A Trip To Remember


He'd grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., roughly 230 miles away, but until last weekend Marco Rivera had never been to Washington, D.C.

Sure, he'd driven through, but he'd never left the freeway. He'd never walked down Pennsylvania Avenue to have his picture taken in front of the White House or stood at the base of the Washington Monument and gazed upward.

Friday, he did all that. He and his wife Michelle wandered around like average tourists taking snapshots and marveling at the rich history of the nation's capital. All it took for him to go there was an invitation from the President.

Now approaching his seventh season with the Packers and as a pro, Rivera was one of nine Hispanic representatives from the NFL to attend the Cinco de Mayo Reception in the East Room of the White House Friday. He'd been given relatively short notice, receiving his first informal invitation Tuesday, but some offers just can't be refused.

"It took me all of about three seconds to decide," Rivera said. "I asked my wife and she wanted to go, so Wednesday we got an official invitation from the White House by fax and we flew in Friday morning."

They spent the first few hours taking in some of the other historic sights before reporting to the White House around 1:15 p.m. Initially they were taken to the East State Dining Room, but it wasn't long before secret service ushered the NFL representatives into the Blue Room.

Shortly thereafter arrived the President and the First Lady.

"It was just amazing to be there in the same room with him, to be in the White House in general," Rivera said. "I just couldn't stop thinking to myself how blessed I was to be there."

He had chills. He was awestruck. But amidst a flurry of introductions and pictures, he did manage to ask George W. Bush about one of the most infamous moments of his presidency.

"I asked him if it was true that he started choking while watching an NFL game," Rivera said, referring to President Bush's much-publicized pretzel mishap over the winter. "He started laughing and patting me on the back and told me, 'Yeah, I was right upstairs watching the game and I got a little too excited.'"

In his brief time mingling with the Commander in Chief, Rivera found Bush to be both regal and relaxed, a combination that reminded him of another president.

"His charisma was a lot like (Packers President and Chief Executive Officer) Bob Harlan's actually," Rivera said. "To see the way that he handled himself when he walked into a room, there's definitely a presence and an authority there, but he also fits in and is personable and approachable in that way."

Not to mention, he can talk football.

"I think he was just as excited to meet us as we were to meet him," Rivera said. "I was standing next to Jeff Garcia, the quarterback of the 49ers, and he was telling Jeff, 'Oh tough loss against Green Bay.'

"And then he looked at me and said, 'Tough loss to the Rams.' And then he looked at Frank Garcia, who plays center for the Rams and said, 'Tough loss to the Patriots.'

"He's a big football fan and he knew his teams and knew his players, there was no question about that."

At the reception that evening, President Bush remembered the Battle of Puebla, for which Cinco de Mayo commemorates, and stressed the importance of America's present relationship with Mexico. For Rivera, who is thankful to be able to conduct a youth football clinic in his mother's native Puerto Rico in the offseason, it all made sense.

"When you look at other parts of the world, you see that the relationship that we have with Canada and Mexico is so rare," Rivera said. "Look at what's happening in Israel right now. In so much of the rest of the world neighboring countries hate one another. One of the reasons America is so great is because we support Canada and Mexico and they support us."

There's much to see at the White House, so not all of Rivera's thrills surrounded the current president and first lady. He saw much of the grounds, from the library to the Rose Garden. He saw the China Room and many of the presidential portraits. He had his picture taken in George Washington's chair.

Rivera came back to Green Bay overflowing with facts and figures and anecdotes about presidents past and present. But more importantly, he returned still tingling.

"It was just one of the great experiences of my life," said Rivera, who swore that he will frame not only his picture with President Bush, but also the official invitation that arrived via fax. "I've been to the Super Bowl and I've been to the White House. I try to compare the feeling of the two, but I can't.

"All I know is that I'm still on a high from being there. This is something that I can tell my kids and grandkids about. I'll remember this forever."

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