Largely Under the Radar, New Patriot Derek Rivers' Hard Work Finally Pays Off
By: Jeff Howe -- Thursday, May 04, 2017
Derek Rivers caught Bill Belichick’s attention more than a year ago.
Finally, for a defensive end who has been viewed as a late bloomer all his life, Rivers was earning the recognition that he had worked so diligently to deserve. Belichick just had to wait for his opportunity to capitalize on Rivers’ potential, and the Patriots selected the Youngstown State product last week in the third round of the NFL draft.
Rivers, the 83rd overall pick, was still overlooked to an extent due to the high-quality pass rushers from power programs. But the 6-foot-4, 248-pounder has played the underdog role before, and a partnership with Belichick and the Patriots could help that label disappear for good.
Those who know him best think he might just turn into the steal of the draft.
“I know he is invested in it,” Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini said of Rivers. “He lives, eats and breathes football. It’s really important to him. His character is off the charts. He is going to do everything those coaches ask him to do, and he is going to be a tremendous asset for that organization.”
It was natural for Rivers to get into sports at a young age because his father, John Rivers, played football and basketball at Virginia Tech and never lost his love for athletics. They’d routinely watch those sports on television, and John was impressed with his son’s quick ability to learn the rules when he was barely old enough to dress himself.
Derek’s affinity for sports was productive early in his life. Growing up in Kinston, N.C., a rough area where gangs, drugs and violence were prevalent, it wasn’t all that difficult for kids to steer off course.
But Derek’s parents, who have since divorced, did an admirable job keeping him out of that lifestyle. They enrolled him in day care at a local church, where he met lifelong friends who looked out for one another, taught him tough and even uncomfortable lessons at home, and kept him involved in extracurricular activities through his adolescent years.
Some things are simply uncontrollable, though. John also coached Derek’s flag football team and was taken aback one day when Derek was staring off into space when he returned to the huddle. A battery of tests revealed Derek had a seizure, and doctors cautioned his parents that these episodes would continue through at least his childhood.
“It was nerve-racking to think something could be going on with your own kid,” John Rivers said.
The medication curbed the seizures over the years, but Derek had some more aggressive episodes with convulsions in his late teens. John and his ex-wife, Mary Leinonen, took Derek to a new doctor who believed Derek’s medicine was too strong and responsible for the scarier seizures that he’d been having. So Derek weened himself off the meds and hasn’t had a seizure since. Prior to the scouting combine, he got another medical evaluation to assure teams that his seizures were a thing of the past.
“He’s good to go,” John said happily.
Doesn’t come easy
Derek Rivers was always a standout football and basketball player, but he didn’t have his growth spurts until his junior and senior years of high school. On the gridiron, he blossomed as an outside linebacker during his junior season, when he also played tight end and slot receiver, but he was really skinny and wasn’t recruited because he didn’t have great tape.
Rivers spent the summer before his senior year with his father in South Carolina, where he enrolled at a training center that monitored his diet and sleep patterns to help him exercise the right way and add strength and 10-15 pounds of mass. He became a dominant linebacker and helped Kinston High reach the state championship game in coach Nick Anderson’s second year.
But Rivers wasn’t a natural in the classroom, and his recruiting process was hampered by low SAT scores. It’s not that he was a bad student or didn’t have the character. Heck, he was dating the daughter of the football team’s chaplain. He just had to work harder than most to succeed in the classroom.
Along with that, the slender frame scared off bigger programs, even after the summer workout program and the extra weight-lifting classes in the spring of his senior year. And when John Rivers tried to get his son into Virginia Tech, coach Frank Beamer recommended Derek head to prep school for a year.
Derek certainly didn’t love the idea of attending Fork Union Military Academy, but after a couple of visits to the campus with his father, he understood it was a necessary steppingstone to playing college football. Coach John Shuman, who is in his fourth decade at Fork Union, has a long, accomplished history of helping players bridge the gap, and he was happy to bring in Rivers for a life-changing semester.
“You love to see kids come from a rough area and make it for themselves by doing it the right way,” Anderson said. “It’s a great story because he had to go about it in a roundabout way. He didn’t get frustrated. He just worked hard.”
Fork Union doesn’t have any direct affiliations with the military, but it surely doesn’t screw around. Students aren’t allowed to have cell phones. They’re awake at 6:15 a.m. every weekday, and have a loaded schedule until bed check at 10 p.m.
Rivers, who worked his way up from squad leader to platoon sergeant during his short stay, lived in the old barracks during his semester in 2012, and that dorm was ugly. It could be 100 degrees with swampy humidity down there in Virginia, yet somehow, the heat would turn itself on. Funny how that worked, Shuman mused.
And they were old school. Shuman kept individual stats during games, but he has always refused to broadcast them, merely conceding Rivers had “double-digit sacks.” Shuman recalled Rivers arrived as a 222-pounder and departed at 242 pounds, and he increased his 225-pound bench reps from two to 12. At the combine, Rivers’ 30 bench reps was tied for the fourth most among defensive linemen.
“We try to put on pounds but also drop the fat percentage so we’re lean, mean fighting machines. It’s not easy,” Shuman said. “I was highly impressed with his reps at the combine. ... Everything is tough here, but it’s magical. If you can do it, if you can buy into the system, it’s a magical thing.”
Making it happen
Virginia Tech declined Rivers after his semester at Fork Union, but that didn’t quell the celebration upon his acceptance to Youngstown State. He was a bit overwhelmed during his freshman season in 2013, but his father told him to identify his weaknesses and spend extra time in the weight room. It got to the point where the Youngstown State coaching staff asked Rivers if everything was OK because he spent so much time in the gym by himself.
It paid off again, though. Rivers had 13 sacks and 17 tackles for loss as a sophomore, and Pelini took over the program during his junior season. Pelini instantly appreciated Rivers’ pass-rushing ability, even if it was incredibly raw at the time, but he wanted to turn Rivers into an all-around player who could also stop the run and drop into coverage.
Pelini admired Rivers’ willingness to buy into the process, even though he only had eight sacks as a junior. Rivers committed to the details, the self-scouting and everything else that came with Pelini’s strict system.
Rivers was a coach’s dream as a leader because his work ethic was unquestionable and he could relate to anyone, young or old, regardless of their background. He was popular at high school camps, as an officer responsible for uniforms at Fork Union and again at Youngstown State. When Pelini had an issue with a player, whether it was on the field or in regard to skipping classes, he’d ask Rivers to handle it.
“I never asked him how he did it, but he did it,” Pelini said. “He accomplished his goal. Guys were going to listen to him because that’s who he is. Everybody respected Derek. Everybody likes him, but more importantly, everybody respected Derek because he brought that work ethic every single day. He was very consistent.”
Pelini’s relationship with Belichick goes back years, so Pelini knew he had a potential Patriot in his program. The two were talking about another prospect prior to the 2016 draft when Pelini mentioned Rivers as someone to monitor. Rivers, he said, checked every box that Belichick would want.
“Bill was looking into him for a long time, so I’m sure he knows what he is getting.” Pelini said.
As a senior, Rivers had 14 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss, helping to lead Youngstown State to the FCS playoffs for the first time in a decade and back to the national championship game for the first time since 1999. Before the draft, he impressed Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia during a film session when he visited Gillette Stadium.
So often overlooked and undervalued, Rivers might have found his long-term home with the defending Super Bowl champions. There’s no greater spotlight anywhere else in the football world.
“Belichick is an idol to everyone else in the NFL,” John Rivers said. “For Derek to be under his tutelage, that’s an honor. It’s a great thing.”