Rivera had been hospitalized with a perforated bowel since Friday night. He had been attending an event for the Inner City Development Center, a San Antonio based non-profit social services organization he had been volunteering for.
Rivera’s hospitalization was confirmed by his wife, Nancy, Monday morning.
“He has a perforated bowel, a perforated colon, and doctors can’t perform surgery because he has no stomach muscle,” she said in a statement. “He’s getting ready to go into hospice care.”
Nancy Rivera also confirmed her husband’s passing Monday night.
“Gabriel went home to the Lord at 9:25,” she wrote in a text message.
Rivera was born Apr. 7, 1961 in Crystal City, Tex. He played both tight end and linebacker in high school and was a standout on the basketball and track teams as well.
He played collegiately at Texas Tech (1979-82) where he earned the colorful nickname “Señor Sack”. Rivera used his quick feet and speed to become a relentless pass rusher. He received All-American honorable mention as a sophomore. In his senior year, he was a Consensus First-team All-American and named Southwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
“He was one of the most dominating defensive linemen to ever play the game and a loyal Red Raider throughout his life,” Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt said.
Rivera was selected by the Steelers with the 21st overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft. His selection raised eyebrows and continues to be a source of debate to this day.
Terry Bradshaw, the Steelers’ four-time Super Bowl champion Hall of Fame quarterback, was near the end of his career. The team passed on Pittsburgh native and University of Pittsburgh star Dan Marino to select Rivera. Steelers head coach Chuck Noll decided to rebuild the Steelers beginning with the defensive side of the ball.
The 6-foot-2, 293-pound Rivera was reminiscent of Hall of Fame defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene. Unfortunately for the Steelers and Rivera, his NFL career would last only six games with only two sacks.
On Oct. 20, 1983, Rivera was nearly killed after leaving a Steelers practice when the sports car he was driving crossed the center line on the road and collided with another car. Rivera was legally intoxicated at the time of the crash, not wearing a seat belt, and was thrown from his car upon impact. He suffered abdominal, chest, head, and neck injuries as well as significant memory loss.
The driver of the other car wasn’t seriously injured but Rivera became a paraplegic, spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. often attended morning Mass with Rivera’s mother immediately after the accident as he lay in a Pittsburgh hospital.
“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.”
Rivera was named to the Southwest Conference 1980s All-Decade Team and inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012. He was also lauded for his volunteer work throughout the San Antonio area. He remained an ardent fan of Texas Tech and the Steelers as well.
“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.”
In addition to his wife, Rivera is survived by son Timothy and daughter Rae. He was previously married to the former Kimberly Covington.
– Curtis Rawls is a Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage and covers the NFL, the New York Giants, and the NBA. Please like and follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Twitter. Curtis can be followed on Twitter @CuRawls203.