By BRIAN JENNINGS
It was early in the game, and the Blue Knights were preparing to unleash a blocking concept they haven’t used all season. Richie Rivera was the guy to set the tone.
Once the ball was snapped, Rivera delivered a crushing blow that sent the 6 foot, 7 inch, 270-pound defensive tackle in front of him to the turf. The hit sprung running back Vance Upham for an 80-yard touchdown. Rivera was just warming up.
Before the final minute of the first half, Rivera broke open down the middle of the field for a 25-yard gain that set up the Knights up for a last-minute touchdown. He still wasn’t done.
With less than three minutes to play in the contest, Rivera caught another pass over the middle of the field and made a couple defenders miss. He scampered down the sideline and steamrolled four defenders that were in his path to the end zone.
Rivera stuck the ball out and dove from the 10 yard-line, tipping the pylon over for a 27-yard touchdown to give the Knights a 34-20 lead.
“Our athletic director, Greg Ferry, told me that Ritchie’s play was the best play he’s seen a kid make in 10 years,” said Southington coach Mike Drury. “We always talk about playing big boy football and going out there to make big boy plays. That was a man play right there.”
Rivera’s last-minute heroics helped the Knights defeat Cheshire, 47-20, on Thanksgiving Day to retain the Apple Valley Classic title for the fifth-straight year, leading all receivers with 87 yards on four catches. More importantly, the culmination of the game capped off a career he had fought hard to keep alive just a couple of years earlier.
Drury didn’t coach Rivera much in his freshman year on the football team, but he knew what type of talent Rivera was. A hard worker with tremendous upside, Rivera was a kid that had all the potential to develop his strength, speed, and athleticism while he grew into his body.
“When you saw him, you said to yourself that this kid has a ton of talent because he’s big, long, and can catch everything as a player,” said Drury. “He was just a guy that was going to get it.”
Going into his sophomore year, Rivera started to take some big strides and did a ton for the JV team. With a couple of injuries at the quarterback position, he stepped in under center and won some games for the Knights.
“We just threw him in there basically,” said Drury. “We gave him some repetition with a little bit of practice. We were watching him just take the team over at a position he hadn’t played all year in the rain against New Britain.”
Rivera got involved with the varsity team towards the end of his sophomore year and was an immediate backup quarterback as the next guy in, no matter what the situation was. During spring football, he was physical and made plays, transitioning into a dominant player.
Going into his junior year, Rivera went to a passing league in New Canaan during the offseason in July. Drury was out of state and driving back from vacation when he got the call that Rivera was at the hospital after sustaining a serious leg injury at the event.
“My heart sunk,” said Drury. “I felt bad for him because he’s such a good kid. At that point, I thought that it was a potentially season-ending injury.”
Drury drove to the hospital and discovered that Rivera was getting surgery done on his leg the next day. Rivera was sidelined in a cast for about three quarters of his junior season, but that didn’t stop him from building confidence back up in his leg.
“That was the year where he matured mentally because you kind of have to just gain some mental toughness and perspective of how quickly you can lose something,” said Drury. “But he stayed focused and worked hard through that mental game. You just see him mature even more going into this year.”
Once he returned to the field, Rivera made an immediate impact. He played a pivotal role in helping Southington finish the 2016 regular season with an undefeated 10-0 record to earn the fourth seed in the Class LL tournament, scoring the team’s only touchdown in a 38-7 loss to top seeded and eventual state champion Darien in the semifinals.
Rivera finished second in receiving on the team with 27 catches for 344 yards and five touchdowns, earning the team’s offensive player of the year honors. He was just as much of a force on defense.
Rivera was still in the process of rehabbing from his knee injury and didn’t play full-time on both sides of the ball. But he still managed to disrupt opposing quarterbacks with five knocked down passes, which ranks third on the team.
“It’s not because of the touchdowns that he scored,” said Drury. “It’s more about the pressure he was able to put on the defense. His ability to block really stressed the defense, which helped our offense a lot.”
As a versatile athlete, Rivera was a three-sport athlete when he came to the high school as a freshman, competing in football, basketball, and outdoor track and field. He had the opportunity to be one of Southington’s top throwers during the spring, but his leg injury set his sights on another sport.
Drury may not have coached Rivera much on the football field as a freshman, but Southington coach Derek Dion did. Dion saw wrestling potential in Rivera, but he didn’t talk to Rivera right away about taking up the sport because of basketball.
However, that changed after Rivera’s sophomore year. His injury convinced him that wrestling was the better rout to take, in terms of rehabbing his leg.
“When he first came in, I kind of thought that he was joking,” said Dion. “But when I found out that he was serious after about two weeks, we figured out that he was the real deal and was going to be something special.”
He was a blank slate. Rivera had no prior wrestling experience on the mats and wrestled in mostly JV matches during his junior year. Although there was already a senior captain starting in the 220-pountd weight class, Rivera still managed to gain varsity exposure through tournaments, advancing to the finals of his weight class at Southington’s Connecticut Challenge.
“Ritchie is physically gifted and really athletic,” said Dion. “I’ve never seen a student-athlete learn how to wrestle as quickly as he did. You would teach him a move on Friday, and he would use it successfully on Saturday in tournaments.”
After a promising junior year, Rivera almost didn’t come back for his senior year. He left his wrestling coaches on the edge of their seats with basketball still in the back of his mind. Dion stalked the halls of the high school for the upstart pupil.
“It sounds silly to go to the extent we went to for a kid that was really JV the year before,” said Dion. “There was no evidence on paper, but we knew that he was going to really be something once we got him out and showed him some moves.”
Rivera eventually returned after a late football season and muscled his way through the regular season with a 28-8 individual record, winning his weight class at the Timberlane Invitational and placing third at the Connecticut Challenge. It was a warm-up for his postseason run.
At the Class LL championship, Rivera went 3-2 and finished fourth in his weight class. He was just three of eight Knights to medal at state open after going 4-2 with a fifth-place finish.
“It was probably the most impressive development that I’ve seen in a wrestler in my career,” said Dion. “He came in knowing nothing. But a year and a half later, he was one point away from the state open final. It’s incredible.”
When he wasn’t making big grabs on the football field or hurling wrestlers across the mat, Rivera was painting murals on the walls of the basement in the high school. A simple gesture of a brush stroke certainly helped in his decision to continue his football career at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven where he plans to study art education.
But who knows? Maybe it also helped him on the playing field throughout his high school playing career as well.
“Maybe that side of his brain really helped out with the physical sports,” said Dion. “Sometimes, artists just see the big picture better than other kids. There’s something about an artistic mind that gives them an edge when it comes to physical sports.”
For his outstanding athletic achievements, versatility, and leadership, Richie Rivera is The Observer’s 2017 Male Athlete of the Year.