CONCORD – By the time he got to elementary school, Chandler Rivers had done his personal tour of the other major ball sports, and his desire to continue was starting to wane.
And there were a few pretty good reasons for that.
Basketball? He kind of liked it, and he was OK at it. But he didn’t love the hardwood.
Baseball? Well, this much became clear at a very early age – he couldn’t hit the dang ball.
But one day, Rivers’ dad, Jimmy, took him to a youth football practice. The 5-year-old surveyed the field, took in the cacophony of shoulder pads and helmets colliding, and knew he was home.
“So is this what you want to play?” Jimmy asked.
“Oh, yeah,” the younger Rivers said.
Undersized but up to the task
Nearly 13 years later, standing in an end zone on Central Cabarrus High School’s Dink Jordan Field, Rivers recalled why the decision to take up football was so simple for him.
“Hitting people,” he said, his normally calm voice starting to show excitement. “In real life, you can’t just go down the road and hit somebody and tackle them. But on the football field, you can do that. And that’s why I loved it.”
And that passion shows in the way Rivers plays the game.
Despite being a sure-handed receiver for the Central Cabarrus football team, Rivers has become what his coach calls “the best wide receiver in Cabarrus County” because of his physicality.
There aren’t many wide receivers -- a group of players who’ve earned the nickname “divas” because of their unwillingness to engage in contact and expectation to have the ball thrown their way on every play -- with highlight videos featuring just as many hard-nosed blocks as pass receptions.
But go on the Internet, look up Rivers’ highlights, and that’s what you’ll find: a wide receiver playing the game almost with a defensive player’s mentality.
The thing that makes it even more impressive is that Rivers is usually one of the leanest players on the gridiron.
But there he is on the screen, all 5 feet 11, 150 pounds of him, taking on defensive backs and often winding up on top, freeing up a teammate to make a big play for the Vikings.
“I think I kind of get in dude’s heads,” Rivers explained. “If I’m blocking them, I’m going to keep blocking them until the play’s over. (Cornerbacks) and safeties, they don’t really want to feel that after every single play. And I’m going to run hard every route, and it’s going to look the same every time.”
Walking the walk
Such talk is actually a little bit of a surprise for a reporter interviewing Rivers earlier this week. Initially, the Viking is extremely reserved, hesitant to talk about himself. But when the discussion shifts more directly to the game he loves, Rivers’ eyes widen.
“I feel like I change as a person when I get on the field,” he said. “Something about it just makes me get a little more hyped. Emotions come out, and it’s just like, ‘I’m ready to play.’”
This is a focus that Rivers carries over to other aspects of his life.
In the classroom, he’s a student with a 3.3 GPA, and he’s genuinely perturbed that it’s not higher.
“I get A’s and B’s, but I’m trying to get all A’s, though,” he said. “My mom (Erika) and dad push me hard to do well in the classroom. You really can’t get anywhere without a good education. You need that. That’s an important part of life.
“As of right now, I don’t know what I want to do. I just know I want to go to college and get a good career. Maybe start my own business. But it all starts by making sure my grades are right.”
And then that approach carries over to the weight room, where he’s one of the team leaders. Despite his thin frame, Rivers tosses up 220 pounds in the bench press and squats twice his weight.
Part of that work ethic comes from self-motivation, and the other part is a feeling he had when he was an even smaller high school freshman and, as he puts it, “I played JV, but I didn’t play at all.”
That spring and summer of 2016, Rivers worked harder than he had in his life. He virtually lived in the weight room. He spent hours in his backyard working on his footwork. And sometimes he’d get with fellow Central receivers Nemo Williams and Arthur Bailey, along with DeAndre Boykins, and work out in the stadium with the sun beaming down on them.
“It was pretty difficult,” Rivers said of that freshman season on the bench. “I knew I loved football. But going to a game, it just didn’t feel the same not getting on the field, doing something you had done your whole life.
“That motivated me a lot,” he continued. “I wanted to get on the field and play – like, a lot. I didn’t want to be on the sideline anymore.”
The start of something special
By the time his sophomore season rolled around, Rivers was a starting receiver for coach Kenneth McClamrock’s first Vikings varsity team. And he’s been a lock there ever since.
McClamrock put Rivers there with no hesitation. He said he saw something unique in Rivers back then. And although his receiving stats don’t jump out at you like some players – 17 catches, 370 yards and five touchdowns last season – McClamrock’s beliefs have only been cemented over the years.
Asked why he considers Rivers the best receiver in the county, McClamrock starts talking as if he’s defending a dissertation.
“There’s so many things that Chandler does well,” McClamrock began. “No. 1, he blocks extremely well. He just harasses (defensive backs) until they lose their mind. There are so many games, against big-time players, where he literally takes them out of the game just based off his blocking. He’s always ready to sell out.
“No. 2, I think he runs extremely crisp routes. There’s no receiver in this county who runs better routes than Chandler. And he works extremely hard on it. Every day at practice, he gets in extra routes on his own. And he also catches the ball extremely well.
“I think that when it comes to what we do offensively, Chandler’s 100 percent bought in,” the coach added. “He’s a kid who’s not so much a vocal leader as much as he’s a leader by example. He wants to be the best player that he can be. He wants to have an opportunity at the next level, which he will. And his work ethic rubs off on everyone else.”
When he’s reminded that McClamrock considers him the best in the county, Rivers say he’s thankful. He also, for the record, doesn’t think McClamrock’s opinion is wrong.
“That makes me feel great,” he said. “But I mean, I think I am (the best), too. I’m not going to lie.
“All the stats and stuff, that’s all they are – stats. You’ve got to do well in the game, too. Plus, I’m a hard worker on the field. And if you come and watch me play, you’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah. He’s a pretty good wide receiver.’
“My dream is to play college football,” Rivers continued. “That’s just something growing up that I’ve always said, ‘I want to do that.’ That’s why I work so hard”
Rivers said he’s had a few small colleges reach out to him. Division II Catawba College, for instance, has sent him text messages before games and encouragingly said things like, “Have a good game tonight.”
But Rivers still doesn’t have any scholarship offers.
“The truth is, if he was an inch taller and 15 pounds heavier, he would be an FCS kid,” McClamrock said of the level formally known as Division I-AA. “And he’s going to have some Division II offers, and he may end up with an FCS offer. But he’s a slim kid who plays a lot bigger than he is.
“His impact is much more significant (than what his stats show) because of what he does on the other plays when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands.
“That’s what makes him special.”