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How Roland Rivers III persevered for an NFL chance

The former Slippery Rock quarterback is ready for his shot with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Growing up just outside of Atlanta, it wasn't Matt Ryan or an Atlanta Falcon that adorned the walls of his bedroom. No, it wasn't anyone from Atlanta at all; in fact, it was only a Pittsburgh Steeler.

Roland Rivers III, like so many across the country, was on the edge of his seat — the couch in his parents’ house in Ellenwood, Georgia in this case — watching Super Bowl XLIII. As a kid who grew up playing any and every sport, Rivers watched Ben Roethlisberger toss a dart to Santonio Holmes in the back of the end to clinch a Super Bowl title and knew what he wanted to be.

With a Big Ben fathead plastered to the wall of his bedroom, Rivers turned his attention — dedicating every ounce of his being — to become a quarterback. Except, it wasn't exactly straightforward. Rivers started on his varsity football team, only he was a tight end.

His only quarterback experience came from the JV level until he reached his junior season at Martin Luther King High School. With only a few games played at the varsity level as a junior, Rivers’ senior season was his first — and only — real taste of playing quarterback at a high level. With a 7-4 record, Rivers led MLK to a berth in the Georgia AAAAA playoffs and all-state mentions. Of course, with a first round match-up against Houston Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson, despite keeping it within two scores, the season came to an end.

While Rivers would end up at Slippery Rock University, the road to SRU was long and winding. Out of high school, he took his talents to Division II powerhouse Valdosta State, and if everything had gone to plan, Rivers would have spent four years in southern Georgia trying to become an NFL player.

As a freshman, Rivers didn't see a whole lot of playing time at Valdosta State. Although he succeeded while on the field, he didn't earn the starting spot until his sophomore season.

However, a severe shoulder injury in 2016 — his sophomore season — forced him to miss the remainder of the season and an eventual NCAA Division II playoff loss. Despite having earned the starting spot at quarterback and leading Valdosta to a 6-1 record, missing the entire 2017 put his career in doubt.

The shoulder injury, one similar to the injury Drew Brees suffered during his time in San Diego, clouded Rivers’ mind. He was in a dark place, unsure of himself at Valdosta, and he turned to a new passion: working with children.

While working with kids at a Georgia Boy’s and Girl’s Club, in the midst of rehabbing his shoulder, Rivers found the children motivated and provided an escape for him. He found a way to truly give back while still gaining the motivation he needed. Yet he still knew it was time for the next destination in his playing career.

With Rivers leaving Valdosta, his background might have changed, but his passion for helping others didn't.

Rivers took a leap of faith in leaving Valdosta — Georgia all together for that matter — for a random town in northwestern Pennsylvania that he’d heard of from Division II football rankings but couldn't point out on a map.

Arriving at Slippery Rock late, he began his SRU career as a third-string quarterback. Behind a pair of experienced quarterbacks, Rivers bided his time, only having to wait a few weeks. An injury to both the starter and the backup in the span of a couple of weeks opened a spot for Rivers, and he never looked back.

Rivers took over a 1-1 squad with national title aspirations (and without their preseason first and second string quarterbacks) and led them to the NCAA Division II quarterfinals, passing for 2,721 yards and 28 touchdowns at a 58% clip — while rushing for 731 yards and seven touchdowns.

A fine season by all accounts, but Rivers was expecting much, much more from himself.

Despite having to miss the spring season of his senior season due to NCAA eligibility reasons from transferring, Rivers rolled into his senior season with a vengeance. In his first game of the season, a road game against Wayne State University in Detroit, Rivers threw for 405 yards and six touchdowns (at a 77% clip) and rushed for 67 yards and another score. The end result was a 62-37 win, and that was just the beginning for Rivers and SRU.

The end result? A trip to the NCAA Divison II semifinals and a Harlon Hill Award (the D-II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy) for Rivers.

After losing an NFL running back in Wes Hills (who would score two touchdowns in a game with the Detroit Lions in 2019), Rivers came out and delivered a season he was destined for. In 14 games, Rivers passed for 4,460 yards and 52 touchdowns (at a 67% clip) and rushed for 700 yards and nine more touchdowns.

During Rivers’ record-setting season, re-writing previously untouched Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and NCAA Division II records, Slippery Rock advanced further than any SRU team since the 1990s. With a matchup against the prior seasons’ quarterfinals opponent, Rivers just broke more records.

In the first half of SRU’s quarterfinals matchup against Notre Dame College (Oh.), Rivers completed 21 of 28 passes for 383 yards and six touchdowns. Trailing 14-0 after two quick opposing touchdowns to start the first quarter, Rivers led The Rock to a furious comeback.

A back-and-forth shootout ended with Slippery Rock on top by the slimmest of margins — a 65-59 victory and a berth in the NCAA Division II semifinals. Rivers finished the game with over 450 yards of total offense and eight total touchdowns.

While Slippery Rock’s season ended against Minnesota State-Mankato the following week in the middle of western PA blizzard, Rivers’ offseason of awards was just beginning.

A first team All-American, Regional and National Offensive Player of the Year and the recipient of the 2019 Harlon Hill Award, Rivers reset just about every record from a Slippery Rock quarterback — in only 26 games, with 23-3 record.

With his eyes set on the 2020 NFL Draft, he already faced adversity as a Division II quarterback, but the coronavirus pandemic made his chances of making an NFL roster virtually impossible. In the year since then, he’s continued to work and train for an NFL opportunity — when it appeared he may never earn a chance, he kept working. An opportunity arose with the Penn State football team, and he earned the chance to throw at their Pro Day with future Steelers’ draft pick Pat Freiermuth in March.

And on Saturday night, Rock Athletics, Slippery Rock’s athletic communication office, announced that Rivers had accepted an invite to the Steelers’ rookie minicamp.

For the big-bodied, strong-armed quarterback from Georgia, it’s a dream come true.

Standing at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Rivers is a strong, physical quarterback with a big arm and an accurate touch. He’s athletic enough to improvise on the ground if plays break down and barrel through defenders on designed runs. He’s going to have to fight for a roster spot with the likes of Joshua Dobbs and Dwayne Haskins among others, but he’s finally got his chance.

From watching Big Ben as a kid to potentially playing on the same team. Hard work is paying off for Rivers.