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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Rivera Truly Rugged; Veteran Guard Loves Playing For Packers


November 4, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Green Bay -- There aren't many things Marco Rivera fears.

Defensive tackles with bad intentions? Nah. The pressure of protecting Brett Favre from kamikaze blitzers? Nope. Orthopedic surgeons?

Are you kidding? The Green Bay Packers' starting right guard is on a first-name basis with every scalpel slinger in Brown County.

There is one thing that gives Marco the shivers, however, and it's bears.

No, not Bears, as in Monsters of the Midway.

We're talking about big, furry bears, the kind that could turn a 300-pound offensive lineman into a statistic with one swipe of its paw.

Rivera owns a cabin on the Kenai River in Alaska, where he spends part of July every year fishing for Chinook salmon. He once landed a 52-pounder after a 40-minute fight, the fishing equivalent of 10 pancake blocks in one quarter.

The thing is, when the king are running, so are the bears.

"I don't want to see a bear," Rivera said. "There's tracks everywhere. You'll be fishing on the bank and you look down and there's this huge paw print. You kind of look around and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

"You know what? Every year I go up and every year there's a story about somebody getting mauled."

If it happened to Rivera, he'd probably tape up and play the next week. Favre might be the toughest player on the team, but Rivera isn't far behind.

The nine-year veteran from Penn State isn't going to let a badly sprained ankle keep him out of the lineup when the Packers play the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 14. Rivera was hobbling in the locker room Wednesday but he plans to stay in Green Bay for therapy while his teammates scatter during the bye week.

"If I keep doing the regimen they've got me on, I think I'll be close to 100%," he said.

It doesn't matter what percent Rivera is. He'll play, just as he did in 2002, when he suffered torn medial collateral ligaments in both knees and didn't miss a start. The year before, he suffered a broken hand in practice and played three days later against the Bears.

"I remember breaking my hand Thursday," Rivera said. "I went to the hospital and got the cast and came in on Friday. Coach (Mike Sherman) said, 'How do you feel? Do you want to play?' I said, 'Of course I want to play.' But in the back of my mind, I didn't want to hurt the team. I was a little nervous, mostly because of pass protection."

Rivera played well against the Bears and threw a key block on Ahman Green's 12-yard touchdown run that gave the Packers a 14-7 lead in their eventual 17-7 victory.

"That told me a lot about myself," he said. "If I could do that, really focus in and play through the pain, there's pretty much nothing I can't do if I set my mind to it."

Last year, Rivera played through another sprained MCL in his left knee, which he suffered during the pre-season. A Week 3 poke in the eye that caused internal bleeding didn't knock him out, either.

Three weeks ago, playing against Detroit, he came out of the lineup for two whole snaps after suffering a severe laceration on his right biceps.

"I think I do have a high pain threshold," Rivera said, perhaps the understatement of the year. "It hurts me like it hurts anybody else, but I think I have the ability not to focus on it and think about other things."

Rivera said that focus, along with the adrenaline and excitement of playing on Sundays, takes his mind off the pain.

"There's a lot of things that happen in a game that you don't even realize happened to you," he said. "You get cut, scratched, your fingers get all mangled up, you get neck burners, you get big bruises like this one here (pointing to an ugly mark on his left forearm).

"After the game, you take a shower and you go, 'Oh my gosh, what the hell is that?' "

Rivera has played in 91 consecutive games, the fifth-longest streak on the team. Not only does he play with injuries, but he plays well with them. He has graded out as the Packers' best offensive lineman two of the last three years and made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons.

But the injuries, Rivera admitted, have taken a toll. He worries about what life will be like when he's 60 and the arthritis screams 24 hours a day.

"I saw a special on ESPN a couple years ago about Jim Otto," Rivera said of the Hall of Famer. "He's in bad shape. But I heard him say he does not regret it. He said, 'This is what I chose to do. I loved playing football and if I had to do it all over again, I would.'

"And I thought, 'Well, hell, I'm the same way.' "

That brings us to another potentially painful subject. Rivera will be a free agent after this season. So, too, will starting left guard Mike Wahle, who at 27 is five years younger than Rivera.

The Packers probably will be able to afford to keep only one of them.

Rivera met with Sherman before the season started and made it clear that he wanted to stay in Green Bay.

"I told Coach, 'You know, I want to retire a Packer and it's up to you guys,' " Rivera said. "I know the business side comes into it, but I want to retire a Packer."

Rivera and Wahle, close friends, have had plenty of discussions about their futures.

"He thinks they're going to keep me and I think they're going to keep him," Rivera said. "He's an elite player and I'm a pretty good player. The chances of both of us being here, it's probably not going to happen."

Rivera said if the Packers didn't re-sign him he would "live with it and move on." But the mere thought of putting on another team's jersey hurts as bad as any ligament he's ever sprained.

"I've got some history here," he said. "I know Bob Harlan and the administration. Coach Sherman, we go back to the '96 Super Bowl, when he was the tight ends coach. I'm not just a player who came in here one or two years and bounced around."

In the off-season, Rivera will head for the house he built outside Ponce, Puerto Rico, where his extended family gathers.

In July, you'll find him on the Kenai River, fishing for king salmon, his head on a swivel, watching for bears.

But there's only one place he wants to be next August: Right here, in Green Bay.

It would hurt to be anywhere else.

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