Bulldogs Blog

Rivers works toward redemption at ‘Last Chance U’

Chauncey Rivers rushes the passer and attempts to deflect a pass during East Mississippi’s game against Itawamba.
Chauncey Rivers rushes the passer and attempts to deflect a pass during East Mississippi’s game against Itawamba. jucoweekly.org

While Itawamba Community College’s Eaton Field contains hedges to separate the football field from the rest of the high school-sized venue, they don’t completely enclose it the way Sanford Stadium’s do.

Instead of 93,000 fans screaming during plays, the alternating melodies, bass and percussion from each team’s marching band blares during offensive plays.

No notable alumni came to pay tribute or participate in any pre-game activity, such as Georgia’s “Call the Dogs.” Noticeably absent were any prolonged television timeouts, since there isn’t much – if any – national interest in what’s taking place on this particular Thursday night in the Magnolia State.

It’s not exactly what Chauncey Rivers envisioned when he committed to play football for Georgia two years ago.

But after a pattern of decisions that led to three drug-related arrests, Rivers is working on his final opportunity to get back to the level of football he once competed at – all while attending the place that’s been dubbed "Last Chance U."

Rivers was competing for East Mississippi, the community college depicted in the Netflix docuseries "Last Chance U," at Itawamba Thursday night. Rivers’ Lions squad came out with a 44-42 win in a game between two nationally-ranked junior college programs.

In comparison to his defensive teammates, Rivers is what you’d expect from a former FBS athlete – bigger, stronger and faster.

He repeatedly blew past the Itawamba left tackle in passing situations. But the Indians’ game plan was designed to get rid of the ball quickly or throw over his head in the flat. Itawamba also designed almost every run play away from his side of the field. Rivers still finished with a sack, picked up in the third quarter when Rivers shed his block to run down the quarterback who started scrambling to his left.

Rivers flashed why he was an FBS player who played during his freshman campaign at Georgia. But the narrative of why he’s at East Mississippi and playing in the junior college ranks is something he’s hoping to change.

During the 2015 season, Rivers was arrested twice for marijuana possession. In May, he was found asleep inside his parked vehicle at a QuikTrip in Doraville, and had both marijuana and Xanax on him. He was arrested and subsequently dismissed from Georgia’s football program.

From there, Rivers said he recognized he had a drug problem.

"Right then when it happened, I knew my dreams had flushed down the toilet," Rivers said. "Right then I had to look in the mirror and see who I really was to make myself better. I had to go through the process of turning my whole image around."

Shortly after he was released from jail, Rivers said he checked into a rehabilitation program. Before moving to Mississippi, he continued to attend sessions to help cope with addiction and improve his own well-being. Rivers said he continues to "go through my steps not to fall down that path again."

Rivers said rehab also taught him the importance of looking at decision-making from a long-term perspective. He understands the dangers and consequences that can arise with living in the moment and making choices on a whim.

"I learned that you have a long life to live so don’t mess up your life right now," Rivers said. "Live life on a careful basis. You can mess up everything in the blink of an eye."

As the "Last Chance U" docuseries shows, there aren’t a whole lot of outside distractions in Scooba, Mississippi, which reported a population of 716 people in the 2010 census. On the show, players from the 2015 season routinely stated their desire to get out of Scooba and attend a four-year college program on scholarship.

For Rivers, this is no different. He said that’s the goal of every player on the roster, including him. Rivers already holds one offer from Louisville and has been hearing from Mississippi State, Mississippi, Alabama and Ohio State the most. A Mississippi State representative was in attendance and standing on the East Mississippi sideline during Thursday’s game, presumably to watch Rivers.

While it doesn’t appear the option of returning to Georgia exists, Rivers said head coach Kirby Smart has been in contact with East Mississippi head coach Buddy Stephens to check in on how he’s doing.

Since Rivers arrived to East Mississippi in the summer, Stephens has noticed a change in attitude.

"I see it in his eyes. His eyes are happier. His eyes are brighter," Stephens said. "I really think he’s come a tremendously long way. I hope people are praying for him and that they don’t jump up and down and pounce on him. I just think if they give that kid a chance – he had a bad run for a little while, to say the least. But he’s really making it up for it."

Rivers has recorded two sacks in four games for the Lions, under the lights in community college stadiums throughout Mississippi – which is a far cry from having an integral rotational role on the Georgia defensive line. But it was Georgia defensive line coach Tracy Rocker who told Rivers to give East Mississippi a shot once he was dismissed.

When Rocker was on the Troy staff in the late 1990s, he coached East Mississippi defensive line coach Davern Williams. That relationship helped lead to his arrival at East Mississippi.

"They thought it was the best place for me, to come here and make myself better," Rivers said.

While he has the Louisville offer, Rivers knows he’ll have to do more to prove to other college programs that he won’t run afoul of the law again. Stephens said Rivers has three As and two Bs in his classes this semester and hasn’t had any outside issue.

With his junior college games on Thursdays, Rivers gets to watch his former teammates at Georgia on Saturdays. He cheers the Bulldogs on and wants them to do well, which includes this weekend against Mississippi. But it does hurt knowing that he cost himself the opportunity to play alongside of them.

"It haunts me every day," Rivers said. "It just drives me more every day to get back to that level."

With that in mind, Stephens said he’s done his best to keep Rives upbeat. Knowing his past, Stephens admitted there’s a fear Rivers, or any player who arrives at East Mississippi under similar circumstances, could slip up and fall back into previous habits.

After all, the whole reason East Mississippi is called "Last Chance U" is because of the players they accept into the program. Some have had legal issues like Rivers. Others came out of high school academically ineligible to play at an NCAA institution. Some, like Auburn quarterback John Franklin III, look to transfer from one major program to another but need more film to be taken seriously by another school.

"You’re always concerned with that with every one of our players," Stephens said. "I think the biggest concern for me is for (Rivers) to stay in a positive frame of mind, and understanding how well he’s done and how far he’s come."

At East Mississippi, Rivers is taking the same approach he did at Georgia. In the third quarter Thursday, Rivers stood up in front of the sideline bench and yelled at his teammates after an Itawamba scoring drive.

At the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter, following a defensive stand that contributed in the win, he took a knee, closed his eyes and prayed shortly after stepping off the field.

Going from the big-time ranks with a great deal of outside interest to a junior college program where maybe a couple of thousand people are in the stands has been a tough adjustment. But Rivers knows he’s the only one to blame for what transpired.

Rivers hopes to ultimately repair his image, which was sullied when he was forced to leave Georgia. He knows it won’t happen overnight. But it’s a process he’s willing to work through until it’s achieved.

"Very humbling. It just brought me down. It brought my confidence down," Rivers said. "But it made me better as a person. My family encouraged me. My teammates, past teammates, people that surrounded me – it takes a village to raise a child."