With football season just over a month away, the Jacksonville Jaguars are starting training camp to make sure they appear to be at their best come September — and not just on the field.
Behind the scenes, team barber Eric Rivera is doing his part to give players and coaches winning looks.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Rivera was cutting hair at his Precision Barber Shop on Jacksonville’s Southside.
Brent Wiggins, a regular, was sitting in Rivera’s chair. He said attention to detail is what distinguishes Rivera from his competition.
"He takes his time. While a lot of barbers just brush it and then they cut, but they don't comb it out and see [what looks good]. Eric combs it out and makes sure every hair is laid in place,” " Wiggins said. “His work is well known."
An Early Interest In Hair
Rivera, now 27, dreamed of owning his own shop when he started cutting hair as a teenager.
"That’s when I picked up a pair of clippers and I started cutting my hair," Rivera said. "Then I would cut my brother's and other people's around the neighborhood that we would play ball with. And then from there, it sparked my interest."
‘If You Can Make It There…’
Following a brief stint at a Jacksonville barber shop in high school, Rivera moved to Old Bridge, New Jersey, to care for his sick grandparents. He attended cosmetology school in New Jersey and cut hair in New York City. He would work at four different shops, learning both technical skills and the intricacies of managing a small business, before returning to Duval County.
"If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere," Rivera said. "I was able to take that mindset and bring it to Jacksonville and crush it out here."
Within three years of returning to Jacksonville and landing a position at Prestige Barber Shop off of Touchton Road, the New Jersey native built an extensive client base, one that included staff from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Tony Sorrentino, a former assistant wide receivers coach, and Tyler Wolf, the current director of team administration, invited Rivera to EverBank Field for a tryout.
“The next thing I know I get a phone call," Rivera said. "They said, 'You made it. You made the cut. The guy wants to bring you in for a little test haircut. You pretty much just give him a haircut, and if you do well, you’re in.'"
An Instant Hit
When he arrived, Rivera was introduced to Marcus Pollard, the Jags’ director of player development and youth football, and the coordinator for the team’s three barbers. Pollard says he was skeptical of Rivera based on his first impression.
“I thought he was a pretty boy when I saw him right away," Pollard said. "He came here with his hair all done — clean shaven. He had a nice little outfit on. I was thinking, 'This dude can’t cut hair.'"
But after showcasing his skills, Rivera was an instant hit.
“He's a very popular guy on days that we do haircuts," Pollard said, "He does such a great job of grooming guys, taking care of them and making sure they feel comfortable, and making sure they’re satisfied after they get up out of the chair."
When asked if Rivera’s haircuts could help the team reach the playoffs, Pollard said, “If Eric can contribute to guys’ feeling good, they play well. Then I’d say he’s definitely contributing to the Jaguars’ success.”
Living The Dream
Rivera says he made such a good impression on starting quarterback Blake Bortles that the NFL star motioned for him to go long as he heaved a Hail Mary.
"Being acquainted with Blake Bortles [was huge]— big shout-out to him — because that’s the man that made my dream come true,” Rivera said.
He said a loan from Bortles allowed him to open Precision Barber Shop last summer.
“‘I’m super hungry; I just need the opportunity,’” Rivera remembered telling Bortles. "And the opportunity came, and here we are—a year now—and this place is booming."
Fans can see for themselves whether Rivera’s success has rubbed off on Bortles. The team is set for its first scrimmage Friday night at Everbank Field. The game is free to attend, but registration is required.