EDINBURG — Edinburg Vela senior PJ Rivera spent his first two years on varsity as the SaberCats’ star running back.

Those two seasons didn’t come with adversity, however, as Rivera battled shoulder injuries due to his in-your-face running style while toting the rock.

Entering the 2021 season, Edinburg Vela head coach John Campbell and staff made a decision to move the skilled and speedy running back out wide to receiver. In part to preserve Rivera’s health for later in the season, but also because they felt he could excel any place on the field.

By the second game of the year, Rivera was already facing double and triple teams after recording three receptions for 52 yards and scoring three touchdowns during Vela’s season opener.

“I knew once they moved me, I knew I was going to make things happen. I knew they did it for a reason and I took that chance and I dominated,” he said. “I thought I was just going to be another option, I knew I could get open, but after that first game against McAllen Memorial, I knew things would fall into place.”

Rivera, The Monitor’s 2021 All-Area Football Offensive Player of the Year, finished the season with 927 rushing yards, 13 rushing touchdowns, 506 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns on 34 catches. He helped the SaberCats capture the District 31-6A title and a 10-0 record during the regular season.

Edinburg Vela’s Pablo Rivera (1) makes a catch for a touchdown in front of McAllen Memorial defender Javi Gomez (6) during the first half of a high school football game at McAllen Memorial Veterans Stadium on Friday, August,27,2021. (Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected])

“I think transitioning to receiver from running back was one of the best things we could have done for the team. At the end of the day, it’s a team effort. I don’t think any one of us play individually on that field,” he said. “We do it for each other because that’s what we all want, the top spot, and we’re all chasing the same thing.”

Rivera switched up his running style to become more elusive to defenders during his senior season. The result was big play after big play whether coming out of the Vela backfield or on the receiving end of a long bomb from SaberCats quarterback Chase Campbell.

“I know that moment I touch the ball, that’s what flips the switch. This year, my whole mindset was that I’m untouchable,” he said. “I want to look good and get off that field not having so many scratches on my helmet. I want to get off the field not looking like I need to wash my clothes.”

Rivera shined the brightest this season when faced with a do-or-die situation — a second round playoff game against San Antonio Taft on Nov. 20 at Richard R. Flores Stadium in Edinburg.

Vela’s versatile offensive weapon grew up thinking Flores Stadium, formerly Cats Stadium, was the biggest in the world. Now it was his time to protect that same field while helping Edinburg Vela get over the “San Antonio wall” against Taft.

Rivera starred in the SaberCats 27-24 win and shattered a program record in the process with 386 rushing yards in a single game, previously held by Robert Guerra, while adding three touchdowns.

“Going into that game, I did feel that ‘San Antonio wall.’ This is where you see people crack, this is where you see people give up, and I don’t think any of us gave up,” Rivera said. “We kept pushing that ball. I knew I was setting the tone for everyone in that stadium. I knew everyone felt my energy, and I think moving that ball down the field made everyone on the field with me more hyped. It made them want to push their guy 5 yards further back.”

Edinburg Vela ‘s PJ Rivera (1) high steps a San Antonio Taft’s defender Xue Jon Castro (4) for a score in the 3rd quarter of a Region IV-6A DII area round game at Richard R. Flores Stadium on Saturday, Nov.20,2021 in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected])

“We knew when we got to this moment that he was going to have to be the workhorse,” Campbell said after Rivera’s 386-yard game against Taft. “He was rested and fresh during the season and we did some things we thought would make him a better player as far as catching the football and coming out of the backfield, but when it gets to this time of the year, we’re going to give it to PJ.”

Rivera’s performance as a star football player at the high school level can be traced back to his early days of tossing the pigskin around with his older brother, juking furniture around the house and playing in the streets growing up. He said he used to drive his mother, Celina Benavides Bravo, up the wall with all the horsing around in the house, but those little things he used to do ironically helped him on the football field. More importantly, he learned the importance of helping her as a single mother of two boys at the time.

“I learned how to start helping my mother with just the little things, because I’ve learned throughout life, those little things can make a big difference,” he said. “She was stressed, but not once did she ever let us see her fall, and that’s why I do it, that’s my why. I’m forever grateful for her.”

The next step for Rivera is taking his game to the next level. The Edinburg Vela senior athlete has received offers to play college football, but hasn’t decided where he’s headed just yet. One thing is for certain to Rivera, however — his football days are far from over.

“Football for me is not just a sport, this takes my mind off a lot and I put everything into it,” he said.