Fifth-year senior linebacker Barquell Rivers and his longtime mentor, Felix L. Blakney, at Rivers’s graduation from Virginia Tech. Rivers, after a long recovery from a March 2010 leg injury, will get his first start in two seasons on Saturday at Duke. (Felix L. Blakney/Family photo)

It was March 3, 2010, and Virginia Tech linebacker Barquell Rivers was with his teammates in the Merryman Center weight room, the last “max out” session before players left campus for spring break.

Rivers put 350 pounds on a barbell for a power clean, an exercise where the lifter brings the weight up from the ground to his or her chin. What he didn’t know then was that decision would alter the next 18 months of his life.

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.”

“It wasn’t the type of life you want to grow up in as a kid,” Blakney said. “He has a relationship with his mom and dad but they haven’t made the best choices. I tried to tell him that regardless of what they do, it doesn’t give you an excuse. You’ve got to use that as motivation to be better, do better and take advantage of your athletic ability.”

Rivers followed through on those words, starring in football, basketball and baseball at Anson County High before signing on to play football at Virginia Tech. Before 2007, just two other players from Wadesboro had ever earned scholarships at a Football Bowl Subdivision school.

‘His shining moment’

A year after finishing with 96 tackles, Rivers watched as Taylor became a star at his old position in 2010. He wanted to return badly but tweaked his quad in practice and developed chronic knee pain from compensating for the injury.

The team shut down Rivers completely in October, but Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer said at the time, “I’m not going to give up on him until it just can’t be done.”

Rivers again turned to Blakney, this time wondering if he should quit football altogether. Blakney told Rivers to focus on his degree while also delivering a tough-love message: “You gonna whine about it or you gonna keep working because people don’t think you can come back?”

The injury improved substantially over the following months, and Rivers was able to practice with the team before last season’s Orange Bowl, even receiving some playing time on special teams during the game.

More important to Blakney, though, is that Rivers graduated from Virginia Tech last spring with a degree in apparel, housing and resource management, “but I prayed that Barquell would be able to go out on his own terms.”

On Saturday, Rivers will get his chance. His quad will never return to full strength — he can’t change directions as well as he did before — and the coaches worry about how much Rivers can play after such an extended layoff. But as defensive coordinator Bud Foster put it this week, “This can be his shining moment.”

Rivers knows the emotions will flow once he enters Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium, fully aware that “I got a bunch of people that had faith in me.”

“I could’ve done a lot of things once I got hurt, I could’ve easily gave up. But I kept on fighting and fighting and fighting,” Rivers said. “And now it seems like it’s all working out for the better. I’m getting another opportunity to show I can still play.”