Ron Rivers had his big shot. Starting running back. Detroit Lions. Barry
Sanders had retired. The ex-San Gorgonio High star was next man up. It was the 1999 NFL season.
A broken ankle killed everything.
The good news about Rivers’ seven-year NFL career is that he’s fully-vested in the league’s pension plan. All of which means something off the field.
On the field, it’s all-out physical assault with defensive tackles, linebackers, safeties and rival coaches scheming to stop everything.
Off the field, it’s all-out mental assault with general managers, coaches, perhaps referees and media.
You get the feeling Rivers would change some things. He admits he had a full crack at making it, despite being a five-year backup to Sanders, who retired as the NFL’s top rusher (15,269 yards) after the 1998 season.
“Barry and I still conversate,” says Rivers, who was co-CIF Player of the
Year with Fontana High’s Bobby Sylvester from that 1989 season, “to this day. We got along great. There’s mutual respect.”
Rivers, signed (undrafted) by the Lions out of Fresno State, wasn’t just some Sanders’ fan. He was a true player. A hitter. Sanders likely shared the roster with plenty of “fans.”
Such feelings made a difference. Rivers, in a sense, was a fan.
“If Barry had an offensive line ahead of him,” said Rivers, “like the one they had in Dallas, he’d have run for 4,000 yards.”
If that seems like wild-eyed speculation, Rivers will bring you down to earth.
“Don’t get me wrong. We had good guys. Why did we always have to sign someone on the fancy side? We kept thinking: ‘Can we get a mauler?’ ”
It was Rivers’ way of mulling over the lack of a top-flight guard or a tackle.
Instead, Detroit might sign a receiver or a defender. Generally, there wasn’t a top-flight QB, either.
Dallas Cowboys’ legendary Emmitt Smith, who chased down Sanders’ brief hold as the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, was a “downhill runner.”
That’s code speak for running backs with plenty of room to rack up yards.
In Detroit, said Rivers, “we’re making moves in the backfield.”
More code speak: It means Sanders, Rivers or whoever got the ball in the
Lions’ backfield had to make a significant move just to pick up a few yards. Smith,
in Dallas, was breaking downfield (downhill) behind gaping holes created by his linemen.
“I loved the Ford family,” he said, referring to the Lions’ ownership. “I don’t want to make it seem like I’m hounding them.”
Detroit might have been an intelligent player, or two, from being a better team, he said.
Unlike today’s Detroit squad that rarely wins, the Lions reached the playoffs four times during Rivers’ run -- 1994-95, 1997 and 1999.
“We lost in the first round every time,” said Rivers. “Now, they can’t even get a win.”
Rivers, it should be reported, knew Sanders (1989-1998) was about to call it quits in 1999. “I asked him to do me a favor,” said Rivers.
The favor was simple: Would Sanders wait until 1999 training camp to break the news.
“I wanted a fair shot at starting,” said Rivers.
The Lions, if faced with Sanders’ off-season retirement, might’ve made a move to sign another RB to replace him.
Sanders, he said, reacted favorably. “I got you.”
Rivers said, “I was on my way to a thousand-yard season.”
A game against Carolina, though, was disastrous. A Panthers’ defensive
tackle, who missed Rivers at first, fell on him at the end of the play. Elbow on his ankle. A clean break.
“I kept playing,” said Rivers.
Three to four plays after that, Greg Hill came out to replace him.
“The trainer noticed me limping a little bit,” said Rivers. “He kept trying to get me back into the training room. I didn’t want to go.”
He feared the worst.
“It de-railed my starting spot.”
That clean break, however, meant no ankle surgery. He’d be back the following season, though it was with the Atlanta Falcons.
A broken ankle can lead to ending a career in a heartbreaking manner.
“Before I got into the league,” he said, “you had to play for eight years to be in the pension plan. When I got there, it was three years. It’s why guys get cut before they play that third year. Teams don’t want to pay retirement.”
Rivers noted two Fresno State players who declared early for this year’s draft. Neither one got selected by any of the 32 NFL teams during its seven-round selection process.
“If I’d have had a chance to get with them,” said Rivers, “I’d tell them I’d like to have them think about that decision (to declare for the draft). I know they think of (football) as a game. Up there, it’s a business.”