Ex-Steeler Gabe Rivera didn't get 2nd chance

Rob Biertempfel
| Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Gabe Rivera is all too familiar with what Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is going through.

Roethlisberger is laid up at Mercy Hospital with a broken jaw, a fractured nose and a concussion, the results of a motorcycle wreck Monday on Second Avenue.

Twenty-three years ago, Rivera lost control of his car on a dark road in the North Hills. The late-night crash left him a paraplegic, ending Rivera's promising career midway through his rookie season with the Steelers.

Roethlisberger's injuries are not nearly as severe, meaning he will get something Rivera never had after his wreck -- a second chance.

"I think Ben will understand that," Rivera said Tuesday from his home in San Antonio.

"Sometimes, when you're young and strong, you're hard-headed. You think the bad things will happen to somebody else. But you still have to make decisions. Sometimes, they're good decisions. Sometimes, they're the wrong ones and you have to live with that."

Rivera said he expects Roethlisberger will find the next few weeks to be the toughest stretch of his recovery.

"You're still not sure what's going on; you're in pain; you can't talk," Rivera said. "This is going to be the hard part for Ben, just like it was for me."

The Steelers selected Rivera with their first-round pick of the 1983 draft, choosing him over Pitt quarterback Dan Marino. At Texas Tech, Rivera earned the nickname "Senor Sack" and was a Kodak All-American and Southwest Conference defensive player of the year.

Bulky, powerful and yet light on his feet, Rivera had a pair of sacks in his first six games in the NFL. It appeared he might anchor the Steelers' defensive line for years to come.

On the night of Oct. 20, 1983, Rivera was on his way home, zipping down Babcock Boulevard.

He had been drinking and was not wearing a seat belt.

The car spun out of control, and Rivera was thrown out the back window. He shattered his spine when he landed and was paralyzed from the chest down.

"I remember the doctors didn't know my (shoulder blade) was broken in half until a few days later, when I finally could talk again," Rivera said. "I asked them, 'Why does it hurt there?' and they realized it was broken."

These days, Rivera, who is married with two children, tries not to think back to the night of his wreck. The depression and anger he felt have slowly dissolved over the years.

"It's not as bad now as it was then," he said softly. "Every once in a while, I'll think about 'what if' and how my life might have been different. But I don't dwell on it. You learn to let it go."

Even as he came to grips with the end of his career as a player, Rivera remained a Steelers fan. He still follows the team "as much as I can" on television and the Internet.

Rivera knew only sketchy details about Roethlisberger's accident.

"I hope he makes it through OK," Rivera said. "But right now, I'm battling my own problems."

Over the past four years, Rivera has been in and out of hospitals. He has had a half-dozen surgeries, including one to replace his badly infected hip bones with muscle flaps from his hamstrings.

"You've got to just try to keep going," Rivera said. "You may get down, but you have to get up and face another day."

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