As the Packers’ 2012 rookies prepare for their first official practices with the veteran players next week, Marco Rivera has a bit of advice for them.

“Whatever the coaches tell you that day, try to learn it. Just be a student of the game and take it one day at a time,” said Rivera on Friday, as the Packers’ “Tailgate Tour” was headed to a couple of Milwaukee-area schools. Day four was set to conclude with a tailgate party at Grafton High School to benefit Portal, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to advancing employment and meaningful community life opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.

“What a lot of rookies start doing is they start thinking about the future and the size of the playbook and the expectations,” Rivera continued. “It’s almost like your mind starts playing tricks on you and messes with your confidence. Just take it one day at a time.”

Rivera knows of what he speaks. He didn’t have a rookie orientation weekend back in 1996 when he came to the Packers as a sixth-round draft pick out of Penn State. He was simply thrown into practice in the opening minicamp on a team with Super Bowl aspirations, so he knows it’s hard to avoid feeling a bit overwhelmed.

He still remembers seeing Lambeau Field for the first time and thinking, “Wow, this is the big leagues.” He weighed “only” 285 pounds and needed to add another 20 or so to have a chance to make it in the NFL.

“It was so surreal because as you’re walking through (the stadium) and walking in the locker room and you’re looking at the names on the lockers – Brett Favre, Reggie White, Santana Dotson, Gilbert Brown – you’ve got butterflies in your stomach,” he said. “You just imagine what it’s going to feel like when you show up to practice. It’s a lot to take in for the first weekend.”

Rivera paid his dues for a couple of years, which included a summer in Europe in the World League, before becoming a starter at guard in 1998. He started seven straight seasons for the Packers and capped his career by getting inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame last summer.

That recognizable work ethic combined with his big-teddy-bear personality endeared Rivera to Packers fans. He’s always been humbled by the admiration, and that’s been no different this week on the “Tour,” particularly at one stop.

When the “Tour” group, which in addition to Rivera includes fellow alumni Larry McCarren and William Henderson, current players Jordy Nelson, Mason Crosby and Charlie Peprah, and President/CEO Mark Murphy, visited the Tomah VA Medical Center earlier this week, Rivera got to talking and sharing stories with a Vietnam War veteran named Owen.

As the group was preparing to leave, Owen asked for a picture with Rivera. Unprompted, Owen proceeded to take off his beret and place it on Rivera’s head, for keeps. Having learned during the day from the nurses that Owen never goes anywhere without that beret, Rivera was truly touched.

“That was very moving, because he’s probably had that cap on his head since his time in the military,” Rivera said. “He thought enough of me that he wanted to give me something personal, and all he asked in return was that I write him a letter.

“That’s the first thing I’m going to do when I get home.”

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