Tennessee football practice on Oct. 31, 2012
If DNA were a guide, Mychal Rivera would have a flair for the dramatic arts or perhaps a gift for music.
Instead, his job is to catch passes, crunch defenders and help win football games.
Rivera grew up just outside Hollywood with a dad who made his career in the music business, a mom with a background in the acting and modeling world and an older sister who is an actress. But Tennessee's senior starter at tight end has never been passionate about anything but sports, and he flourished as an athlete in an artistic family that encouraged him to pursue his own dreams.
Years of small roles and hard work have paid off for his sister, Naya, who has reached stardom on a hit network TV show.
Mychal Rivera is preparing with the same focus on the final stretch of his career as a college football player.
"I think he's in a whole different gear," said his father, George Rivera, who moved from Los Angeles to Knoxville to be with his son as he finishes college and prepares for a shot at the next level. "This year he's had a completely different focus."
If you don't watch a lot of television or if you don't have kids, you might not know about the phenomenon that is Glee.
The show, a musical-comedy that centers on a fictional high school glee club, has been a critical and popular success for FOX since first airing in 2009.
Glee's viewers — a disproportionately youthful and Internet-savvy group — have turned the show's actors into celebrities.
Naya Rivera has nearly a million followers on Twitter who hang on her every word. Because Glee's fans — nicknamed "Gleeks" — trend young, there's an onslaught of teens and tweens online who soak up every word written about her. An interview that includes Mychal Rivera talking about his sister is the most-watched of roughly 3,000 videos uploaded by the UT athletics department — and it's not even close.
"I think it's really cool that we each have our own sort of specialty and things that we're good at it," Naya said in the UT video. "I just encourage him."
With a famous sister, Mychal has tried to carve out his own niche.
"My path is sports. Hers is acting," he said. "We just stay on our paths and have fun doing what we're doing."
Letting kids take their own path has always been the philosophy in the Rivera family, which nurtured Mychal's interests in football, baseball and basketball.
"Our focus was for the kids to gravitate to what they really liked," George Rivera said. "He started playing sports when he was 6. By the end, he was only playing football."
Tall and athletic, Mychal Rivera had plenty of college offers, but ultimately stayed out West and signed with Oregon.
He spent only one season with the Ducks before getting permission to transfer amid a new coach and an offense that wasn't entirely conducive to tight ends.
Rivera spent a year at a junior college near his hometown and reopened his recruitment for a second time. He had some advantages over other juco prospects in that he was a full academic qualifier out of high school and still had three years to play, but there was still a risk that he might not get noticed a second time.
"It was an unsettling time, but it worked out," George Rivera said.
Although Tennessee's coaching situation was in flux, switching from Lane Kiffin to Derek Dooley, it helped that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney remained on the new staff. The Riveras were impressed by Chaney's commitment to using tight ends, and Dooley — a longtime tight ends coach himself — helped seal the deal. Mychal was moving to East Tennessee.
"Looking back as a whole, it's probably a good thing that he was a distance away," George Rivera said. "It focused him more."
Focused on the NFL
Focus has been Mychal Rivera's buzzword since this summer, and others have noticed.
"Myke treats (football) like a pro," said redshirt freshman tight end Brendan Downs. "He comes to work every day, and that's what I want to do."
The results have shown on the field. Rivera has a career-high 349 receiving yards and three touchdowns with four games remaining in 2012. Why the impressive senior season? Tight ends coach Charlie Coiner said Rivera "gets it."
"I think he gets what it takes, he gets the work that has to go into it, he gets the preparation, he gets how fragile it is and he gets how important (football) is to him," Coiner said. "He's got goals. He has goals here at Tennessee, and he has goals after that. I look at the guy, and I see someone who comes in to work every day and takes a lot of pride in it and is very serious about it."
Rivera and his dad aren't shy about saying that those goals include the NFL. And that's one of the reasons George has moved to Knoxville, to be ready to assist his son in preparing for his post-college career.
In two months, Rivera's college journey will be finished. He didn't expect it to include three stops, nor did he plan on it ending in Knoxville, but his dad said the ride has been valuable.
"His character is built from all the experiences he's gone through," his dad said. "The nice part of the journey is that it's given him the confidence to get to the next level."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.