NEUSE NEWS EXCLUSIVE: Humble Rivers is ready for Super Bowl LIII
Derek Rivers poses for a photo with his mother, Mary Leinonen, right, and his sister, Alena, during a Fellowship of Christian Athletes fundraiser in May at the Kinston Community Center. Rivers and his New England Patriots face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII today. Photo by William ‘Bud’ Hardy / Neuse News
There aren’t a lot of professional football players who have been in the National Football League for two years – but whose team has appeared in the Super Bowl both of their first two seasons in the league.
Derek Rivers is in that select club. After being drafted in the third round by the New England Patriots in 2017 (the team’s top overall pick that season), the 2012 Kinston High School graduate missed all of his rookie season after suffering an ACL injury in training camp.
The 6-foot, 5-inch Rivers was worked methodically into the Patriots’ defensive rotation this year at defensive end and picked up his first career sack in Week 17 of the season against the New York Jets.
After graduating from Kinston High, Rivers – the son of Mary Leinonen and John Rivers – spent a year at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia before signing with Youngstown State University. At Youngstown State, Rivers was a two-time All-American who set the school record for sacks (41).
In his senior season, he had 14 sacks and led the Penguins to the FCS national championship game.
Rivers has two sisters – Lydia, a Kinston graduate who is currently a redshirt junior at Radford University who pulled down her 700th career rebound on Saturday, and Alena, a junior guard on this year’s Kinston girls’ basketball team.
In an exclusive phone interview with Neuse News from Atlanta – the site of today’s Super Bowl LIII where his Patriots will take on the Los Angeles Rams – Rivers shared what his faith in God means to him and his family, recovering from his ACL injury and what it has meant to him to play for and alongside future hall of famers Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Neuse News: How special is this year’s trip to the Super Bowl to you, especially since you were able to contribute more following your ACL injury your rookie season?
Derek Rivers: Whenever you get to come to the Super Bowl, whether as a fan or as a player, it’s special. It’s a blessing from Jesus, that’s for certain, but it has been nice to contribute this season and to know I may be able to do so again (today).
NN: It’s evident your faith is important to you and to your family. Why is it so important to you?
DR: This life is temporary; our heavenly home is up there with Christ. We can’t repay Jesus for what he did on Calvary – all he’s asked for us to do is to love him with our whole heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our mom raised us to live a life to honor Him and to do His will.
This could be my last season in the NFL or my final season could be in five years, but Christ is always going to be the same.
NN: How hard has it been to maintain your faith and to be a man of God in the NFL in 2019?
DR: I’ll say there are certainly a lot of temptations, but I’m blessed to be in a locker room of believers in New England. I’ve got so many brothers in Christ on the Pats. It’s awesome.
Everybody grows together. You have to be different but be the man God made you to be. It can be challenging, but you have to trust Him. In the end, it’ll be worth it.
NN: Was last year tough for you?
DR: It was because when (the injury happened), the playbook had started getting easier. But I was so tired because I’d been playing nonstop football from the season to the Senior Bowl to the (NFL) Combine.
The draft came around, and then I went to the rookie camp. In a way, I think the ACL injury was a blessing; it was almost like God said, “Here’s your time of rest – use it.”
I’ve gotten stronger, better and the game has slowed down for me since then.
NN: What does the support of your family and the support of Kinston mean to you?
DR: My mom and my dad are awesome. My mom is just a sparkplug – when she enters a room, she lights it up. She loves everyone – she’d give the clothes off her back and the shoes off her feet to anyone that needs them.
My dad was an athlete, too, so he understands what me and my sisters go through. Both my parents have taught us to love Jesus first and to respect and love everyone around us.
The games are fun, but the most fun is hanging out afterward with my parents, my sisters or my wife at my apartment or wherever they are.
But I’ve also felt a lot of support from my brothers and teammates in Kinston; Angelo and Denzel (Keyes), Kyle (Brown), Josh Dawson and everyone I played ball with, we’ve stayed in contact through the years and they mean more than they know to me.
NN: In June, you married Lauren; has that changed your life at all?
DR: Not really – she’s awesome and I’m blessed to have her in my life. To be a wife in this business can be tough because the days are long and you see your teammates more than you see your wife.
And praise God – we have a little boy coming in May! We are so blessed.
NN: What is the preparation like to get ready for a Super Bowl?
DR: We are treating like we’re getting ready for any other game. It’s a blessing to be here, but it’s like any other game. … We know it’s going to be juiced up and hyped up, but we just have to play our game.
We’ve got great coaches and a great coaching staff and they will have us ready.
The Rams are a great team – those boys are dangerous and they play for 60 minutes. It’s going to be a fun game and to be able to play T.G. (Todd Gurley) again is going to be awesome.
NN: That’s a perfect segue for my next question – how excited are you to face Todd again?
DR: (Laughing) I’m 1-1 against him, so I’m ready! My sophomore year, we played them in JV and he was still on their JV team; they gave it to him in a power set and he took it 95 yards for a TD. But we got him my senior year when we beat them in overtime (54-48). It was a fun game to be a part of and I’m looking forward to seeing him again.
NN: What is it like to play for arguably the best coach of all time in Bill Belichick and to be in the same locker room, day in and day out, with arguably the best quarterback of all time in Tom Brady?
DR: I realize I’m blessed to be with those men who will be in the hall of fame one day.
Bill is a humble dude who competes his tail off and prepares like no other man I’ve ever known. God blessed him with a special gift and talent to coach. He’s straight forward – there’s no shortcuts with him. Everything always goes back to fundamentals and technique.
Tom is a great guy, a great leader and a great teammate. He always says “Hi” and knows everybody’s name on the team and treats everyone well.
Everybody always asks about him and thinks he’s something else, but he’s a great dude and a good guy who always has a smile on his face.
NN: Thank you for your time and good luck in the Super Bowl!
DR: You’re welcome – I am looking forward to coming back to Kinston very soon.