Injuries ultimately ended Marco Rivera’s football career, but he played through more than his share.
He takes more pride in that than perhaps anything else he accomplished, though Saturday’s induction into the Packers Hall of Fame will rank pretty high on the list, too.
He’ll never forget Nov. 24, 2002. The Packers were heading to Tampa Bay for a crucial NFC showdown against the eventual Super Bowl champions.
The Buccaneers defense was the class of the league. Rivera, the veteran right guard, was about to have defensive tackle Warren Sapp in his grill all day, and Rivera’s body was a mess.
“I had two tears in my MCL’s in both knees. I was just beat up,” Rivera said in a recent phone interview with packers.com. “That whole week of practice, I really wanted to be there for my teammates. I did everything I could.”
Rivera gutted it out and held Sapp without a tackle, though Sapp was still the story for his vicious blind-side hit that sent Chad Clifton to the hospital that day.
Three weeks later, still battling his health, Rivera held four-time Pro Bowler Bryant Young of San Francisco to just a half-sack in an important late-season victory. The following year, on another trip to Tampa with one knee ailing again, Rivera helped end the Bucs’ NFL-record 69-game streak with at least one sack. The Packers ended a five-game losing streak in Tampa that day, propelling them on a late-season playoff push.
Memories like that dull all the pain Rivera played through. A sixth-round draft choice in 1996, Rivera started at left guard in ’98 before moving to right guard to replace departed free agent Adam Timmerman in ’99. In short order, Rivera took on the role of elder statesman on a vaunted offensive line in the early 2000s that some consider the Packers’ best, aside from Vince Lombardi’s power sweep crew.
From 2001-03, with guards Rivera and Mike Wahle, tackles Clifton and Mark Tauscher and center Mike Flanagan, the Packers offensive line paved the way for Ahman Green to post three of the top six (now seven) single-season rushing totals in franchise history, including the top mark of 1,883 yards in ’03.
Then in ’04, with Grey Ruegamer playing most of the season at center for an injured Flanagan, the line allowed just 14 sacks, still a franchise-low for a 16-game season.
The Packers’ screen game was considered one of the most efficient in the league at that time, too.
“All five guys were true professionals,” Rivera said. “We didn’t wait for the coaches to tell us to get it done, we went in and got it done.
“We were in the meeting rooms, we were watching tape, we challenged each other in the weight room. We were a really close-knit group.”
Rivera credits much of the unit’s, and his own, success to offensive line coach Larry Beightol, who will introduce Rivera at the induction ceremony on Saturday night in the Lambeau Field Atrium.
He also believes the O-line always maintained the right mix, with enough older guys to bring the younger guys along.
Rivera said veterans like Timmerman and center Frank Winters showed him the ropes early in his career, and he tried to do the same when Tauscher and Clifton came along as rookies in 2000.
Rivera still remembers Tauscher’s NFL debut like it was yesterday. In the second game of 2000 in Buffalo, right tackle Earl Dotson went down with an injury on the second play from scrimmage, and suddenly the rookie seventh-round draft pick from Wisconsin was standing next to Rivera in the huddle.
“I looked at his face and his eyes were wide open,” Rivera said. “I was like, ‘Hey buddy, don’t worry about it. It’s me and you right now. I’ve got your back.’ When they threw me in there at guard, my eyes were wide open, too.”
Rivera was named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad each of his final three years in Green Bay (2002-04), before he signed as a free agent with the Dallas Cowboys. He became the first Packers lineman since Gale Gillingham 33 years prior to make three straight all-star games.
He’s both humbled and honored to become a Packers Hall of Famer, and it rivals a compliment he received during his playing days from a fellow Pro-Bowler.
Sitting in the NFC locker room in Hawaii for the first time following the 2002 season, Rivera was approached by San Francisco’s Young, as respected as any interior defensive lineman in the game.
“He sat next to me and out of nowhere he mentions that game – ‘I was watching that Tampa Bay game when you were all torn up. Wow, man, you deserve to be here.’ That meant a lot to me,” Rivera recalled.
Following the lead of his good friend and ironman quarterback, Brett Favre, it meant a lot to Rivera just to play, to set whatever example he could. Over seven seasons from 1998 through 2004, he started 118 of a possible 119 games, including playoffs. From Week 15 of ’98 through the end of his time in Green Bay, he started 106 straight games.
The only other Packers guard to start more consecutive years was Jerry Kramer (nine, 1958-66).
“To me, that’s what football is all about, being there for your teammates, your coaches, your fans,” he said. “When other players on your team see a player playing through injuries like that, that raises the bar. When you have players like that, that’s contagious.”
Visit packers.com to read upcoming stories on new Packers Hall of Fame inductees William Henderson and Frank Jonet. Those wishing to attend Saturday’s Hall of Fame banquet may place their name on a waiting list for tickets. http://packershalloffame.com/induction-banquet-home/#