Nov. 23, 2012
By Adam K. Moussa
Etched beneath the skin of Tennessee senior tight end Mychal Rivera lay a multitude of tattoos that serve as permanent and outward portrayals of his personality.
Included in Rivera's collection of over 50 intricately inked images are homages to faith, family and football, the majority of which he has acquired since joining the Volunteers in 2010.
"The tattoos that cover my body tell the story of my life," said Rivera. "Each piece expresses who I am, the places that I have been and what I have learned along my path."
Born the middle of three children in the Los Angeles suburb of Valencia, Calif., Rivera was raised in a household that valued hard work, determination, passion and persistence.
"The Rivera family revolves around the entertainment industry," said Tennessee's starting tight end. "My dad works in the music business, and my mom and both of my sisters are models and actresses. What I learned from my family's experiences is that you can't get anywhere in life without believing in yourself and being committed to your craft."
"My parents never pushed me to get into music or acting. Instead, they encouraged me to find something that I was passionate about, dedicate myself to it and work hard to be the best that I could be."
By the time that Rivera reached the first grade, he had found football, a sport that would come to serve as a positive outlet for his adolescent energy.
"Growing up, I was a kid who just wanted to run around constantly," Rivera recalled. "Recess was definitely the highlight of my school days because all that I ever wanted to do was go outside and play ball."
As Rivera aged, the gridiron became more than a game, but rather, a stage on which he could make a name for himself.
"I really started focusing on football when I reached my sophomore year of high school," said Rivera. "Seeing my parents and sisters experience success in their careers really pushed me to put my all into ball, and make a mark of my own. I knew that if I worked hard and stayed positive, I could take my game to the next level."
Coupling his ambition with an unparalleled sense of optimism, Rivera skyrocketed himself onto the radar of college football coaches throughout the country by averaging 10 yards per catch and leading Birmingham High School to a 13-1 record as a senior.
Upon culminating his prep career under the guidance of head coach Osorio Arnold in 2008, Rivera's rare combination of size and speed earned the 6-foot-3, 244-pound tight end Division I scholarship offers from schools throughout the nation.
After months of deliberation, Rivera decided to attend the University of Oregon, signing with the Ducks over Boise State, Nevada and UCLA, among others.
But, after arriving on campus in Eugene, Rivera began experiencing homesickness, an emotion that would ultimately prompt him to forego his scholarship and return home to Los Angeles, following his freshman year.
"I went to Oregon when I was only 17 years old, and I experienced all of the tough things that freshmen go through," said Rivera. "I was homesick, football wasn't working out like I thought that it would and I was very confused. Ultimately, I knew that I needed to make a change."
At an impasse in his personal life and playing career, Rivera enrolled at College of the Canyons, a Los Angeles area junior college where he would reenergize his love for football.
"College of the Canyons truly helped me grow as a player, and as a person," said Rivera. "My time back home in LA gave me the opportunity to regain my love for the game and reconnect with the reasons that I began playing the first place."
After catching 32 passes for a total of 316 yards and three touchdowns for the Cougars in 2009, Rivera once again garnered scholarship offers that spanned the United States.
This time, the highly-touted tight end chose the University of Tennessee, a school located over 2,200 miles away from his hometown.
"I felt like UT was the perfect place for me because of Coach Dooley, his philosophy and how much Vol Football means to the fans," said Rivera. "Going so far away from home was definitely hard for me, but I felt like I was more mature and better prepared to take on anything that life threw at me, this time around."
During his time on Rocky Top, Rivera has made his presence felt in nearly every facet of the Big Orange offense.
"Players like Mychal are truly hard to find," said special teams and tight ends coach Charlie Coiner. "Guys that can block well, run good routes and catch the ball are so valuable because they give you an added element to your offense, and Mychal provides us with that versatility. We can line him up in the backfield, in the slot, as a primary wide receiver or next to the tackle, and he can impact the game at all of those spots. To me, Mychal is just about as much of the whole package as there is in this league." Since signing with Tennessee, Rivera has started 34 games throughout his three-year career, accounting for over 71 receptions, 954 yards and five touchdowns along the way.
But, despite Rivera's All-SEC statistics, sophomore wide receiver Vincent Dallas insists the tight end's positive personality provides as much to the team as his play on the field.
"Mych is the most encouraging man that I know, and he means more to the team than his numbers show," said Dallas. "When times are tough, he's the guy that picks the team up and keeps us optimistic. Mych is like a big brother to me, and he does the right things on and off of the field. Just by looking at the way that he carries himself, you can tell that the team means a lot to him."
Today, UT's heavily tattooed tight end will stand beside his fellow 12 seniors and be honored for his unwavering commitment and enduring contributions to Tennessee, a rewarding moment that Rivera predicts will last a lifetime.
"Standing in front of the crowd on Senior Day, with my family by my side, will be so special and something that will stick with me forever," said Rivera. "I can't think of a better way to finish off my college career than in front of the fans that have made my experience at UT so amazing."
"I am truly grateful for my time here at Tennessee. I have learned so much since coming to The Hill, and Knoxville will always be a second home to me. Running out of the `T,' hearing 100,000-plus fans singing `Rocky Top,' and seeing the fireworks light up the sky after we score are memories that I will treasure and carry with me for the rest of my life. I just hope, that from the outside, people can see how much of a mark UT has made on me."