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November 14, 2011

Rivers travels long road to get back

By: Jimmy Robertson

One year, he’s starting in the Orange Bowl as a redshirt freshman, stuffing Cincinnati’s Tony Pike at the goal line on fourth down to preserve the Hokies’ first Orange Bowl win and celebrating not only a big game, but also the start to an expected bright future.

Less than two years later, he’s sitting in agony every day, leg throbbing, and wondering if his football life was the thing being stuffed.

Barquell Rivers is one of the good guys on Tech’s squad. He never causes any mischief. He graduated in four years. His coaches and teammates respect him.

That’s why what transpired in the final moments of the game at Duke in late October punctuated one of the best feel-good stories of a career.

In his first start since suffering a devastating injury in Tech’s weight room early last year, Rivers made the game-sealing interception to preserve the Hokies’ fingernail-gnawing 14-10 victory over the Blue Devils. After he picked off the pass, he slid to the ground. He might have scored. Instead, he chose to bottle the game and his comeback.

“It felt pretty good to get back out there and make some plays,” Rivers said. “Just from the standpoint of recovering from this injury, it felt good because some people didn’t think I’d play again. So it felt good to show people that I could overcome things, and no matter what you do, if you stay positive and fight through it, you can make it.”

Rivers’ 18-month journey began in March of 2010. Following a redshirt sophomore season in which he led the Hokies in tackles, he went to perform a lift in the weight room when his left leg suddenly buckled. He dropped the barbell, as the pain roared in his leg.

Shortly thereafter, trainers confirmed the worst – a torn quadriceps tendon, a tendon that connects the quadriceps muscle to the kneecap. Rivers underwent surgery and began an exhaustive rehab in hopes of making it back for the 2010 season opener against Boise State.

It never happened. In fact, Rivers really never made it back at all last season, save for a smattering of reps on the kickoff team in the Orange Bowl against Stanford. He never got his mobility to where he needed it to be an effective mike linebacker.

So instead, he watched as Bruce Taylor became the starter – and an All-ACC linebacker. He came to the realization that he may never return to the starting role, particularly after a spring practice in which he struggled with tendonitis following the many reps he received as Taylor recovered from a shoulder injury.

He appeared resigned to being a backup this season and playing on a few special teams. In fact, in the first seven games, he played just 44 snaps from scrimmage, as his final season started to melt into oblivion.

“It was kind of difficult. But I knew that I was a senior leader, and I’ve gotten older and wiser,” Rivers said. “I understood the situation. So I tried to help out the young guys in practices and games, just trying to do whatever would help us win.”

His universe rotated on its axis when Taylor went down for the season with a foot injury in the BC game. Rivers found himself back in his familiar spot, doing what he did so well less than two years ago.

He got the start at Duke, less than three hours from his hometown of Wadesboro, N.C. Before the game, he went through the warm-ups and the drills. It felt so new and yet so familiar.

“No,” he said when asked if he was nervous. “Because I’ve been in games before. I was just worried about my assignments and making plays and recognizing things that I was seeing in those first couple of plays.”

Late in the game, with the Hokies clinging to a four-point lead and the Blue Devils trying to mount a drive, Rivers did his job. Duke quarterback Sean Renfree made a fourth-down pass that Tech’s Cris Hill tipped in the air.

It fell right into the place it should have – Rivers’ hands.

He finished with four tackles and the interception. His teammates jumped all over him in celebration, commemorating the play and honoring what he had been through. He played every single one of the 72 defensive snaps in the game. His leg felt fine afterward.

The 2011 season isn’t over. But for Rivers, certainly, the end is complete.