If you’re a team in the market for an intriguing signal caller outside of the first round this year, there are several appealing options, if you look hard enough. While many of the highly-touted prospects are deemed far from NFL ready for a multitude of reasons, there is a small-school standout that possesses a big-league arm and an innate resilience forged by adversity. This is the story of Slippery Rock quarterback and NFL Draft prospect Roland Rivers III, a Division II standout who has defied insurmountable odds to put himself in position to live out his NFL dream.
The Early Years
Roland Rivers III remembers his early years vividly.
Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, he, like many, became enamored with an explosive Falcons offense. In fact, it was Rivers’ affinity for Falcons quarterback Michael Vick that ultimately drew him to the game of football as a third grader, although his football career began two years later in Pop Warner — where he thrived as a right tackle and nose guard.
“I was always a bigger kid,” Rivers recalled. “I think my first game playing football, I had like seven tackles for loss. I was just a dominant force. I didn’t really know much about the sport, to be honest. I just did my job to the best of my ability.”
When he wasn’t participating in organized sports, Rivers was accompanied by his two brothers, one younger and one older. The trio competed in just about every sport under the Georgia sun. Whenever they got together for a game of football, however, it was always Roland who assumed the role of quarterback, as he rarely missed an opportunity to showcase his arm talent to the rest of the neighborhood.
After toiling in the trenches during his first two years of Pop Warner, Rivers officially made the switch to quarterback at twelve years old.
“I always had the passion for throwing the football,” Rivers said. “What really inspired me to take it to the next level, was Ben Roethlisberger. I’ve had his Fathead on my wall since I was in tenth grade. He was a bigger quarterback, and, back then, being a big quarterback wasn’t really the thing. Now, they look for you to have that size.”
Rivers began his high school career at Tri-Cities High School in East Point, Georgia, where he spent two years as a varsity starter at tight end in addition to his role at quarterback for the junior varsity team.
Upon transferring to Martin Luther King High School (Everwood, Ga.) for his junior season, Rivers injured his wrist in the midst of a spirited quarterback competition, and was forced to miss the first two games. By the time Rivers returned, however, the team was firing on all cylinders — until adversity struck late in the season.
Coming off a 9-0 start, the Lions learned they’d lost their starting quarterback for the remainder of the season due to a separated shoulder.
Starting the season finale, his first start as a varsity signal caller, Rivers tossed the game-winning touchdown in overtime to close out an undefeated season and secure the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
The following week, Rivers passed for over 350 yards and accounted for a half-dozen touchdowns in the first round of the playoffs, and continued his postseason surge with another 300-yard passing effort in the second round. Though the Lions ultimately came up short in the waning moments, Rivers proved himself to be a top quarterback option going into his senior season.
That offseason, Rivers went down to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, to participate in Cam Newton’s 7-on-7 tournament. While he worked on refining the finer nuances of the quarterback position, he also established an innate rapport with Newton and his father.
Rivers used his offseason progress as a springboard into a breakout senior campaign. Finishing the 2013 season ranked eighth in the state of Georgia in passing, Rivers threw for 2,685 yards and 24 touchdowns, leading the Lions to a 7-4 record and the Georgia AAAAA State Playoffs. They ultimately fell to a Deshaun Watson-led Gainesville High School, 28-14.
While many of the Division I schools that visited Martin Luther King High School intimated to Rivers that they already had their quarterback vacancies solidified, the Georgia native remained confident in his abilities. Despite having multiple Division I AA offers on the table, the opportunity to become part of the winning culture at Valdosta State, a program with four national championships to their name, was simply too tempting for Rivers to pass up.
If there’s one thing Roland Rivers has learned over the years, it’s the art of patience.
Coming off a decorated senior season that resulted in numerous accolades and another admirable playoff run, his patience would be tested after receiving the redshirt designation as an incoming freshman.
Rather than dwelling on circumstances that were out of his control, Rivers took advantage of his year on the sidelines, using it to get bigger, faster, stronger in order to withstand the rigors of college football — and showcase his talents on scout team.
“The redshirt guys I came in with, we took pride in [scout team],” Rivers said. “We wanted to go out there and have a show every day we stepped on the field against our starting defense. Stephen Denmark, now in the NFL with the Chicago Bears, he got drafted as a corner, but came in as a receiver. We would light it up together. He was my Julio Jones out there.”
As a redshirt freshman, Rivers spent the season rotating with Florida International transfer E.J. Hilliard. Appearing in ten games, Rivers managed to throw for 548 yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions.
The 2016 season proved to be a year of firsts for the ascending signal caller. His head coach, David Dean, departed for Georgia Southern, and his quarterbacks coach, Justin Roper, left to become the offensive coordinator at Slippery Rock University.
Kerwin Bell, who came over from Jacksonville University as Dean’s replacement, brought his NFL-style offense with him to Valdosta, which effectively tapped into Rivers’ true potential.
Rivers’ redshirt sophomore season got off to a roaring 6-1 start, but a debilitating shoulder injury sustained against Florida Tech would dramatically alter the landscape of his football career. After undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in March of 2017, Rivers missed the entirety of the 2017 season.
That summer, Rivers placed an added emphasis on making a positive impact on the Valdosta community. He began working at the Boys & Girls Club — an endeavor that proved to be a life-changing experience.
“I felt like a nobody at that time,” Rivers admitted. “I wasn’t playing ball, I didn’t feel like I was the quarterback. But, they looked up to me and they still wanted me to throw the ball — I could probably throw a football 20 yards at best at that point — but they wanted to play catch with me. They really looked up to me, and that inspired me. They helped get me through the toughest time in my life. Those kids put a smile on my face and had more of an impact on me than they could possibly know.”
Remaining diligent throughout his arduous rehab process, Rivers returned the following spring and appeared to be on the way back. While he made tremendous strides over the past year and a half, he ultimately deemed it essential to his growth as a man to leave everything behind in search of a fresh start.
Rivers didn’t realize it then, but the perfect opportunity to revitalize his career was waiting for him up north.
Resurgence at The Rock
Two years after losing his quarterbacks coach Justin Roper to Slippery Rock, Rivers opted to head up north and rejoin Roper for his final two years of eligibility, to finish what they started.
“Coach Roper is really big on the little things,” Rivers said. “As I’ve gotten older, I realize how important the little things are. In order to have the big success, you have to do the little things. That really sat with me, and I wanted to go up there and play for him again. He really taught me, at 18-19 years old, how to be a responsible person. I wanted to show him how much work I put in from when he had me as a freshman, and I knew that I was capable of going out on the field and doing some really special things.”
Despite his familiarity with Roper, Rivers arrived at Slippery Rock less than three weeks before the season opener, and didn’t have much time to learn the playbook. He started the season on the bench, but as injuries ravaged the quarterback position during the first two weeks of the season, Rivers’ patience, faith, and preparation led him to his next opportunity. He was inserted as the starting quarterback in Week 3 against Millersville University, and he never looked back.
In 12 games, Rivers passed for 2,721 yards, 28 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, and added 597 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. In addition to earning first-team All-PSAC West honors, Rivers also led Slippery Rock to a road playoff win over New Haven. Had Slippery Rock managed to stave off Notre Dame College in the second round, Rivers would have met Valdosta State for a chance to advance to the national championship.
After briefly contemplating declaring for the 2019 NFL Draft, Rivers opted to return to Slippery Rock for the 2019 season.
Returning as a part-time student in the spring, Rivers could not be on scholarship, and he was prohibited from watching film with his coaches and working out with teammates — he even had to watch the spring game from the stands. While he wasn’t able to participate in team activities, Rivers put in countless hours of work on his own time to ensure he was prepared to lead the offense in the fall.
With Roper leaving for Northern Iowa, Adam Neugebauer, formerly the quarterbacks coach at Georgetown University, became Slippery Rock’s new offensive coordinator. Neugebauer brought with him an innovative system that ran solely through the quarterback, a similar philosophy that allowed Rivers to flourish years earlier under Kerwin Bell.
Rivers put up video game-like numbers all season long for Slippery Rock, passing for 4,460 yards, 52 touchdowns, and seven interceptions, while adding 700 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground, on his way to leading Slippery Rock to the semifinals for the first time since 1998.
Amazingly, Rivers only needed 26 games with the program to etch his name into the Slippery Rock record books, establishing new records in passing touchdowns (80), total offense per game (326.1 yards), completion percentage (63.3), and passing efficiency (164.1).
Along with being named the Division II Conference Commissioners’ Association National Player of the Year, Rivers lengthy list of accolades included the Don Henson Nation Player of the Year award, first-team Associated Press All-American, and perhaps his greatest honor, the Harlan Hill Trophy winner — a prestigious award given to the Division II College Football Player of the Year. He became the first Harlan Hill winner in Slippery Rock history.
Rivers added to his impressive postseason haul at the Maxwell Football Club’s 83rd Annual Gala in Atlantic City last month, when he was named the Brian Westbrook Regional Player of the Year.
Rivers drew a large round of applause as he ended his heartfelt speech by saying, “I believe I have the strongest arm and best deep ball in this draft class.”
Roland Rivers’ NFL Outlook
Since participating in Villanova’s Pro Day at the Philadelphia Eagles’ NovaCare Complex last month, Roland Rivers III has been balancing a full schedule.
When he wasn’t training at Exos in San Diego with former NFL offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard, who prepared Patrick Mahomes for his Pro Day, he was fine-tuning his mechanics at 3DQB, working alongside the likes of Matt Ryan, Jared Goff, Justin Herbert, Mason Rudolph, and Easton Stick.
While teams are sure to be enticed by Rivers’ ability to make every throw with a simple flick of the wrist, his poise while under duress, and his knack for extending plays outside the pocket, perhaps equally impressive is how well he’s handled numerous setbacks, when many in his position would have folded at the first sign of adversity.
Whichever team ultimately ends up with Rivers will be adding not only a battle-tested gunslinger brimming with upside, but someone who knows what it takes to reach the pinnacle of success.