Football journey: Mike Rivera

December, 8, 2012
12/08/12
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Reserve linebacker Mike Rivera is a first-year player who has already been with five NFL teams in a span of three years.

His breakthrough has come this season with the Patriots.

Six-foot-2, 255-pound Rivera has appeared in six games for the team (the first six regular-season games of his career), with his role to play on core special-teams units (five tackles) and provide depth on defense. He has come a long way to make it to this point, initially joining the Bears as an undrafted free agent, then manning the practice squads of the Titans and Packers before brief stints on the Dolphins' 53-man roster.

"You ride out the journey," Rivera said Friday. "It's once in a lifetime."

[+] EnlargeMike Rivera
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesAfter bouncing between five teams in three years, Mike Rivera has seen his first regular-season action this year with the Patriots.
Even this season, when Rivera surprisingly made the Patriots' roster out of training camp after spending part of 2011 on the team's practice squad, he couldn't get too comfortable. He was released after two games, then landed with the Dolphins, but he was waived by Miami after injuring his groin. He landed back in New England on Oct. 31 and has been here since.

A native of Shawnee Mission, Kan., 26-year-old Rivera shared his "football journey" with ESPNBoston.com:

When he first started playing football: "Back in the seventh grade. My brother-in-law got me interested in it, and I enjoyed it."

First positions: "I played O-line and D-line, starting out on the old 'heavy' squad."

Favorite teams/players growing up: "Being a Kansas guy, I always watched the Chiefs growing up. Derrick Thomas, [Joe] Montana and guys like that. I'd also see the Rams, when they were the 'Greatest Show on Turf.'"

Top memories of playing football at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School: "Getting to play running back, tight end and fullback my senior year. Our team did well; we won nine games coming from a team my first year that won two games. We went to the game before state."

Enrolling at University of Kansas: "The linebackers coach there had coached at my high school, so I had a tie there, and the linebackers that were there were a great group. They were really successful leaders of the team, and once I [visited], I knew that's where I wanted to play -- the way the team was, the chemistry. I knew from the beginning that I just wanted to stay in the Big 12. Once I narrowed it down, it was Missouri or Kansas. Ninety percent of my family is from Missouri, so it was kind of a tough choice."

Top football memories at Kansas: "It will probably always be when we got to go to the Orange Bowl my junior year. We went 12-1, Aqib Talib was on that team, that was his last year and he went out [into the draft] early. Just being a part of that -- winning all those games and coming off a 6-6 season the year before -- and making that run and winning that big game on that big stage was probably the best memory."

Signing with the Bears as an undrafted free agent: "There had been some talk about me getting drafted before the [2009] season, then I had sort of a disappointing senior year -- a few injuries and things like that. I ended up knowing I would pretty much be a free agent somewhere. The Bears had talked to me the whole time, and I ended up feeling good about it and going up there."

Spending the offseason/preseason with the Bears in 2009: "Camp was a great experience, being around players I had been watching my whole life, especially like [Brian] Urlacher and [Lance] Briggs, and Lovie Smith and being under a hands-on coaching staff. I was learning a lot about the game. I went through preseason, had some good games and made some tackles, but didn't end up making the squad."

Hooking on with the Titans' practice squad for all of 2009: "I wasn't sure what was going to happen. I went home for a day or two and then got the call. It ended up to be a really good situation. I went through the offseason, my second year, and through camp. I got injured right at the end of camp. They were coming off a 13-3 season, and it was a pretty fun ride there. The speed, I definitely learned to play faster and not think so much. I got to develop in the weight room another year."

Signing with the Packers' practice squad after being released by Titans: "I went back home [after getting released] and did the usual thing, worked out and stayed ready to go. The Packers brought me in [Oct. 13]. Everything was really crisp and run very tight. The tempo was a lot more than other places I had been to. They definitely have a high standard there, and I learned so much from raising my level of play and being around such a great organization. [Current Patriots teammate] Nick McDonald was up there, and I went through that whole year -- about 12 weeks -- and the second-to-last game of the year, the Dolphins called and brought me up to their 53-man roster. I had to take that opportunity. I got activated for the last game, against the Patriots, and it was big for me. I had been on practice squad for a while. I was fighting for a role, a small chance."

Lockout comes and time with Dolphins ends: "Going into that offseason, the lockout happened. I was signed with Miami and didn't get back until camp started. It was the quick camp/preseason, and I got released from there. They brought in some veteran guys, and it just didn't work out. I went home, worked out at the athletic department at KU and did stuff with the athletic department -- in various departments to gain more experience and buy more time."

Signing with the Patriots' practice squad in 2011: "I had a workout with them early on in the season, went home and got called back up two weeks later [for the practice squad]."

Making the Patriots' roster out of training camp in 2012: "It was huge. I definitely couldn't believe it. It felt like a long time had finally paid off. It was a long road to make the squad at the beginning of the year. But then I got released again, I went back to Miami, got hurt [groin], and then I came back up here and got another call. It's just like you hear -- you have to work hard here and earn your way. You never know what will happen."

What finally made it click for him: "It was just like I heard from a lot of older guys along the way, sometimes you just have to wait for the right opportunities. It's not always going to go your way, but you keep doing your best. Here, some things happened and I got some opportunities and did my best to take advantage of them."

Role models in his career: "My parents, especially my mom [Judy] for teaching me work ethic and how hard she worked. And my dad [Mike] for always being there at sporting events when my mom was working. He was always pushing me and guiding me in the right direction."

Summing up his football journey: "It's been great. It's taught me a lot. Definitely perseverance and just having that camaraderie among teammates and all the guys you meet through the years and keep in touch with. That's something you can always take away from the game, even when you're done playing -- the relationships you build."

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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