When you back up Barry Sanders, anonymity is part of the deal. The whole deal, actually. You carry the ball for the Detroit Lions about as often as Frank and Kathie Lee have a food fight in public. When you leave the locker room after a game, you know the fans are thinking one thing as they size you up: Who's he? You never autograph your trading card because, well, no card exists. "I don't mind not having a trading card," Ron Rivers says. "I like my peace and quiet, but sometimes I wish somebody would ask me for an autograph. Sometimes your ego needs a boost."
It's amazing, of course, that Rivers still has an ego. Every week the 5'8", 205-pound running back out of Fresno State waits. And waits. Even when Sanders was shut down by Minnesota in Week 2, Rivers knew he would never get a chance. "If the best back in the league can't get it done, why would they turn to me?" he says. Rivers is so resigned to life in Sanders's shadow that his goal is to lead the special teams in tackles, which he did through the Lions' first three games.
Rivers didn't become a running back until his junior year at San Gorgonio High in San Bernadino, Calif. Still, he attracted the attention of college recruiters and eventually picked Fresno State. Again Rivers got a late start, this time because he was forced to sit out his freshman year as a Prop 48 casualty. By the time he left, however, he was Fresno State's alltime leader in rushing and all-purpose yards. "I thought for sure I was going to be drafted," Rivers says.
The 1994 NFL draft came and went without his name being called, so Rivers tried to make the Chargers as a free agent. He was cut at the end of training camp, but the Lions signed him to their practice squad. When Chicago tried to lure him away, Detroit countered by clearing a spot on its active roster.
"I got a rocky start in the league, but then I always seem to get a rocky start," Rivers says. "I'm young, though, and I figure I can pick up a lot of stuff from Barry. I watch the way he makes reads. It's interesting to see what makes one of the game's greatest athletes click."
Mo Forte, the Lions' first-year running backs coach, says Rivers proved in the preseason he was a competent runner, blocker and receiver. He's stronger than Sanders—"I've got him in the weight room," Rivers says—but he's also more of a between-the-tackles runner who lacks Sanders's speed and explosiveness. (So, of course, does almost everyone else on the planet.)
Away from football Rivers is an avid fisherman who likes to test the waters near his home in San Francisco. His favorite fish story is about the time he ended up as—what else?—a backup. "I was in this tournament, and I got a 7�-pound trout," Rivers says. "I thought I was going to win the first prize, but a 10-year-old kid came in with a 10-pounder. I wanted to cry."
Which is probably the way he felt after getting a rare carry against Arizona in Week 3. Sanders needed a breather after making a 21-yard run that moved the Lions to the Cardinal five-yard line. Rivers was thinking touchdown when his number was called, but he gained only two yards. Sanders then returned, and Rivers's day in the backfield was done.
Rivers isn't certain about his future. Mr. Anonymity only hopes that if he can lead the Lion special teams in tackles, he might at least warrant his own trading card.