Community Sports

Gig Harbor grad Rivera carves out a comfort zone in Cheney

Posted on November 14th, 2023 By: Leland Smith

For an offensive lineman, it doesn’t get much better than this. Your team clings, white-knuckled, to 24-23 lead with 10 minutes left on the game clock. Nine minutes and 18 plays later, an 84-yard drive ends in the land of six. Touchdown! Your team leads 31-23 and you can gleefully watch precious time tick away as your opponent squirms under the thumb of your well-rested defense.

Game over!

For an offensive lineman, there’s no dancing … no psuedo group-photo celebration … nobody’s going to DisneyWorld. If you are a guard, you might head-butt your O-Line buddy, jog to the sidelines and scowl.

Just a day’s work.

A businesslike business major

So it was for Brenden Rivera and his Eastern Washington University Eagles in clinching a Homecoming victory over Weber State on Oct. 21. If you like three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-red-turf football, Eastern’s game-clinching drive was a masterpiece.

Brenden Rivera, No. 64, sets up to block in pass protection during Eastern Washington’s Sept. 30 home game against Idaho. Photo by Leland Smith

The Eagles (currently 4-6, 3-4 in the Big Sky Conference) needed four third-down and a pair of fourth-down conversions before quarterback Jared Taylor ran behind Rivera and his buddies into the end zone, icing the game.

How’s it feel, Brenden?

“If feels good,” said Rivera, a Gig Harbor High graduate and junior guard for the Eagles. “Eighteen plays; obviously we were really tired. But we were able to follow the scheme, rest our defense and they were able to dominate from there.”

Excuse the young man if he offers a well-thought, analytic, and business-like answer when many 21-year-old athletes — still on Cloud Nine — might babble, sputter and spew. That’s just how he’s wired up. Rivera has made a nice haunt for himself as a second-year starter on the offensive line while double-majoring (Spanish, and business systems and analytics) with a minor in economics.

From an Artondale Otter to an Eastern Eagle

Rivera’s trail to Cheney and Eastern Washington started at Artondale Elementary School and Kopachuck Middle School before attending Gig Harbor High School, where he was a two-year starter for the Tides football team on offense and defense. In addition, he competed on the Tides’ track and field teams, throwing the shot put and discus.

Eastern, meanwhile, has been a factory for solid offensive linemen. Rivera likes the businesslike aspect of understanding game schemes, recognizing blitzes and stunts. The gridiron can be a great classroom.

“I like figuring out the best course of action before each game and using that information from play to play,” he says. “It’s kind of like working in business; analyzing data while finding the best plans and solutions to problems.”

Rivera’s an Eagle Scout, by the way, joining his brother (Colin), uncle (Chris Tatara) and grandfather (Lee Tatara) in reaching Eagle status. Those raised garden beds at the Fox Island Community Garden? His project.

Brenden Rivera of Eastern Washington University takes on a University of Idaho defender during a game played in Cheney on Sept. 30. Photo by Leland Smith

High expectations on the O-line

Since stepping up from small-college NAIA in the late 1970s to NCAA FCS (formerly Division I-AA), six EWU offensive linemen have had their names called on NFL Draft Day.

Among them, Ed Simmons sports two Super Bowl rings while playing for Washington. The EWU red turf field is named for Michael Roos, who logged 10 years with the Tennessee Titans, playing and starting in all 148 possible games. In 2008, Roos was named first-team All Pro.

Head coach Aaron Best? An offensive lineman who walked on in Cheney (he’s from Curtis High School), played for the Eagles and never left. Former Tides offensive linemen Matt Alfred and Bryce Leahy also helped pave the path for the Eagles, who have been an FCS and Big Sky Conference powerhouse for the past two decades.

The Spokane-area college program has created high expectations on its nationally-known red turf. While the now-crumbling-Pac-12 teams in our state tend to reap most of the spotlight, Eastern has won seven Big Sky titles over the past 20 seasons.

Over that time, you can throw in 12 FCS playoff appearances and two national championship games, winning the 2010 title. EWU has posted winning records in 24 of the past 27 seasons. They won’t this season, as the Eagles are 4-6 with a game remaining against Northern Arizona on Saturday, Nov. 18.

Finding a fit in Cheney

Rivera landed on the Eagles’ recruiting radar after a solid junior season at Gig Harbor. After attending a select football camp at Stanford prior to his senior season, he had additional scholarship offers from University of San Diego, Northern Colorado, Simon Fraser and Columbia.

Eastern Washington developed a reputation based on its postseason success at the FCS level, its signature red turf, and for developing offensive linemen like Brenden Rivera. Photo by Leland Smith

Rivera says Eastern has been a comfortable fit — academically, athletically and socially. Away from football (which gobbles a lot of his time), he shares a rental house in Cheney with six roommates. It’s a comfortable three-minute drive from home to campus.

Two roommates are fellow offensive linemen, Wyatt Hansen and Kevin Eldredge. The happy home is rounded out with Hansen’s wife Caitlyn and brother Sawyer. Gig Harbor graduate Ronan McMakin is also in the mix.

Three offensive linemen under one roof? That’s a lot of food.

Don’t worry.

“We’ve all got our own refrigerators,” Rivera said.

All Academic Team

Rivera says it’s a pretty Spartan life as a college football player. There’s practice, weight training and film study, lots of homework and an occasional movie. He’s been named to the Big Sky Conference’s All Academic Team twice. There’s not a lot of left-over time in the daily budget.

During Eastern’s recent bye week in the schedule, Coach Best tasked each player to contact former teachers who made a positive impression along the way. His picks? Vicki Tart, his eighth grade language arts teacher at Kopachuck Middle School, and Pete Jansen, his pre-calculus teacher at Gig Harbor.

“I learned some of the best lessons from them, inside and outside of class,” said Rivera. “They made it fun and there was always a bigger lesson than just what you were learning for class.”

Seeing football cathedrals from the ground floor

In three seasons of action, Rivera has played in several football palaces. In 2021, it was Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, home of the Las Vegas Raiders. Eastern beat UNLV 35-33 in overtime. In 2022, Rivera played and started in “The Swamp,” Florida’s vaunted 88,000-seat stadium. That same year, the Eagles visited Oregon and Autzen Stadium. This season, Rivera has played in Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings (EWU fell 35-10 to North Dakota State).

So what’s that like?

Brenden Rivera, a Gig Harbor High graduate, is in his second year as a starter on the offensive line for Eastern Washington University in Cheney. Photo by Leland Smith

“I’ve seen a lot of cool stadiums,” said Rivera. “To see that environment and play in it is amazing. It’s every kid’s dream to get on the field. But the field is still 100 yards long and 53 and a half yards wide. You realize everything around it is different, but it’s nice to know the game on the field is still the same.”

The Florida experience a year ago was memorable because the game was played on a Sunday. Hurricane Ian had dropped by, ransacking much of Florida’s Gulf Coast while causing several flight delays.

“Football down south definitely means more,” Rivera said.

“This has been a phenomenal experience,” said Rivera. “Being able to be apart of such a proud program is an honor. I’ve played with so many different people and being able to see how we can all come together for one common purpose is amazing.”