As his life ebbed away last week, San Antonio football legend Gabriel “Gabe” Rivera had one last bit of wisdom to share with the scores of kids he worked with as a volunteer at Inner City Development for nearly 20 years.
Don’t drink and drive.
“He told us what had happened to him and he didn’t want us to make the same mistake,” said Ozzie Torres, an Inner City volunteer who will be a senior at Lanier High School when classes start next month. “He owned up to it. He never tried to hide from it. He was honest with us.”
Rivera died on Monday, July 16, at a local hospital after falling ill at home three days earlier. He was 57.
Rivera paid a heavy price for drinking and driving on Oct. 20, 1983, when he stopped at a bar on the way home from practice during his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was intoxicated when he got back behind the steering wheel of his new Datsun 280 ZX and drove away on that fateful, rainy Thursday night.
Rivera didn’t get far before his life changed forever. He crossed the center line on a road in Ross Township, about 15 minutes north of Pittsburgh, and crashed into another car coming from the opposite direction.
The other driver wasn’t seriously injured but Rivera, then 22, never walked again. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and was thrown through the back window of his vehicle on impact. And just like that, Rivera’s promising NFL career was over. The accident left him in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down, for the rest of his life.
Police charged Rivera with drunken and reckless driving, but the district attorney dismissed the charges, saying Rivera had suffered enough already.
Torres said Rivera, a 1979 Jefferson High School graduate, never missed an opportunity to talk to the kids at Inner City about life lessons and sharing his experiences with them.
“He loved those kids as if they were his own and he didn’t want them to put themselves in danger,” Patti Radle said. “It was just Gabriel being Gabriel.”
Radle and her husband, Rod, have been the volunteer directors of Inner City Development since the late 1960s. The nonprofit community organization serves one of the poorest areas in San Antonio.
Some 20 volunteers from Inner City Development squeezed into two vans and made the trip to St. Luke’s Baptist Hospital on the afternoon of July 16 to say their goodbyes to Rivera. His wife, Nancy, had called Rod Radle to tell him that she was preparing to put her husband in hospice care.
“We’d bring in the kids – I keep calling them kids, but they’re young adults, 18 to 20 years old – in groups of three or four at a time to say goodbye to him,” Radle said. “He was lucid and he was cognizant. When the kids were all done, I was the last one there from the group.
“I asked Gabe, ‘Is there anything you want to tell or say to the kids back at the center?' That’s when, right away, Nancy, just offhand, said, “Yeah, don’t drink and drive.’ Gabe shook his head, yes, the same message.”
Selected by the Steelers in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft, Rivera was a fierce defensive tackle. In touting the pick for Rivera, coach Chuck Noll said he thought the Texas Tech alum could follow Joe Greene as the cornerstone of another great Pittsburgh defense.
But Rivera played in only six games before his life was turned upside down.
“He was always open about it with the kids,” Rod Radle said. “He didn’t have anything to hide. He had a lot to share. He wanted to make sure the kids got the message real clear that taking care of yourselves is important in the long run.”
More than 200 people gathered for Rivera’s memorial service Wednesday at University Methodist Church. A private burial is planned for later, Nancy Rivera said.
Former Texas Tech assistant coach David Knaus, who was Rivera’s position coach when he was a sophomore, recalled Rivera as a special player and person.
“He was a great football player, but he also was a great guy,” said Knaus, a Churchill graduate who played football at Tech. “Gabe was full of life. He was a force of nature. He was the kind of guy you never forget."