Sandra Dunn, of Augusta, with her nephew, Derek Rivers, at Gillette Stadium. Rivers is playing in the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots. (Submitted photo)

Liam Nichols spent last Christmas at Boston Children’s Hospital, recovering from injuries suffered when he was struck by a car on Christmas Eve in a Hannaford supermarket parking lot in Augusta.

Back home recovering on Jan. 10 in Augusta, Liam, then 6, was treated to a Christmas/birthday party by the Cony High School football team. One of the gifts was a football signed by Derek Rivers, a second-year defensive end on the New England Patriots. Rivers was born in Augusta, and remains close to family in the area.

Then Gayle Chung, Liam’s mother, answered her phone. It was Rivers, calling for Liam.

“They talked about how brave and strong (Liam) is, to take a hit right to the head like that,” Chung said. “Derek was just very kind and sweet to Liam.”

Mary Leinonen, Rivers’ mother, hadn’t heard that story; but when she did, she burst into spontaneous laughter, full of pride and joy. She’s seen firsthand the kindness her son exudes — such as late last summer, when he donated $1,000 to a charity to support single mothers, or when he made sure 35 kids from his Kinston, North Carolina, hometown received a T-shirt when they attended a Patriots preseason game in Charlotte against the Carolina Panthers.


That phone call to Liam was another example of her son putting his faith into action.

“He’s a very giving young man. He will pick up that phone and call and encourage and lift their spirits,” Leinonen said.

Rivers was born in Augusta, but his family relocated to North Carolina when he was just a few months old. He still embraces his Maine roots.

Rivers’ grandfather, Eino Leinonen, known by many as Mr. Windsor Fair, was honored three years ago for having attended every harness race at the Windsor Fair since 1967.

Rivers and the Patriots will face the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday night in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

“My mom’s from Augusta. To be somewhat raised from the New England area, that’s a blessing, and it means a lot,” Rivers said in an interview recorded Wednesday in Atlanta by the Patriots media relations staff using questions provided by the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel.


The Patriots drafted Rivers in the third round — the 83rd overall pick — of the 2017 draft. As a senior at Youngstown State, Rivers helped lead the Penguins to the Football Championship Subdivision title game. Rivers had 58 tackles and 15 sacks in his senior season at Youngstown State, and he finished his career as the program’s all-time leader in sacks (41) and tackles for a loss (56.5). Rivers was a three-time first team all-Missouri Valley Conference selection and named to the Associated Press FCS All-America team as a senior.

Rivers visited Maine each summer throughout his youth, spending time at the family’s camp on Dyer Long Pond in Jefferson. Rivers recalled fond memories of family reunions there, as well as huge lobster dinners.

“We’d catch largemouth bass, and sometimes me and my grandfather would go mackerel fishing out of Boothbay. It was fun,” Rivers said.

Sandra Leinonen-Dunn, Rivers’ aunt, teaches art at Chelsea Elementary School. She expects to watch the Super Bowl at home, where she can pace nervously, as she did throughout New England’s wins in the AFC playoffs.

“I never followed football in my life until Derek started playing,” Leinonen-Dunn said. “It’s beyond exciting. We’re just so proud to watch.”

Leinonen-Dunn helped set up the call to the injured boy. When the Cony High School football team organized the party, Jim Lucas — a friend of the Rivers family — contacted Leinonen-Dunn to ask whether Rivers could offer the boy encouragement. Rivers was happy to make the call.


“We were just talking. We were just laughing. He asked, he’s a kid, so he asked about Tom Brady. We talked about what he did for his birthday, how was his birthday,” Rivers said.

Added Chung: “After talking to Derek, (Liam) said he wants to go to a football game. So we’ll make plans to do that.”

Leinonen said her son always has been grounded. Being a part of the Patriots organization has only amplified that. Around 7:30 Christmas morning, Rivers called his mother. He and teammate Deatrich Wise already had been to Gillette Stadium to work out.

“He’s just enjoying the ride. He doesn’t know how long it will all last,” Leinonen said.

The ride stalled briefly, just as it began. Rivers tore his ACL last year in a preseason practice session with the Houston Texans. His rookie season was spent rehabbing from knee surgery.

Finally healthy this season, Rivers saw action in six regular-season games and the AFC semifinal win over the Los Angeles Chargers. He had two solo tackles and picked up his first career sack in the regular season finale, a 38-3 win over the New York Jets.


“It was exhilarating,” Rivers said of the sack of Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. “I haven’t felt that feeling in a long time. It was more fun to celebrate it with my boys, to see everybody excited. Just to celebrate with my brothers was awesome.”

Rivers hasn’t suffered any physical setbacks while coming back from the knee injury. He happens to play a position at which the Patriots are stocked with veterans, limiting his opportunities for playing time.

“It’s been nothing but a good time. I’ve learned a lot from a lot of great guys,” Rivers said. “To learn from these guys, to actually get game experience and play, and now we’re here and I’m just trying to enjoy every single moment.”

Leinonen said she’s seen a growth in her son’s maturity since he began his professional football career. She knows he’d like to contribute more to the Patriots’ success, but added he’s encouraged by teammates such as linebacker Kyle Van Noy and a coaching staff that continuously reinforces to Rivers that he’s doing the right things and making improvements.

“He really wants to contribute but understands it’s all part of God’s plan,” Leinonen said.

Rivers and his wife, Lauren, are expecting their first child this spring, a boy. The baby’s due date — May 9 — is also Rivers’ birthday. The baby will quickly get a taste of Maine summers, when the family visits.


“Me and my wife have been up there a couple times since we’ve been in New England and moved to Foxborough. We try to go at least one time every summer,” Rivers said.

Leinonen attended the Super Bowl last year in Minneapolis. On Thursday, she made the drive from her North Carolina home to Atlanta, with plans to attend the Thursday night welcome party for Patriots family members at the College Football Hall of Fame. She hopes to take part on Friday in a service project the team organizes. Last year, she helped bag rice at Second Harvest, a Minneapolis food bank.

“Last year, I was saying this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Leinonen said, “and here we are again.”

Derek Rivers with Jim and Cathy Lucas at their Augusta business, the End Zone, during the summer of 2018. Rivers, who was visiting his family in Augusta, is playing in the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots. (Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy)

Sandra Dunn, of Augusta, discusses all the mementos of her nephew, Derek Rivers, on Wednesday at her home in Augusta. Rivers is playing in the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots on Sunday. (Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy)

Sandra Dunn, of Augusta, holds the trading card of her nephew, Derek Rivers, on Wednesday at her home in Augusta. Rivers is playing in the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots on Sunday. (Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy)

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