When you back up Barry Sanders, anonymity is part of the deal.
The whole deal, actually. You carry the ball for the Detroit
Lions about as often as Frank and Kathie Lee have a food fight
in public. When you leave the locker room after a game, you know
the fans are thinking one thing as they size you up: Who's he?
You never autograph your trading card because, well, no card
exists. "I don't mind not having a trading card," Ron Rivers
says. "I like my peace and quiet, but sometimes I wish somebody
would ask me for an autograph. Sometimes your ego needs a boost."
It's amazing, of course, that Rivers still has an ego. Every
week the 5'8", 205-pound running back out of Fresno State waits.
And waits. Even when Sanders was shut down by Minnesota in Week
2, Rivers knew he would never get a chance. "If the best back in
the league can't get it done, why would they turn to me?" he
says. Rivers is so resigned to life in Sanders's shadow that his
goal is to lead the special teams in tackles, which he did
through the Lions' first three games.
Rivers didn't become a running back until his junior year at
San Gorgonio High in San Bernadino, Calif. Still, he attracted
the attention of college recruiters and eventually picked Fresno
State. Again Rivers got a late start, this time because he was
forced to sit out his freshman year as a Prop 48 casualty. By
the time he left, however, he was Fresno State's alltime leader
in rushing and all-purpose yards. "I thought for sure I was
going to be drafted," Rivers says.
The 1994 NFL draft came and went without his name being called,
so Rivers tried to make the Chargers as a free agent. He was cut
at the end of training camp, but the Lions signed him to their
practice squad. When Chicago tried to lure him away, Detroit
countered by clearing a spot on its active roster.
"I got a rocky start in the league, but then I always seem to
get a rocky start," Rivers says. "I'm young, though, and I
figure I can pick up a lot of stuff from Barry. I watch the way
he makes reads. It's interesting to see what makes one of the
game's greatest athletes click."
Mo Forte, the Lions' first-year running backs coach, says Rivers
proved in the preseason he was a competent runner, blocker and
receiver. He's stronger than Sanders--"I've got him in the weight
room," Rivers says--but he's also more of a between-the-tackles
runner who lacks Sanders's speed and explosiveness. (So, of
course, does almost everyone else on the planet.)
Away from football Rivers is an avid fisherman who likes to test
the waters near his home in San Francisco. His favorite fish
story is about the time he ended up as--what else?--a backup. "I
was in this tournament, and I got a 7 1/2-pound trout," Rivers
says. "I thought I was going to win the first prize, but a
10-year-old kid came in with a 10-pounder. I wanted to cry."
Which is probably the way he felt after getting a rare carry
against Arizona in Week 3. Sanders needed a breather after
making a 21-yard run that moved the Lions to the Cardinal
five-yard line. Rivers was thinking touchdown when his number
was called, but he gained only two yards. Sanders then returned,
and Rivers's day in the backfield was done.
Rivers isn't certain about his future. Mr. Anonymity only hopes
that if he can lead the Lion special teams in tackles, he might
at least warrant his own trading card.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT ECCKERS Barry Sanders's backup knows all too well his position in the Lions' offense. [Ron Rivers]