By RALPH D. RUSSO
NEW YORK — Gabe Rivera was maybe the greatest defensive lineman to play at Texas Tech.
They called him Senor Sack. He was an All-American in 1982 and was drafted by the Steelers in the first round in 1983.
He has trouble remembering his playing days now. A car accident during his rookie season left him in a wheelchair and robbed him of some of his memory.
The congratulations that came after he was elected to the College Hall of Fame helped bring back some of those faded memories.
“When people started congratulating me, they’d say ‘I remember when you did this and did that.’ It feels good that they remember those things,” Rivera said Tuesday.
He was part of a class of 14 players and three coaches inducted into the Hall of Fame on Tuesday night at the national Football Foundation banquet in Manhattan.
Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer and former Miami coach Jimmy Johnson also were inducted.
“At this point in your life, you’ve been removed from football long enough now that you really appreciate those times you had and you kind of take a step back and reflect on all that and all the friends and teammates and coaches you were able to play with,” said Detmer, who won the Heisman for BYU in 1990.
The other players in the latest Hall of Fame class are LSU tailback Charles Alexander, Purdue halfback Otis Armstrong, California quarterback Steve Bartkowski, Southern California split end Hal Bedsole, Notre Dame tight end Dave Casper, Rice quarterback Tommy Kramer, Syracuse receiver Art Monk, Colorado State defensive back Greg Myers, UCLA offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, Kansas State linebacker Mark Simoneau, Air Force safety Scott Thomas, and Colorado guard John Wooten.
The other coaches are Phillip Fulmer, who won the first BCS title in 1998 with Tennessee, and R.C. Slocum, who coached Texas A&M from 1989-2002.
Rivera grew up in San Antonio and went to west to play college football in Lubbock for the Red Raiders as a linebacker and a tight end. He went from about 230 pounds to 280 and turned into one of the best defensive linemen in the country.
During his senior season, he had five sacks and 62 solo tackles, including 10 tackles for loss.
He was the 21st overall draft pick in 1983 by Pittsburgh, but in October of that year he got into an automobile accident that left him a paraplegic. He sustained head injuries that caused some lingering memory issues.
He said he tries not to think about could have been.
“You try not to but your mind tells you these things and it’s like, I probably could have done that,” he said. “It’s kind of hard sometimes.”
The 51-year-old Rivera said for several years after his accident, he struggled physically and mentally. It was hard for him to not be bitter.
“From the accident in ‘83, it took maybe 5, 6, 8 years to get control (of my life),” he said. “At one time I just changed my life and started going forward.
He added: “I was mad at the world, mad at God and stuff.”
He tries now to focus on the good things that have happened to him since the accident — such as meeting his second wife, Nancy. He met her when he hit her with his wheelchair at the San Antonio zoo.
“I still run into her but now she gets mad,” he said, smiling.
Still, life is not easy.
“It’s a struggle for us every day,” he said.
Rivera said he is susceptible to infections and we went through a stretch five years ago where his health was not good.
“I’m in a good part now,” he said. “We control everything. My wife helps tremendously.”
He said when he found out earlier in the year that he had been elected to the Hall of Fame, he was shocked and overjoyed. It also helped him recall the days when he was Senor Sack.
“Nowadays people come up to me, ‘I remember you running this guy over and doing these things.’ Some of the time they say it, and, oh, now I remember. It comes back to me.”