After enduring 'own little hell,' ex-Packers guard Marco Rivera finds happy place

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Marco Rivera found his way out of the darkness and back into the light. In fact, these days, he just might be the happiest stay-at-home dad in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

“Life is good,” Rivera, a three-time Pro Bowl right guard for the Green Bay Packers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said last week on “The Distant Replay Podcast” on ESPN Milwaukee. “I’m having fun with it.”

His post-NFL life wasn’t always that way, as the physical pain of 11 NFL seasons -- nine with the Packers, and two with the Dallas Cowboys -- started exacting a psychological toll on him following his 2007 retirement.

Having left Green Bay as an unrestricted free agent after the 2004 season, Rivera spent two injury-plagued seasons with the Cowboys, toughing it out to play in 30 of a possible 32 regular-season games. He did so despite injuring his back running on a treadmill shortly after signing with Dallas, and injuring it again in a playoff game against Seattle at the end of the 2006 season in what would be his final NFL game. He underwent surgery after each of those injuries, but neither one alleviated his back pain.

As the pain worsened, Rivera found himself self-medicating with alcohol and pain pills, resulting in a spiral that put him in what he called “my own little hell.” With the help of his wife, Michelle, and the couple’s three sons (now 16, 14 and 11), he pulled himself out of it in 2009, and while the pain remains, he’s figured out how to more effectively manage it.

“I have a lot of old friends who played in the NFL, and there’s something we all have in common: Sooner or later, your playing days, they come to a screeching halt. And usually, you don’t get to really choose how you get to pick how you leave the game,” explained Rivera, who came into the league as a sixth-round pick from Penn State and was inactive for all 19 games (including playoffs) as a rookie on the Packers' 1996 team that won Super Bowl XXXI.

“Most of us, we play until the body gives out. And that’s what happened to me. My body just gave out. I had the back injuries, I had the surgeries, and in my heart and in my head, I was saying, ‘I love this game, I could still play this game.’ But the body was saying a different thing.

“My struggles began with my injuries. That put me in a really bad, tough spot. It’s like, you get the surgery, and you think you’re going to feel better. In the past, I have a history of coming [right] back. As you get older, your body starts hurting even more, and that didn’t happen. So here I am rehabbing and my back is still giving me issues, so that led to the depression, the dark times, the hard times.

“It took a lot to get out of that. It took me two to three years to really say to myself, ‘Marco, you’re better than this. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Get your butt off the ground and get going.’ And I did.”

The mistake Rivera made was that he attacked the pain the same way he had as a player -- by dismissing doctors' orders and vowing to overcome it through sheer will. After all, this was the same Brooklyn, N.Y.-born tough guy who’d twice torn a medial collateral ligament in his knee and never missed a game because of it. The guy who once broke his hand in practice on a Wednesday yet still played on Sunday wearing a mammoth club cast.

“Maybe that was a detriment to me after I was done playing, because I’m thinking, ‘OK, what did I do in the past to get my body to feel good? I’ll just go to the gym and work out and rehab and push myself and keep going.’ Well, guess what? When you have the injuries that I had, the back injuries that I had, that’s not a good idea,” Rivera said. “Because once the nerves in your body get mad at you, there’s nothing you can do that’s going to take that pain away. And that’s the bulk of my problems -- nerves.

“It took me a while to learn this. I had the strength to ignore the pain and keep going. But it got to the point where if I did that, I would regret it for the next 14 days because the nerves would get so bad that it would be impossible to function. So I had to reprogram myself to say, ‘Marco, you’re not invincible anymore. You do feel pain. Maybe you should listen to the frickin’ doctors for once.’”

Now 43, Rivera said the pain remains, and while he’s still taking a mind-over-matter approach to overcoming it, he’s also being smarter about how he fights it.

“Now, when people ask me, ‘How do you feel?’ I say, ‘I feel pretty good,’ even though I’m still in pain,” Rivera said. “Every day, I feel pain. Every. Single. Day. It’s either back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, leg pain ... but for me, that’s a good day. Because if I had to take my bad day and put it on a normal person, that guy would be in the hospital for seven days. That’s a bad day for Marco Rivera. A good day, the guy would probably miss work, because that’s how much pain he’d be in. But I just deal with it. And I’ve got the mindset that I’m going to keep going forward, I’m going to feel great and I’m going to do the best I can and take it from there.”

Meanwhile, although he hasn’t experienced any significant cognitive issues, Rivera said he and his former teammates always check on each other to make sure everyone is doing OK. Their gatherings for alumni events morph into amateur checkups on one other, since they’ve all become well-versed in the symptoms of post-concussion syndrome.

“I know I’ve had a lot of concussions. For crissakes, I was a pulling guard in the NFL, 310 pounds, running as fast as I could and slamming into another 310-pounder. You’re going to get concussions,” Rivera said. “Does it scare me? Yeah, it scares me. I’m 43. I don’t want to lose my marbles yet. So I kind of challenge myself. [And] I’m very vocal with my wife. ‘If you see things changing, we’ve got to log this all down, we’ve got to get this early.’”

Rivera doesn’t share this glimpse into his daily life to elicit sympathy. Rather, he sees himself as a valuable cautionary tale, and he’s self-aware about the fact that football has been good to him and his family. He also knows that his experiences, which he admits have made him a bit of an athletic helicopter parent, also help him as a part-time high school offensive line coach -- both in terms of teaching proper technique and seeing telltale signs of concussions that untrained eyes might miss.

“If one of my boys ends up with a concussion, yeah, I’m going to be ‘that dad.’ Because I know now more about the medical science of concussions than we did when I played,” said Rivera, who coaches at the June Shelton School in Dallas, where another ex-Packer, George Teague, is the athletic director and football coach.

Before Teague reached out to him, Rivera spent time with the Miami Dolphins, serving as a volunteer coach for several years under two of his old coaches (Tony Sparano, Joe Philbin). He stayed in South Florida for the entire 2013 season, but he said he turned down Philbin’s offer to become the team’s assistant offensive line coach because he didn’t want to uproot his family. If the opportunity comes along once all the boys have gone off to college, he’d be interested.

For now, though, he’s simply happy to be back to being himself and said he has no regrets about his NFL career.

“It was all worth it. Without question,” Rivera said. “Why? I was able to provide not only for my family but for my extended family a better way of life. And I got to the point where my kids are going to have a really good and bright future because of the things I did in the past. And that’s what it’s all about.

“To me, it’s, ‘What can I do for my three boys to get them ready to face the world in the next couple years?’ My oldest one is 16, and that’s coming really fast. A few years, he’s going to be in college. And a few years after that, he’s going to be facing a whole world with all kinds of challenges and opportunities, and I want to make sure he’s ready for that. Are they going to play sports [beyond high school]? Ah, I played the sports. I don’t want to force that on my kids. If they want to do it, that’s great. But if I have kids that are healthy and happy and doing what they want to do and are decent people, I’d rather have that than huge sports stars.”