When the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots finally made a pick Friday in the third round of the annual NFL draft, the name called drew some extra applause from fans in central Maine.

With its third round pick — the 83rd overall — the Patriots selected Derek Rivers, a defensive end from Youngstown (Ohio) State University who was born in Augusta, Maine. Rivers is the son of Augusta native Mary Leinonen and the grandson of Eino Leinonen, known by many as Mr. Windsor Fair who two years ago was honored for having attended every harness race at the fair since 1967.

Although born in Augusta, Rivers was raised in North Carolina. The 6-foot-4, 248-pound Rivers attended Kinston (North Carolina) High School and Fork Union Military Academy in Fork Union, Virginia, before moving on to Youngstown State.

NFL draft analyst Chad Reuter, in grading the Patriots’ picks, described Rivers as “an exciting pass rusher with stand-up/hand-down versatility.” Rivers’ selection comes nearly three months after Super Bowl LI, when the Patriots played among the greatest comeback games in football history by fighting back from a 19-point deficit late in the game to ultimately beat the Atlanta Falcons, 34-28.

Rivers was unable to comment Monday, a team official said, because Patriots team rules prohibit rookies from speaking with the media until taking part in official team and NFL activities.

“That will happen sometime this weekend,” Patriots spokesperson Stacey James said Monday.


Mary Leinonen was with her son Friday when he received the call from the Patriots. The family was holding a draft party in Isle of Palms, South Carolina. Some draft pundits predicted Rivers would go in the second round, but when the second round came and went and his name had not been called, Mary said she saw her son become nervous.

“The draft is not a fun process,” Mary Leinonen said in an interview. “I was hoping he was handling it well. I gave him some time alone.”

Mary said she joined Derek on an outside patio, where she told him everything would be fine, and patted her son on the back.

Soon after, his phone rang. She watched as he took the call.

“He whispered to me, ‘Patriots,’ and I did a little jig,” she said.

Mother and son went back inside to the party, where they kept their secret and waited a few anxious minutes to see Derek’s draft announcement on television.


At her home in Chelsea, Maine, Sandra Leinonen-Dunn watched the draft and waited for her nephew’s name to be called. Sandra said she knew Derek had visited a number of teams, any one of which could select him.

“He’d been all over the country to do these interviews,” Leinonen-Dunn said. “When I saw the Patriots, I just started screaming … It was really, truly miraculous.”

Rivers has visited his family in Maine numerous times over the years. Leinonen-Dunn recalled her nephew enjoying lobster and other seafood. He also enjoyed his winter visits, when he was able to make snowmen, Leinonen-Dunn said.

“He’s just a decent human being and he sees this as a blessing,” said Leinonen-Dunn, a longtime art teacher at Chelsea Elementary School.

Mary Leinonen added that she’s excited her son will live his dream of being a professional football player.

“I didn’t really care what team he went to. He didn’t care, either, he just wanted the chance,” she said. “The Patriots was a nice surprise. I went to a (Patriots) game when I was 7 and Steve Grogan was the quarterback.”


Mary said her father, Eino Leinonen, is a lifelong football fan and is excited his grandson’s professional career will begin with the Patriots. “He is thrilled. He acts like he knew it all along,” she said.

Rivers was the third player drafted from a Football Championship Subdivision school — formerly Division I-AA — behind Tanoh Kpassagnon, a defensive end from Villanova who went to the Kansas City Chiefs with the 59th pick, and Cooper Kupp, a wide receiver from Eastern Washington selected by the Los Angeles Rams with the 69th pick.

Players from any college are eligible for the annual NFL draft, although underclassmen must be three years removed from high school graduation and forgo their remaining collegiate eligibility when they hire an agent and declare themselves available for the league selection.

As a senior last fall, Rivers helped Youngstown State reach the FCS national championship game, where the Penguins lost to James Madison University. Rivers had 58 tackles and 15 sacks last season. He leaves Youngstown State with the team’s career sack record (41) and tackles for a loss (56.5).

Rivers had 173 tackles in 49 collegiate games. He was a three-time first team all-Missouri Valley Conference selection and named to the Associated Press FCS All-America second team as a senior.

The Patriots will hold rookie mini-camp beginning this weekend at Gillette Stadium, where un-drafted free agents and draft picks will work out for three days. Organized team activities will follow later in May before mandatory mini-camp in June.


Leinonen-Dunn said she’s eager to follow the next step of Rivers’ football career.

“I went down to see him play in North Carolina and Ohio,” Leinonen-Dunn said. “I’m very excited to see him play in Boston.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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