His jaw dropped, and his eyes went wide.
The 13-year-old boy was not really surprised, but he couldn’t help but marvel at what he’d just witnessed.
He was hundreds of miles away, sitting on the edge of the couch in his Atlanta, Georgia home. Yet it was almost like he was there, sitting on a rigid stadium seat at Raymond James Stadium, hundreds of feet away instead of hundreds of miles.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had just zipped a fastball toward the back of the end zone, a pass intended for Santonio Holmes.
Second and goal-to-go. But it was the biggest play of the season.
Super Bowl XLIII hung in the balance as the jumbotron showed just 36 seconds remaining in the game, in the season.
As the pass hung in the air, millions of people, including the boy, watched and waited as the ball zipped toward Holmes.
The boy had an advantage though, he knew what was going to happen.
Detroit to Atlanta
Atlanta is home for Roland Rivers III, but he spent the early part of his life growing up in Detroit, Michigan.
While he didn’t play much football yet, he loved riding bikes and playing basketball with his brothers, one younger and one older. The trio developed a close bond through their childhood, one which has been strengthened through the years.
They’re a close family, he says, and football is only part of the equation.
“I’m my brothers’ keepers,” Rivers says. “Growing up, no matter what adversity or challenges I went through in life, it was always easy to get through it. I didn’t even know anything outside of being with my brothers and having them with me through everything.”
The Rivers family would reside in Detroit until the time Roland was in third grade. That year, they moved down to Ellenwood, Georgia, a suburb just under 20 miles from downtown Atlanta.
Rivers says he still remembers that first day in Atlanta; it’s not something he’s likely to forget.
“When we moved back down to Atlanta when I was in third grade, we went to visit Martin Luther King Jr.’s house,” Rivers says. “We went down there and walked through his house, and that’s a memory I’ll always remember.”
The day spent touring King’s house was punctuated with a visit to Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta and some time to swim around in the pool. That was a good day spent with family, he says. The beginning of life in Georgia.
Football did not become a big part of Rivers’ life until fifth grade. He played pee-wee football, but the game didn’t really have his full attention yet, he says.
Living in the suburbs just outside Atlanta, Rivers says he would spend all day out in the cul-de-sac with his brothers. They’d spend hours playing basketball, tossing the football around or just playing for fun. It was just a fun experience at the time, but it always laid the groundwork for how Rivers would eventually carry himself on the football field.
Football grew into a game that brought the brothers even closer together.
While the Rivers brothers have fun with each other, they are a competitive bunch, he says. The eldest Rivers brother attended Miles College to play college football while the youngest is currently an All-American safety at Valdosta State.
That passion and excitement that Rivers felt as a child, playing all sorts of games with his brothers, has been something he imparts on his teammates at Slippery Rock. Let’s play like six-year-olds, he says, let’s recapture that fun and enjoyment we felt when we were that young.
“That same feeling I had when I was a kid competing with my brothers and always wanting to win is the same thing that persists for me today,” Rivers says.
The unconditional love and support has continued to grow as they reach adulthood. With the youngest Rivers forced to miss a year of time at Valdosta State, Rivers says while his brother is facing some adversity, he will continue to be there and guide his brother through it.
When Rivers needs support from his brothers, they’ve always been there for him. And he will continue to be there for them.
Martin Luther King High
Most NFL quarterbacks tend to have run the gauntlet of starting every single game from junior high football, high school football and Division I college football before finally entering the league as heralded draft picks.
That’s not the case for Rivers, an NFL hopeful following the season.
He started for his varsity football team while at Martin Luther King High School in Ellenwood, Georgia, but he was a tight end. He got his only taste of quarterback action as the starter of the junior varsity team.
Rivers says he enjoyed blocking and catching passes as a tight end, but he truly had a passion for playing quarterback.
It wasn’t until his junior season that he was finally handed the reins of the Martin Luther King offense.
“My junior season, I only played in three games, but I played really well,” Rivers says. “I think I threw for 900 yards and 10 touchdowns in those games. Going into my senior season, that was my first full season as a starting quarterback.”
As a senior, Rivers led the Lions to a 7-4 record and a spot in Georgia AAAAA State Playoffs. His 2,685 yards and 24 touchdowns through the air earned him an All-State honorable mention.
However, that season came to a premature end, with an exit in the first round of the state playoffs. But, if it’s any consolation, it came at the hands of one of the leading NFL MVP candidates this season.
“We faced off against Deshaun Watson in Gainesville in the first round of the playoffs,” Rivers says. “It was a rainy game, and they came out on top, 28-14, but going up there and playing against a competitor like him [was great].”
The loss left Rivers hungry for more football, and he was ready to head to the next level.
Valdosta and Injury
Perennial Division II powerhouse and 2018 NCAA Division II champion Valdosta State currently sits at No. 1 in the Division II rankings. They haven’t budged from that spot in a while now, last having lost way back in 2017.
If things had gone according to plan, Rivers would currently be leading the Blazers toward a second consecutive national championship.
Rivers says the Blazers offered him a full scholarship coming off his senior season at MLK and the plan was to start all four seasons in Valdosta.
The plan got off to a slow start, and Rivers spent most of his time as the backup quarterback during his freshman season. In limited playing time, he still threw for 548 yards and six touchdowns compared to just two interceptions.
That wasn’t enough for Rivers, though, he says. He earned the starting job the following season and through seven games, the Blazers were 6-1 and ranked in the top 10 in the country.
Valdosta defeated Delta State in its homecoming game that season, but Rivers suffered a season-ending injury. He would miss the remaining three games that season and Valdosta suffered a loss to UNC Pembroke in the first round of the NCAA playoffs.
He never suited up for the Blazers again.
His shoulder injury which held him out the entire 2017 season eventually got into his head. He says he wasn’t sure his shoulder would ever be 100% again.
“I read about guys like Drew Brees and his shoulder injury and Braxton Miller had to change his whole position because of a labrum tear, so not knowing if I would be able to play the game that I love at a high-level again was definitely scary,” Rivers says.
While he was out of football for a while, Rivers says he kept his faith through the entire ordeal. He rehabbed hard, working day in and day out to get back to the shape he was in before going down with an injury.
A way of coping with the injury, he says, was working the youth around the university.
“I worked at a boy’s and girl’s club back at Valdosta State, and I really found a passion for doing that, just seeing the impact that I had on being around the youth,” Rivers says.
At a point in his life where he wasn’t quite sure where he was going or what he was going to do, he says the kids he worked with helped take his mind off his troubles. The kids helped him through a rough patch in his life.
The impact of the time spent with the boy’s and girl’s club was enough to instill in him a passion for working with children, a calling that he says awaits when his time with football is finally over.
Standing head and shoulders over most adults and more than three times the size of most children, Rivers feels that sometimes people may think he’s an imposing figure — they’re right about being an imposing figure. But he says he’s actually nicer than what most people think.
“I’m a guy who loves helping people and loves passing positive energy to everyone I come in contact with,” Rivers says. “I’m a very loving person, and as I’ve grown into my mature ways, I learned I love working with kids and being a mentor to the youth.”
Valdosta was an up and down experience for Rivers, with his time as a Blazer ultimately ending prematurely. That doesn’t bother Rivers though. In fact, he only feels gratitude for the entire process.
It brought him closer to the game he loves most of all.
“I’m thankful for everything that I’ve gone through,” Rivers says. “It makes me more appreciative of the game of football. I’ll never step on the field, do anything or take the game for granted. I love it, it’s my passion and it’s what I want to do in my life. I’m glad I had to go through [the injury] to realize how much the injury meant to me.”
“I can see into the future,” Rivers says, after a second of thought. Not in the literal sense, but in a way that if options are laid out, he says he would be able to help a person work through their choices.
OK, maybe in the literal sense, too.
“I wouldn’t say I always had this vision, but leading up to deciding to come up here, Slippery Rock wasn’t even the school that was in mind,” Rivers says. “I had a vision of me playing in this green uniform, I still have that vision in my head today, I was in a green uniform with these white pants. … Maybe it was just destiny for me to come up here.”
Rivers had seen Slippery Rock in national rankings, recognizing the name from searching the rankings while at Valdosta, but he had no idea where the school with an odd name was located.
There’s no way he could have pointed it out on a map.
“I really took a leap of faith,” he admits, “but I’m glad that I did.”
Very soon after arriving at The Rock, he felt how different the atmosphere was. His love for the small town was immediate and it has only grown as Slippery Rock has welcomed him like a prodigal son returning home.
Former Valdosta State quarterbacks coach Justin Roper was actually the one to bring Slippery Rock to Rivers’ attention after the former was named as SRU’s new offensive coordinator in early 2016.
After doing some research, looking up former Rock quarterback Tanner Garry, Rivers noticed a few things. Garry put up monster numbers in his lone season, and despite missing the playoffs, Slippery Rock was a missing piece away from heading back.
A puzzle piece the size of a smooth-talking, strong-armed quarterback from Georgia.
Like everything in Rivers’ life, he worked hard and earned the starting job. Coming into camp late, he was stuck behind Rock quarterbacks Andrew Koester and Taylor King heading into Week 1 of the 2018 season.
It wasn’t until injuries to both players that Rivers was afforded the chance to finally take the field.
Less than two years later, he has broken the record for all-time passing touchdowns in a career at Slippery Rock.
Through 10 games this season, Rivers is a leading Harlon Hill Award candidate. His 3,107 passing yards and 36 passing touchdowns (a single-season SRU record) rank inside the top five nationally.
While proud of those accomplishments, Rivers says they’re individual awards. What he wants is so much bigger and more important: the NCAA championship. He wants it like nothing else he’s ever wanted, except maybe playing in the NFL. Maybe.
Besides, with two guaranteed games left, Rivers has time to continue putting eye-popping numbers. With some luck, he says he’ll be able to push those numbers so high that no player will ever be able to catch him.
With the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship game against Kutztown on Saturday, Rivers has a chance for redemption, too. After laying an egg against West Chester in the PSAC title last season, he can rewrite that part of the storybook.
Ranked No. 2 in Super Region One, Slippery Rock will attempt to knock off Kutztown and claim the No. 1 seed in the region and ride through the playoffs with home-field advantage.
While nothing is guaranteed, none of it would even be possible without a huge leap of faith.
“I needed to go somewhere else and stand on my own two feet as a man and just figure out who I am as a person,” Rivers says. “If I’m a leader down there in Valdosta, and if I’m a leader here, I’ll be a leader anywhere I go.”
Leaving home for a cold, rainy place that he knew nothing about is exactly what he needed. It’s what he wanted to do, even with his parents questioning the decision. In his heart, he says, leaving Valdosta for Slippery Rock felt like the right thing to do.
“Now that I’m here at The Rock, everything happened for a reason,” Rivers says. “If I had to go out and change anything, I wouldn’t change anything at all.”
The experience has allowed Rivers to learn a lot about himself. Away from family and friends, he has been forced to grow up and take care of his responsibilities.
Fending for himself, Rivers would love to eat salmon with some broccoli and potatoes every day, but he usually settles for Boozel Dining Hall instead.
In the afternoons, he’ll get some grilled chicken and make a fresh chicken salad. If it’s early morning, after finishing up a practice, he’ll grab a bowl of oatmeal. At Slippery Rock, Boozel is the go-to.
“With My Team” by the Creek Boyz blasting in his ears, Rivers sits in the locker room of Mihalik-Thompson Stadium. It’s half an hour until game time, and instead of tens of thousands of fans packing the bleachers, it’s a few thousand.
Which, for the Division II level is a lot, can’t compare to anything Division I has to offer.
Division II football doesn’t produce NFL players. NFL hopefuls don’t come to the Divison II level because it prepares them for NFL level football.
That doesn’t stop Rivers from dreaming, working and busting his butt to get to that level.
“All the haters and all the doubters who said you can’t make it from D-II… I never let that get to me,” Rivers says. “I’m still going to continue working. I’m not there yet, but I feel confident in my ability to play quarterback at the highest level.”
Slippery Rock does not have the resources and connections that an athlete would find at even a lesser-known team in Division I football.
It would have been easy to give up on the NFL, he says. At any point along the way, it may have even been easier to give up.
Rivers believes his best football is still ahead of him, a sentiment shared by Slippery Rock head coach Shawn Lutz. Lutz has praised Rivers for his ability to seemingly improve each and every week.
While on the stat sheet, Rivers may not have seemed like he had the biggest day against arch-rival Indiana (Pa.) this season, Lutz says Rivers was in complete control of the game.
On arguably the biggest possession of the season, Rivers orchestrated a 14-play, 7-minute drive, capped off by a touchdown from SRU running back Charles Snorweah, to put the game out of reach and secure one of the biggest wins in the region.
A 4th-and-1 on their own side of the field stands out on that drive, but it was a 3rd-and-7 play that cemented Rivers as a clutch player.
With a couple of Crimson Hawks defenders bearing down on him in the backfield, Rivers rolled out of the pocket, avoiding the defense, and fired a perfect pass 13-yards down the field to pick up a crucial first down.
A couple of plays later, Snorweah scored the game-sealing touchdown.
“That play on third down to Cinque [Sweeting],” Rivers says. “That was the play where after the play, all I could hear was the crowd. It seemed like the moment after that catch… I was in that moment for a long time. Even though we ran a play 15 seconds later, it just felt like that moment is one I’ll remember for life.”
A 45-42 victory over the Crimson Hawks, the second consecutive in one of the biggest rivalries in Division II football, saw Rivers complete clutch throws, extend plays with his legs, and most importantly, win the game.
Despite Rivers’ level of play on the field never reaching this point before, he expects and predicts more from himself.
“I feel like my best football days are ahead of me, that’s exactly how I feel,” Rivers says. “Every game, I’m learning more about myself and what I’m able to do on the field. I’m excited. I love this position; I love playing football and there’s no greater game than football.”
The Super Bowl
“And it is… CAUGHT FOR A TOUCHDOWN! By Holmes!” Al Michaels shouted, celebrations erupting on the Steelers’ sideline.
Rivers was right all along.
“I just knew Ben Roethlisberger was going to go down the field and make it happen,” Rivers says, holding his Slippery Rock helmet in one hand as he surveys his teammates warming up beneath an overcast sky.
Watching that play, Rivers decided then and there that he was going to be an NFL quarterback.
“I really fell in love with the game of football when Ben Roethlisberger threw that game-winning touchdown to Santonio Holmes in the back of the end zone against the Cardinals,” Rivers says. “Ben Roethlisberger became my favorite quarterback. That’s when I really chased after wanting to be a quarterback. That’s what I wanted to do right then and there.
With a smile on his face, Rivers, who looks a bit like Ben Roethlisberger when he throws his helmet on, turns toward Bob DiSpirito field, watching his teammates mill around before practice starts.
After a brief pause, he sprints forward toward the huddle of teammates at midfield.
His team needs its leader.