YSU sophomore DE fulfills father’s football promise
By Joe Scalzo
Following Tuesday’s two-hour practice in the rain, defensive end Derek Rivers walked into the lobby of Youngstown State’s football offices, looked down at a row of chairs and plopped his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame into the nearest one, looked down and put his fingers in his ears.
You see, Rivers’ position coach, Tom Sims, was answering questions about him a few feet away and, “I didn’t want to hear what he was saying.”
No need to worry. Sims isn’t a coddler. He’s more of a tough-love guy, a 6-foot-2, 300-plus pound Detroit native who spent seven years playing nose tackle in the NFL and who appears to have had his neck surgically removed to make room for more shoulder muscles.
Just a sophomore, Rivers might already be the best pure pass-rusher of Sims’ five-year stint at YSU, but good luck getting Sims to say that.
REPORTER: What has Derek added to do the defensive line?
SIMS: Nothing. (Laughs.)
REPORTER: What did you see on tape or in person that made you interested in recruiting him?
SIMS: Nothing. (Laughs.)
REPORTER: Do you think he could be the best pass rusher you’ve had at YSU?
SIMS: I think we just take it one week at a time. Hopefully this week he goes out and plays at a high level. If not, there will be consequences and repercussions.
Rivers’ head coach, Eric Wolford, is a little chattier. When asked if Rivers has NFL ability, Wolford said, “I think he does, for sure. He’s only a sophomore. He’s got a chance.”
Like father, like son
To know Rivers, you must first know his dad.
John Rivers is a 6-foot-5, 265-pound former two-sport athlete at Virginia Tech who was a high school All-American in basketball and football at Berkeley High in Moncks Corner, S.C., a school noted for producing several NFL players.
More than 20 years after his playing career ended, Rivers believes he could have been one of them. Just one problem. He loved basketball too much.
“My high school football coach tried to push me to focus on football but my first love at that time was basketball,” said John, speaking by phone from his home in Charleston, S.C. “I had my heart set on playing basketball in college.”
John drew interest from basketball coaches across the country, from USC to Syracuse, but the scholarship offers dried up when his high school coach (who was also the athletic director) told schools John planned to play football.
When he failed to sign with anyone on letter-of-intent day, Virginia Tech offered him a basketball scholarship and he played from 1988-92, finishing with 903 rebounds (sixth on the Hokies’ all-time list) and 108 blocks (10th).
After his sophomore basketball season, Virginia Tech’s offensive coordinator convinced him to go out for football. He caught just 20 passes for 219 yards in three seasons, but nine went for touchdowns. Rivers had a couple tryouts with NFL teams, but he lacked polish.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that if I had come to Virginia Tech as a freshman and focused just on football, I could have made millions in the NFL, easily,” he said. “I’m not a big-headed person, but looking at the talent I had and what I was capable of doing, yeah, I could have made millions.”
Derek was a late bloomer, a good athlete with so-so size who battled seizures starting at age 9.
“Not the grand mal type; he would just kind of space out,” said his mother, Mary Leinonen. “He was on medication and he seems to have outgrown them as an adult, but he’s had to overcome a lot.”
Rivers was just 6-foot, 182 pounds in the spring of his sophomore year in high school but over the next few months, he shot up four inches and started dedicating himself to fitness and nutrition, working out at a gym called Velocity Sports while spending the summer with his father.
“That first summer he did Velocity, he woke up,” John said.
Derek played linebacker and tight end at Kinston High School, advancing to the NCHSAA 2A state championship game as a senior. He also played basketball, helping the Vikings win the 2A title as a senior in 2012. But his low SAT scores and thin frame scared off colleges, prompting him to enroll at Fork Union Military Academy, a boarding school in Virginia known for producing NFL players like Vinny Testaverde, Eddie George and Plaxico Burress.
“That was an experience, man,” Rivers said. “The first thing they do is take you to the barbershop to get a haircut. You had to get up at 6 every morning and make your bed. Make sure your room is clean. And if it wasn’t, they had these things called ‘tours,’ where you march back and forth for 45 minutes.”
It was a life-changing semester. Rivers improved his SAT scores and shifted to defensive line, where assistant coach Patrick McDowell “transformed me.” The Penguins’ coaches were intrigued by his size, his pass-rushing ability and his upside and Rivers enrolled at YSU in the winter of 2013.
After playing mostly on third downs last fall, he’s been a full-time force this season, recording 14 tackles (including 7.5 for loss), six quarterback hurries and five sacks in five games, which is already more than any Penguin had last season (in 12 games!) and just 1.5 fewer than Andrew Johnson had in 2011, which marks the high point of Wolford’s five-year tenure.
“He understands the game so well,” John said. “Coming through high school, I kind of played off my talent, didn’t watch a whole lot of film, but it seems like whenever I call him or text him, he’s watching film. He has that mindset where he wants to get better.
“It’s nice to have height and strength and stuff, but you’ve got to be able to use your head, too. I honestly believe he has what it takes to make it to the next level.”
He’s not the only one. At a recent church service, Mary’s pastor prophesied over Rivers, saying he would go to the NFL.
“We’ll see,” Mary said, laughing. “He’s a young man with a strong faith. He doesn’t see obstacles, he sees opportunities.”
Faith in action
After every defensive series, Rivers walks to the sideline, points to the sky and says “To God be the glory.” Like a lot of athletes, his favorite verse is Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”) and he credits his faith for his success, saying, “That’s where it all comes from.”
When asked how long he’s had that faith, he said, “Since I came out of the womb. I get a little scripture from my mom every night.”
He also gets a lot of physical strength from his mom, who could do 100 straight male push-ups in college and once bench-pressed 215 pounds.
“I have good strength but zero coordination,” she said. “I love sports but I never started young, so I kind of doubted myself. One thing I raised my children on is to do all things in Christ who strengthens them.”
John also wants to make sure Rivers doesn’t have to rely solely on a heavenly father just because his earthly one lives in a different state.
“My father and my mother were divorced when I was a kid and my father lived in the same town, so he would come to see me play,” John said. “But he was remarried and was always working and doing different things, so I just didn’t have him to show me the ropes, to give me direction and to explain why I should do certain things.
“As long as God has me on this earth, I’m going to be there for my son to help point him in the right direction.”
Is that direction the NFL? Too soon to tell. Rivers is just halfway through his sophomore season, just beginning to show his potential. His focus is on this team, not the next one.
“He’s working hard and improving every week,” Sims said, “but he’s far from where we want him to be and where we need him to be.”
To get there, he’s taking the right approach.
Eyes open. Head down. Ears plugged.
“Derek just wants to do his part,” Mary said, “and let God do the rest.”