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S.A. football legend Gabriel Rivera dies

A car accident cut short the NFL career of 'Señor Sack'
Credit: David Flores / KENS5.com
Gabriel 'Gabe' Rivera, with one of his grandsons at his induction into the San Antonio ISD Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016, was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft. (Photo by David Flores / KENS5.com)

Gabriel “Gabe” Rivera, a San Antonio sports legend whose pro football career was tragically cut short after he sustained a spinal-cord injury in a car accident during his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1983, died Monday night at a local hospital.

Rivera had been in critical condition with a perforated bowel since Friday night, when he fell ill after attending a function at Inner City Development Center, a social services organization where he had worked as a volunteer for years. He was 57.

"Gabriel went home to the Lord at 9:25," Nancy Rivera, his wife, wrote in a text.

Nancy Rivera confirmed Monday morning that her husband was in critical condition.

“He has a perforated bowel, a perforated colon, and doctors can’t perform surgery because he has no stomach muscle,” she said. “He’s getting ready to go into hospice care.”

Rivera had not been ill before he was taken to the hospital Friday night, Nancy Rivera said.

Rivera had been a paraplegic since he was injured in a car accident on the way home after Steelers practice on Oct. 20, 1983. Rivera was legally intoxicated when he crossed the center line on the road and collided with another car. The other driver wasn’t seriously injured but Rivera, then 22, never walked again. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from his vehicle on impact.

A defensive lineman, Rivera was selected by Pittsburgh in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft and was expected to follow Joe Greene as the cornerstone of another great Steelers defense. Iconic Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. often attended morning Mass with Rivera’s mother while Rivera lay in Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh after the accident.

A 1979 Jefferson graduate, Rivera was enshrined in the San Antonio ISD Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016. He earned All-America honors as a defensive lineman at Texas Tech in 1982, his senior season. Nicknamed "Señor Sack" in college, Rivera became legendary for his relentless pass-rushing ability.

Rivera was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012 and is also in the Texas Tech Sports Hall of Fame and San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame. His name was added to Tech's Ring of Honor at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock in 2014. Rivera was named Southwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year in his senior season and made the SWC All-Decade team for the 1980s.

Rivera was lauded for his volunteer work as a tutor with the Inner City Development Center, a nonprofit, community-based organization that serves one of the poorest areas in San Antonio.

"When I first got injured, I had hope that I would walk again," Rivera said in a 2014 interview. "I still have hope, but now I just live my life and keep going. If it happens, it happens. I enjoy life. Do the best with the life you have."

Nancy and Gabriel Rivera were married for 18 years.

“Gabriel always has appreciated the support he’s gotten from people in San Antonio and beyond,” Nancy Rivera said. “He loves San Antonio and he loves the people. He’s felt their love through the years.”

Rivera was one of five SAISD graduates who has earned consensus All-America football honors. Plaques honoring the five players are on permanent display on a wall inside the west entrance of Alamo Stadium. Rivera spoke about the recognition a few days before the plaques were unveiled in September 2014.

"It's very special," he said. "When I was a youngster, I knew Alamo Stadium was the place to go play. I always thought of Alamo Stadium as the Rockpile, and now I'm going to be part of it forever when my plaque is put up there with the others. Fans and kids will come out here and see it. It's a tremendous, awesome feeling.

Big and fast for his size, Rivera was a San Antonio legend before he set foot on the Texas Tech campus. He played tight end and linebacker on the Jefferson football team, and also was a standout on the basketball and track squads.

Rivera was 6-foot-2 and 293 pounds as a rookie with the Steelers. He already had broken into the starting lineup when his career ended midway through his rookie season.

Rivera remained an ardent Texas Tech and Steelers fan through the years.

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