Former Steelers first-round pick Gabe Rivera dies

Gabe Rivera, a former defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012 for his career at Texas Tech. Rivera died Monday. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Gabe Rivera, the first-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1983, died on Monday night.

According to KENS-TV in Rivera’s native San Antonio, Rivera became ill due to a perforated bowel and had been hospitalized since Friday night. Rivera, a paraplegic, was also dealing with a perforated colon. He was 57 years old.

The crash that changed Gabe Rivera’s life

Rivera, known as “Señor Sack,” was a star defensive lineman at Texas Tech before the Steelers selected him No. 21 overall in the ‘83 draft as Chuck Noll tried to replenish the famed “Steel Curtain” defense. Rivera registered two sacks over his first six games with Pittsburgh, but everything changed on October 20, 1983.

Rivera, then just 22 years old, was paralyzed in a car crash. He was legally drunk and not wearing a seatbelt when his car collided with another. Police charged Rivera with drunken and reckless driving, but the charges were ultimately dismissed.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Rivera, who had been drinking in a North Side bar after football practice on that fateful Thursday night, wrecked into another car in the rain. He was not wearing a seatbelt and was thrown through the back window of his new Datsun 280 ZX. He landed in the grass next to the road.

He was paralyzed from the waist down, permanently. Three weeks later his only son, Timothy, was born in Pittsburgh. Police charged Rivera with drunken and reckless driving, but the district attorney dismissed the charges, saying he had suffered enough. The driver of the other car was not injured.

Rivera was ejected from his vehicle upon impact and suffered a severe spinal cord injury, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. His right arm also was permanently damaged. The injury ended his playing career, and Rivera was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

“I wonder once in a while, what it would be the other way,” Rivera told the Post-Gazette in May. “But you don’t want to stay too long. You think about it, how life would be different, but so far life has been good here.”

The Steelers selected Gabe Rivera ahead of Dan Marino

The 1983 season was set to be Terry Bradshaw’s 14th as the Steelers’ quarterback. And because of a variety of injuries, it ended up being his last.

The franchise had the chance to draft a heck of an heir apparent.

There was a quarterback named Dan Marino who was born and raised in Pittsburgh and was a star at the University of Pittsburgh. He was available at No. 21, but the Steelers went with Rivera as Marino slid to the Miami Dolphins at No. 27.

Based on Rivera’s impressive production at Texas Tech — 321 tackles, 34 tackles for loss and 14 sacks — it was an understandable choice, but it’s tough not to wonder what would have happened if Marino, who had a Hall of Fame career with the Dolphins, ended up wearing the black and gold.

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