not.

Their head-on collision had somehow propelled one of them, massive Steelers defensive tackle Gabe Rivera, through the back window of his new Datsun 280-ZX sports car. Paramedics came upon his mangled 300-pound body in a weeded patch at the side of Babcock Boulevard and Three Degree Road in Ross Township.

It was shortly after 9 on a cold, drizzly night; Oct. 20, 1983.

Rivera had been drinking. His injuries were inconceivable: crushed spinal column, broken ribs, punctured lung, bruised heart.

Lucky to be alive? For the next decade or so, Rivera, paralyzed from the chest down, wondered if he would have been luckier dead.

The other man, a meter reader for Equitable Gas, faced no such conflict. He was eternally grateful to have walked away.

Nearly 30 years later, Allen Watts can still feel the moment of impact. He was on his way to pick up his wife from work that night.

A Steelers fan, Watts knew Rivera's story: drafted 21st overall, instead of hometown hero Dan Marino, and coming on strong six games into his rookie season.

Of course, Watts never could have imagined it was Rivera behind the wheel of the tiny car speeding toward his enormous Ford LTD.

“I wasn't going very fast, and I saw these headlights coming over the rise, in my lane,” recalls Watts, a 77-year-old Ross Township resident. “(Rivera) missed the car in front of me, but he hit me and spun me around. So many things went through my mind in those seconds.

“After it was over, I said, ‘Man, I'm lucky.' ”

Watts quickly moved on with his life. Rivera could not, physically or emotionally.

Only a few years earlier, Rivera had become a sensation at Texas Tech. Folks still talk about the time “Senor Sack” chased down SMU running back Eric Dickerson and tore his helmet off.

“His goggles came off, too,” recalls Rivera, 51. “I have a picture of that somewhere, but I can't remember where I put it.”

That's OK, because a fresher memento arrived at Rivera's San Antonio household last week. It was a football commemorating his selection to the College Football Hall of Fame. He will be enshrined with the likes of Jimmy Johnson and Jonathan Ogden this summer in South Bend, Ind.

“Amazing,” Rivera says. “I'm glad people still talk about me.”

Actually, people speak glowingly of Rivera for reasons more current, and far more important, than tackling Eric Dickerson.

His story is about now, not then. About how he found a way to start living again and touched so many lives in the process. One was that of his son, Tim, who was born in Pittsburgh 10 days after the accident.

That time remains hazy, though Rivera remembers Steelers founder Art Rooney -- who'd urged coach Chuck Noll to draft Marino -- visiting him frequently at a facility in Harmarville.

“'The Chief' and my mom got along pretty well,” Rivera says. “That was nice.”

Rivera has two daughters by his first wife. He met his second wife, Nancy, by a twist of fate in the late 1990's at the San Antonio Zoo: He accidentally ran over her foot with his wheelchair. His three small grandchildren “adore him,” Tim says, and call him “Papa.”

Rivera was a loving presence in his son's life, despite a divorce that resulted in Tim living with his mother. Tim fondly recalls days at his dad's house watching San Antonio Spurs games and visiting the Steelers' locker room when the team played in Dallas.

His father also provided a powerful testimony to the deadly dangers of driving drunk.

“He gave me a pretty good example of what not to do,” says Tim, an army veteran who served in Iraq. “The reality is every kid out there thinks it won't happen to them. Yes, it could happen to you.”

And then there all the other people's kids Rivera has influenced.

Rosa Lopez is an administrative assistant at Inner City Development in San Antonio, a non-profit organization for disadvantaged youths. Rivera is a board member and much more. He spends summers working with the children.

“I don't know even know to explain the way he is, being in a wheelchair, never down, always playing with the kids,” Lopez says. “I've never seen him mad. He has a big impact.”

Kids often ask how Rivera wound up in a wheelchair. His stock answer: “Drinking and driving.”

Watts, a doting grandfather himself, is pleased to hear of Rivera's rebound.

“I felt bad, I really did, because he had this great career ahead of him,” says Watts, who sent a card to Rivera shortly after their lives intersected for that one horrific moment.

Both men know that as tragic as the accident was, it could have been worse. One of Rivera's first questions after he came to was, “Did I hurt anybody?”

Who knows if he could have handled any answer but no?

These days, Rivera says, he tries only to look forward. He battles sores and infections and knows his spinal cord likely won't heal. But his bruised heart sure has.

A fourth grandchild is on the way. Tim's wife is due next month.

“People can age in a chair,” Rivera says. “Hopefully, I hit my 70's. Or more.”

Lucky to be alive?

Yeah, you could say that.

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