By Kalani Simpson
Special to the Star-Bulletin
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jul 08, 2009
Jason Rivers was not in any way "athletic" in the modern stereotypical use of the word. Oh, he could run, and he could jump, and catch passes, and had great hand-eye coordination and a good 40 time. He was, no doubt, a great athlete (he was a state sprint champion and an outstanding basketball player at Saint Louis School).
But in his role as one of the best pass catchers Hawaii has ever produced he was never a "great athlete." He wasn't smooth like Davone Bess was. He wasn't a Corvette in cleats like Ryan Grice-Mullins was. He wasn't otherworldly like Ashley Lelie was. He wasn't explosive like Chad Owens was.
No, Rivers was explosive like an actual explosion. There was damage; things broke; bodies scattered; psyches were scarred. He was explosive in the literal sense. He exploded out there, on the football field.
And that was the most beautiful thing about his game. Jason Rivers caught the ball because he wanted it like a dog going after a piece of meat. He didn't run by people; he ran through them. In everything he did, he attacked.
"Jason," Colt Brennan would say once, after another incredible performance, "is the most aggressive receiver I've ever been around."
No. He wasn't as pretty as the rest of them. There was nothing graceful about him. Nothing glamorous. Even his number -- no single digit for him. No, he did something most "star" receivers don't -- he wore a number in the 80s. It was workmanlike, and humble, and it just seemed to fit.
It seemed he was always being overlooked. Every year, the Hawaii coaches had another guy Rivers had to fight off to win the job yet again. He was no one's favorite player.
And so he became one of my favorite players.
It was something awesome to watch.
He played receiver in a different way. Violently. Ferociously. Hungrily.
He played the way Pancho Gonzales played tennis. The way Bob Gibson pitched.
He would make plays and howl into the night. He would knock people over. He would block. He would fight you. He would fight you with everything he had, and for everything you had. He would take it from you.
This is what made him great.
And he was fiercest in the biggest moments, or, as June Jones put it once, "When the stage gets big, he gets big."
Who caught the pass that put Tim Chang over the NCAA all-time passing-yards record? Rivers did (and it was for a touchdown, of course). Who put the exclamation point on one of the greatest games Colt Brennan ever played, that delirious comeback win in the Hawaii Bowl over Arizona State? Rivers, running away, pulling away from everyone, running into the night. Brennan, celebrating with the linemen, running after him, his finger in the air.
I can see it now. Rivers just running, not smoothly, but fiercely, breaking away.
Rivers is the greatest player in the history of the Hawaii Bowl, bar none. They should put his name on the trophy they give to the MVP. He went to another level in bowl games.
"No one was talking about him," Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter would say, after Rivers torched his team for 308 yards.
No, no one ever did. He wasn't as smooth as the other receivers and his path wasn't as smooth, either. It seemed he was always on the brink of being counted out -- which is a ridiculous thing to say about a school's career receiving-yards leader, but UH coaches always had his replacement ready at hand. It's true, Rivers would miss the 2005 season with a mix of injury, academic and personal concerns. But again he fought back, returning without a scholarship, always playing most ferociously in the biggest games. His "redshirt" would mean he would be back to catch 92 passes in 2007 (14 each in nail biters at Louisiana Tech and vs. Washington).
Others were great athletes. All Jason Rivers did was play like a man possessed. (In fact, maybe that was the only way to stop him. Get a priest.)
He was one of my favorite players. He was playing football, not playing catch.
Fittingly, his career ended in a bowl game and in a rage. He had 10 catches for 105 yards against Georgia in the 2008 Sugar Bowl, and long after the game was decided, Rivers was still raging against the dying of the light. He'd been knocked out cold in the first half, but got up off the canvas, got back in the game. Still fighting, still leading. Still raging.
"They'd have to break my arm, break my leg," he told Dave Reardon then. Nothing could make him stop.
That was who he was. That was what made him great.
He was never explosive in the athletic sense. He was explosive like an actual explosion. Rivers played with a fire that consumed him. And it tended to consume his opponents, too.