As Rivers heaved the weight from the ground, his knee buckled. He threw the barbell to the ground, staggering and almost falling as he put pressure on his left leg. Rivers refused to look at the injury, just above his left knee, until he got to a training room table. When he did, the gravity of the situation became clear.
“It looked like I just had a big hole in it,” he said. “All the muscle was gone.”
Trainers soon confirmed the worst: Rivers had torn his left quadriceps. The next day, Virginia Tech’s second-leading tackler during the 2009 season underwent surgery that ultimately made him consider whether he should quit football altogether.
But on Saturday, when Virginia Tech travels to Duke, the fifth-year senior’s story will come full circle. Rivers will get his first start at middle linebacker since the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl in relief of Bruce Taylor, an opening-day starter who suffered a season-ending foot injury against Boston College last week.
What few realize, though, is that Rivers’s resolve was formed long ago by one North Carolina police officer.
“I’ve been fighting adversity ever since I was little,” Rivers said. “Don’t too many people make it out of the town where I’m from.”
‘He saw potential in me’
Felix Blakney first noticed Barquell Rivers on the Pop Warner fields of Wadesboro, N.C., a rural town of less than 6,000 about an hour east of Charlotte. Rivers stood out as a 5-foot-3, 170-pound sixth-grader whom nobody could tackle.
A Wadesboro native and police officer in neighboring Union County, Blakney, 42, was a volunteer middle school football coach who knew all too well about the pitfalls of his home town. And he soon realized Rivers had skills few in the area possessed.
Off the field, Blakney became a father figure and mentor, taking Rivers to games and doling out advice on how to thrive in a community that could consume even the most talented of residents.
“He would always tell me to stay positive, surround myself with positive people and try not to hang out with the wrong crowd,” Rivers said. “He saw potential in me.”
Said Blakney: “You have to have someone that’s gonna stay on you and ride you to get out of here. There’s guys that I grew up idolizing that were outstanding athletes in school and you see them on the corner. They lost their hope, their dreams.”
But Blakney’s role was more fundamental than simply being a demanding coach. Rivers’s parents have been separated his entire life. He lived with his mother, but because she worked the night shift, “I didn’t really talk to her much until the weekend,” Rivers said.
Blakney would often take Rivers out to eat after practice, “just to make sure he had some food at night.”