By Andy Demetra: The “Voice of the Yellow Jackets”
This isn’t the first time an outrageous idea was hatched on a whim in a college kid’s room.
“We were sitting in my apartment with my three roommates, all football players,” Malik Rivera said, beginning the origin story of how he decided to triple-major at Wofford College while also playing free safety for the FCS Terriers.
A junior at the time, Rivera was on track to graduate with degrees in mathematics and computer science. He had already taken plenty of finance classes, though, and a thought started to form.
“‘I really like these classes I’m in,’” Rivera recalled telling his roommates. “‘Why don’t I just try and triple-major in them? I said it as a joke. They were like, ‘Yeah, that’s not possible. We don’t have time.’
“I went back into my room. I sat on my bed. I pulled out an Excel [spreadsheet] and I was like, ‘Well I know all the classes I’ve taken. Let me at least try and find out, with these three majors, what classes left I needed to take…. Once I figured it out and put it all together, I was kind of in amazement that I actually somehow managed to have the last three semesters all perfectly planned out,” Rivera said.
And with that, an off-hand remark turned into a challenge Rivera couldn’t resist.
“Once I thought of it, it was a really big goal,” he explained.
Despite the occasional questioning of his sanity, the Jacksonville, Fla., native pulled it off, graduating in May of 2018 with 154 credit hours (he had 18 coming in). Asked how he did it without bending the laws of time and space, Rivera smiled.
“I really enjoy school. I enjoy my finance classes. I enjoy my computer science classes. I’ve sat with computers since I was in the second grade, and I’ve just messed around with them, trying to see what to do, trying to see what different things can happen with them. I’ve always enjoyed that. They all kind of just blended together into all the things that I love to do,” he said.
So if Rivera was crazy enough to triple-major at Wofford, then joining the Georgia Tech football team as a graduate transfer in June – and jumping into the starting lineup to fill perhaps its greatest void on defense – doesn’t seem so daunting by comparison.
Rivera, now pursuing his master’s in quantitative and computational finance (QCF) in the Scheller College of Business, made his debut for the Yellow Jackets last Saturday, starting at free safety in Tech’s 41-0 win over Alcorn State. Despite a holding penalty that wiped out a potential interception return for a touchdown, head coach Paul Johnson was pleased with Rivera’s effort.
“Malik played really well,” Johnson said on his weekly radio show. “He was consistent in helping people get lined up. He has a lot of experience back there. He had a nice pass break-up on the sidelines, and overall I thought he did some good things.”
Though a newcomer to The Flats, Rivera’s experience could be vital this year for a greenhorn Tech secondary. The Yellow Jackets entered the season knowing their starters at cornerback and strong safety would have zero career starts among them. They were dealt another blow in May when senior A.J. Gray, a two-year starter at free safety, was medically disqualified due to a heart condition.
Rivera wasn’t recruited specifically to replace Gray – he had committed weeks earlier – but his pick-up became even more crucial in light of Gray’s retirement. A veteran of 18 starts at Wofford, the 5’11,” 200-pound Rivera finished third on the team in tackles (73) as a redshirt junior. He also had plenty of familiarity with the Jackets’ new 3-4 defensive scheme, having played in that system at Wofford under defensive coordinator Shiel Wood, now Tech’s safeties coach.
That experience has been a calming influence on the field according to his teammates.
“Stuff where me and Brant [Mitchell] are looking at each other [because] we’re still trying to learn, he’s – boom – he’ll call out the call and tell us what we’ve got to do,” said linebacker David Curry, adding that Rivera knows the defense “like the back of his hand.”
“I think it’s a good thing that I can help them when we’re on the field, maybe in the middle of a series. We can talk through that one little mistake and we can correct it the next time,” Rivera said.
For a while, he didn’t know if there would be a next time. Graduate transfers are often a shotgun marriage: a veteran player, seeking a fresh start and one last chance at meaningful playing time; a school, seeking a quick fix at a position of need. Rivera’s case was more nuanced. After Wofford lost in the quarterfinals of the 2017 FCS playoffs last December, he thought he may have played his last game.
“The idea definitely floated through my mind,” he admitted after Wofford’s 42-10 defeat to North Dakota State.
As he wrapped up the last of his 154 credits in the spring, Rivera started searching for financial analyst jobs after graduation. Ultimately, the allure of playing one last season won out (he redshirted his first year at Wofford). After longtime Terriers head coach Mike Ayers retired, Rivera knew he wanted to play his final season elsewhere.
Having Wood, his former defensive coordinator, at Georgia Tech helped. But another Wofford connection proved just as powerful in steering him to The Flats. Cole Higbie, a former Terriers teammate from Tyrone, Ga., whose grandfather played football at Georgia Tech, was already enrolled in Tech’s QCF program. He sang its praises to Rivera.
“If I am going to get my master’s, I do want it to be in something I really want,” Rivera said. “When I knew that Georgia Tech had a quantitative and computational finance program, that was something I just wanted to do.”
The QCF program, which teaches skills for “structuring transactions, managing risk, constructing investment strategies, and analyzing analytical data” according to its website, appealed to Rivera’s interests. So did the idea of staying in the South. Rivera applied and stayed in touch with Tech’s coaches, attending the Yellow Jackets’ spring game while he awaited word on his acceptance.
His commitment to both programs has worked out well. On the field, he’s provided a veteran presence at Gray’s old position, helping the young Tech secondary navigate a new scheme. Off the field, he has balanced football with master’s courses like corporate restructuring and machine learning for trading. He enjoys living in a hub of finance like Atlanta. He hopes his degree can be a springboard to a career in investment banking. Assistant football athletic trainer Eric Avila has already joked with him about stock tips.
Rivera, who also participated in a financial investment group at Wofford, says he hasn’t had much time to study the markets lately. At the moment, his analytical skills are in greater demand on the field, where he’ll look to continue the Yellow Jackets’ promising start against USF in Tampa (12:00 p.m. EST, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network).
Rivera faced an FBS opponent every year at Wofford, but knows the competition will be faster and less forgiving at Tech. Then again, if the challenge ever feels too daunting, he can always turn to an old spreadsheet for inspiration.
“I still have the Excel,” Rivera said of the chart that began his triple-major odyssey at Wofford.
“I look through it sometimes now and think, ‘How did I actually map it out enough?’”