Daniel Rivera has always loved football.
He grew up admiring the sport at its highest level, watching the Arizona Cardinals with his dad. He started playing in junior high and discovered quickly he was built to be more than just a spectator.
Last year at Copper Canyon, he was the named the quarterback of the freshman squad. It was an exciting time for Rivera as the school year was just getting underway and the season was revving up.
But that August, it all came crashing down. His father, who lived in Kansas at the time, was killed in a car crash. His mother came to get him at school to deliver the news.
The loss was shocking and overwhelming.
“It was hard,” Rivera said. “It was really hard.”
The family flew to Kansas for the funeral. Rivera took some time off of school and away from football. When he returned to Arizona, transitioning back to normal life took time.
“After I came back it just sucked,” he said. “He’s not alive anymore. I can't call him, talk to him, communicate with him. All we have of him is a little box.”
The quarterback leaned on his family — the comfort from his cousin, the wisdom of his coaches and the brotherhood of his teammates. He relied on his own resolve too, something that all his coaches agree is rare and special.
“There's something about people that just have that aura,” Copper Canyon varsity coach Shawn Kemmer said. “He has this unique leadership quality. You can tell, it won't allow him to stay down long.”
Rivera poured himself into football. He said staying busy helped occupy his mind. Slowly, he began to heal.
Now a sophomore and the quarterback of the junior varsity squad, Rivera is excelling on the field.
"He's a kid that makes plays,” junior varsity coach Larry Thomas said. “He keeps the ball alive for me. He allows other players to be great. He wants to be the one to lead this team.”
His coaches can go on and on about his athletic abilities, but they are overshadowed by the young player’s other qualities — the ones that transcend sport. Rivera is a leader among his peers, wise beyond his years, his coaches say. He is also a standout in the classroom with a 3.4 GPA.
“He's a competitor and that’s what makes him so special,” Thomas said. “The attributes that make him a great football player make him a great person.”
Rivera has dedicated his high school football career to his father and he thinks about him often — during pre-game warmups, after a touchdown. His dad never got to see him play in person, but Rivera feels him there now, every time those lights go on.
“I just think he's out here watching me,” he said. “Every game. I know he is. He's watching me.”