Credit: David Flores / Kens5.com
Gridiron Heroes co-founder Eddie Canales, center, poses for a photo with his son, Chris, right, and Gabe Rivera.
Sunday, Oct 27 at 6:25 AM
Their 23-year age difference notwithstanding, former Texas Tech All-America defensive lineman Gabe Rivera and ex-San Marcos Baptist Academy defensive back Chris Canales have much in common.
Besides being bound by their passion for football, Rivera and Canales share a unique bond forged by tragedy. Neither has walked since sustaining spinal-cord injuries in accidents that occurred 18 years apart.
Sitting side by side in their wheelchairs Thursday after a meeting of the San Antonio Quarterback Club, Rivera and Canales reconnected easily. Although neither could remember the last time they spoke with each other, they chatted like two longtime buds.
“There’s a bond people in wheelchairs have,” said Rivera, 50. “We know how we go through things. We all have up days and down days. It’s like any other group. Every day is a challenge.”
Canales, 27, nodded in agreement.
“When you wheel by somebody in a wheelchair, you know right away the difficulties they face,” Canales said.
Rivera and Canales were guests of the Quarterback Club, which met at the Bright Shawl near downtown.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ No. 1 draft pick in 1983, Rivera had his career cut short when he was left a paraplegic by injuries suffered in a car accident midway through his rookie season.
Sadly, Rivera was legally intoxicated as he drove home from the Steelers’ practice facility that fateful night.
Rivera, nicknamed Senor Sack during his career, was 22 when his life was turned upside down on Oct. 20, 1983.
Three days later, Canales was born in San Antonio.
Canales was an 18-year-old senior defensive back at San Marcos Baptist Academy when he suffered a spinal-cord injury while making a tackle in a game Nov. 2, 2001.
A quadriplegic, Canales has brought attention to the plight of high school football players struggling with spinal-cord injuries through his work with the Gridiron Heroes Spinal Cord Injury Organization.
Eddie Canales, Chris’ father, and then-San Marcos Baptist Academy football coach Mike Kipp co-founded Gridiron Heroes in 2002.
The mission of the nonprofit organization is to raise the awareness of the financial and emotional problems high school athletes and their families face after such a catastrophic injury.
“I can relate to what they’re doing,” Rivera said. “These kids and their families need a lot of help when something like this happens.”
Although Rivera didn’t suffer his spinal-cord injury on the football field, he shares a bond with Canales and the other high school players Gridiron Heroes has helped in the past nine seasons.
“He knows what we go through every day,” Chris Canales said.
A 1979 Jefferson High School graduate, Rivera was inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. He is also a member of the Texas Tech Hall of Honor.
“Gabe is an inspiration,” Eddie Canales said. “To be able get through this – and there are a lot of ups and downs with this type of injury – and staying involved is extremely important. Helping in the community and helping others with similar injuries is an inspiration because you’re doing your part, even though you have your own obstacles every day.”
Rivera, who is on full disability, has done volunteer work as a tutor for Inner City Development, a community-based agency, in the summers. He lives near Helotes with his second wife, Nancy.
Rivera has a son from his first marriage, Timothy, who was born three weeks after Rivera’s accident.
Texas Tech football coach Tommy Turberville was the scheduled speaker, but Thursday’s stormy weather thwarted his travel plans. Red Raiders offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who was recruiting in San Antonio, was a last-minute replacement for Turberville.
While Brown did a good job of giving his audience the skinny on Tech heading into the summer, Rivera and Canales attracted the most attention.
After Brown finished speaking, Eddie Canales showed club members an HBO video highlighting Gridiron Heroes and also spoke to the group.
“He’s the main force, I think, of Gridiron Heroes,” Canales said of his father. “I’m very proud of him.”
Rivera listened intently and smiled. No more words were needed.
Both confined to wheelchairs, Rivera and Chris Canales share a bond that transcends words.