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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Showing Enormous Gridiron Grit Packers' Rivera Suffers, But His Play Doesn't
By CLIFF CHRISTL
November 29, 2002
Green Bay -- Offensive linemen are a tough breed. They play in a minefield where they get stepped on, leg-whipped and undercut. They play with broken bones, shredded ligaments and more cuts, bruises and scar tissue than Evel Knievel.
But as tough a lot as it is there are those within it who raise the threshold even higher: The toughest of the tough, if you will.
Marco Rivera, the Green Bay Packers' seventh-year right guard, might have recently earned an everlasting place in that small pantheon.
A week ago Monday, he could barely get out of bed with a stiff and swollen right knee after completely tearing his medial collateral ligament the previous day. On Sunday, he strapped on two titanium braces to stabilize and protect two bad knees -- he had partially torn the MCL in his left knee eight weeks earlier -- and squared off against Warren Sapp, perhaps the most dominant defensive tackle in the National Football League.
"It gives me chills," said Larry McCarren, a local broadcaster and a tough coot himself during the 12 seasons that he played center for the Packers. "That's what it's all about to me. The bell rang and he answered."
It wasn't the first time Rivera played hurt. He didn't miss a game earlier this season when he suffered his first knee injury. Last year, he broke his left hand in practice and played three days later against the Chicago Bears. In 1998, his first year as a starter, he tore the MCL in his right knee in late November and played two weeks later. He dressed for the game in between but wasn't needed.
In five seasons that has been the only game he missed.
"I've been in this business and I've always admired guys who took their toughness to another level," said Pat Ruel, assistant offensive line coach who has spent 28 years in the profession. "He's a true warrior."
You begin to understand why as you trace Rivera's background and career.
He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1972, and raised by parents who emigrated from Puerto Rico and believed that the way to get ahead was through hard work. His father, William, toiled in the plantation fields of his homeland as a youngster and went to work for a butcher after he arrived in the United States.
Before he was 20, his father bought his own butcher shop and turned it into a successful business. Rivera's mother, Martha, raised five children.
"I remember ever since I was a little kid, they put me right to work," said Rivera. "If I wanted a new pair of sneakers, I had to go sweep the floors. They instilled in me the pride you get out of hard work and that's the way I do it."
There's also something else about his heritage that's a source of pride with Rivera. As far as he knows, he is the only player of Puerto Rican descent in pro football.
Raised in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, Rivera learned at a young age that if anyone in the neighborhood revealed any sign of weakness, it was a bully's invitation to beat the snot out of them. To survive, one had to be tough.
"You look at somebody the wrong way, you were fixin' for a fight," said Rivera.
Before his freshman year, Rivera moved with his family to Long Island, a half-hour away from his dad's butcher shop. That's when he started playing organized football. Four years later, coming out of Elmont Memorial High School, he was heavily recruited by college football powers from coast to coast.
Paterno preaches toughness
He chose Penn State, where he played for a demanding icon, Joe Paterno, and with some hard-edged teammates from the hard-scrabble coal and steel towns of western Pennsylvania.
"Joe liked mentally tough guys," said Rivera. "You ask any of the Penn Staters in the league right now, they'll tell you there were numerous times they played with sprained ankles or bruised ribs or beat-up knees.
"Look at the players from Penn State. Matt Millen, who I think was one of the toughest guys to ever play the game. Steve Wisniewski, the guard with the Raiders. Another tough guy. So when you go to Penn State, you assume the role."
Drafted by the Packers in the sixth round in 1996, Rivera was listed fourth on the depth chart at right guard when camp started. Nothing was given to him; he had to earn his spot on the roster.
In his first season, he was inactive for all 16 games. The next year, he played in 14 games, but almost exclusively on special teams. In his third year, he became a starter.
He has since become a fixture on the offensive line, but it's not something that he takes for granted.
With offensive linemen, its part of the code of honor to play hurt. They almost all do and think nothing of it. That's why, for now, Rivera's teammates pay him only grudging respect.
Pain part of game
Right tackle Earl Dotson is playing with chronic pain in his knees. Center Mike Flanagan played earlier this season with a broken thumb. Left tackle Chad Clifton played with a sprained MCL.
"Most linemen are pretty tough and take pride in that," said center Frank Winters, a 16-year veteran. "They battle through the pain and just go on."
But by playing with a severed MCL and more than holding his own against Sapp, Rivera performed above and beyond the call of duty. Not only did he play in pain, he played above his pain.
One of the most remarkable records in the NFL is Jim Marshall's consecutive game streak of 282. An outstanding defensive end with the Minnesota Vikings in the 1960s and '70s, he didn't miss a game in more than 20 seasons.
Not only that, but his former coach Bud Grant often said that Marshall, who trained on Jack Daniels whiskey and cigarettes, had such a high pain threshold that he played better when he was hurt than when he was healthy.
That might also be true of Rivera.
"The thing about playing hurt is that you have to focus more," said guard Mike Wahle. "It was like when (Michael) Jordan got sick in the Utah Jazz series and went off for like 37 points.
"Some probably do play better when they're hurt. I don't know if he's one of them, but he played a great game Sunday. Maybe that's the case. He probably has been hurt more than he has been healthy to be honest with you."
Backhanded compliments are all that anyone gets paid in a locker room. That's if they're fortunate.
"You (expletive), it's just a knee," one of Rivera's fellow linemen yelled across the room in the midst of an interview earlier this week. "You've got another one."
That's their way of showing respect, Rivera explained with a smile.
Years from now, it'll be different. McCarren can speak from experience. The linemen of his era love to tell stories about former guard Derrel Gofourth, who underwent surgery on both knees and both elbows, but missed only one game in five years.
"He was snapping turtle tough," said McCarren. "When you're talking about just toughness, Gofourth was all-universe. He was playing with a knee brace and had some sort of ligament issue; his brace gets blown off, he goes over to Eddie Lee Ivery, rips his brace off, slaps it on and goes back out on the field."
McCarren guarantees that Rivera's teammates will regale each other with tales about his toughness, too, once they've all turned old and gray.
"That is the kind of thing guys remember about a guy probably more than any other thing. 'Like Marco, he's a real deal guy,' " said McCarren. "I don't care how many Pro Bowl teams he plays on, he'll be a respected football player by his contemporaries forever."