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An Appreciation

Ken Riley had a Hall of Fame career, but died without getting inducted

Riley, who died on June 7, deserves Canton’s gold jacket for the accomplishments he gained on and off the field

On a steamy Florida afternoon in May 2019, just before the inevitable thunderstorms descended, I waved goodbye to Ken Riley. At 71, retired from pro football for decades, he still cut the trim, vigorous figure of a cornerback, still had the handlebar mustache and deep-set, observant eyes that were his trademark. On this particular day, his annual golf tournament, which raised money for academic and vocational scholarships, was just finishing up. In his perpetually understated way, Riley had nearly every reason to feel satisfied.

When Riley was growing up in nearby Bartow, Florida, in the 1950s and ’60s, the closest he got to a golf course was gazing out of the window of his segregated school, Union Academy, at the all-white club across the street. A black person could only step onto its fairways and greens as a caddie.

Now, in retirement from a career playing and coaching at Florida A&M University and in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers, Riley could play the magnanimous host on the Cleveland Heights course in Lakeland, Florida. In its fourth year, his tournament had raised about $25,000 and attracted some of the athletic legends who counted Riley as a friend. Out on the links were Sam Jones, a mainstay of the Boston Celtics dynasty, and NFL All-Pros such as James “Shack” Harris, Elvin Bethea and Henry Lawrence. The tournament coincided with the 50th wedding anniversary of Riley and his wife Barbara, and their children and grandkids had come home for the festivities.

There was just one discordant note amid all the eating and drinking, all the raucous humor of former gridiron rivals playing the dozens. Riley, as everybody knew, still was not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He had never even made the list of finalists, not during his initial 20 years of eligibility and not during another dozen in the senior category.

The oversight flummoxed just about anyone knowledgeable about pro football — except, evidently, the Hall of Fame nominators and voters. With 65 interceptions during his 15-year career with the Cincinnati Bengals, Riley still ranked fifth in NFL history. He had more interceptions than 29 other defensive backs in the Hall of Fame. He had played with such consistency that he was named All-Pro and went to the Super Bowl during the 1983, his final season.

The excuses for the Hall of Fame snub of Riley, at least the excuses I’ve heard from NFL insiders in off-the-record conversations, were that he played his entire career in a small media market, that he was never voted to the Pro Bowl, that he was overshadowed even in the AFC North (originally called the AFL Central) Division by Mel Blount of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were at their height during Riley’s years with the Bengals. Not even the public advocacy of Riley by former teammates such as Cris Collinsworth, a Bengals wide receiver-turned-television commentator, and opponents such as John Stallworth, a Hall of Famer who was a wideout for the Steelers, ever made a dent.

When I asked Riley a few years ago about being repeatedly spurned, he responded with characteristic equanimity. “This is my personality,” he said. “It’s the way I was brought up — parents, grandparents, everybody. Let your work speak for itself and be humble. We had a coach on the Bengals, Paul Brown, who felt it was your job to do certain things. If you got an interception, if you got a sack, he’d say, ‘That’s what I’m paying you for.’ He didn’t want superstars.”

When I asked Riley a few years ago about being repeatedly spurned, he responded with characteristic equanimity. “This is my personality,” he said. “It’s the way I was brought up — parents, grandparents, everybody. Let your work speak for itself and be humble.”

Riley and his supporters also believed two things. First, that ultimately his track record would be persuasive enough, that justice would be done. And, second, that there was still time to rectify this egregious oversight.

Except that, as every athlete watching the game clock knows too well, time does run out. It ran out for Riley early on the morning of June 7, a time he normally would have been preparing for church, when a sudden heart attack killed him at age 72. In preceding months, the coronavirus had forced the cancellation of his golf tournament. Then his beloved mother, Beatrice Riley Turner, had died on May 14. And now, on June 13, the gathering for Riley in Lakeland will not be held at the Cleveland Heights Golf Course but at the RP Funding Center, the arena for his homegoing.

For me, that casual farewell wave in 2019 was the last time I saw Riley. His loss, and the special anguish of his loss with his football achievements never fully recognized, is not just a journalistic subject for me. It’s true that I first met Riley in 2006, when I was just starting research on Breaking The Line, my book about HBCU (historically black college and university) football and the civil rights movement. I was setting the book during the 1967 season, when the two most legendary teams in HBCU football — Grambling State University, under head coach Eddie Robinson, and Florida A&M University, under Jake Gaither — played for the championship in the Orange Blossom Classic. And I knew I could only write that book if the two star quarterbacks of those respective teams, Harris of Grambling and Riley of FAMU, would make the leap of faith to trust some previously unknown white guy from New York City to tell their story.

As with Harris, Riley’s support for my work opened a multitude of other doors. Even more enduringly, Riley and Barbara became friends of my wife’s and mine. We exchanged holiday gifts and birthday greetings and made plans for that next dinner together, whether in Manhattan, New York, or Orlando, Florida, the dinner that now will never take place. We exchanged our last emails on June 4, commenting on a recent essay by NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent about the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Thanks for sharing the article,” Riley wrote to me, “and your thoughts concerning the recent racist act performed by four police officers in Minnesota. Racism in America is still alive but thank God we have people who are sensitive and care about human welfare regardless of skin tone, nationality, or social and economic status.”

It feels fitting to recall Riley, to assess his life at a time when the whole nation is learning the hard lesson of how much and why black lives matter. Riley embodied black excellence. Riley modeled every way in which a black life matters.

He grew up in a section of Florida especially notorious for its record of lynchings and shootings. The career prospects for most black men of Riley’s generation tended toward the orange groves or the phosphate mines, at best being a preacher or teacher. As a star quarterback at Union Academy, though, Riley earned his spot in the pipeline of Florida players bound for Gaither’s FAMU Rattlers.

Gaither didn’t need to recruit in any formal way. High school coaches, like Riley’s, put their top players on the Greyhound bus to Tallahassee, Florida, and Gaither culled the excess of talent down to three 22-man units he called blood, sweat and tears. Riley played quarterback for portions of all four years, becoming the full-time starter in his last two.

Mentored by a head coach who held a master’s degree and had done additional graduate work at Yale University, Riley also led his team academically. In his senior year, he was a candidate for a Rhodes scholarship. In the end, he decided to pursue pro football instead.

Typical for his era, Riley never even got the chance to take a snap at quarterback in the pros. Like countless other HBCU stars, most famously Eldridge Dickey of Tennessee State University, he was forced to change his position. When I watch the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson today, I see the kind of quarterback Riley could have been — agile, strategic, unflappable.

Ken Riley of the Cincinnati Bengals lines up at the line of scrimmage during an NFL game. He played in the league from 1969 to 1983.

Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

Shifted to cornerback by the Bengals coaches, Riley nonetheless won a starting job as a rookie and never relinquished it until his retirement. He owed his success and longevity not just to physical skills, but to his brain. He was a scrupulous student of opposing receivers, compiling their strengths and weaknesses.

When I spoke with Collinsworth about Riley a few years ago, he said: “I probably learned more football from Riley than from anyone I played for or against. Everything I did that worked against everybody else never worked against him. But as soon as he would pick off a pass on my route or beat me to a spot, he’d tell me why, explain what I’d done wrong. He wanted me to be better because that made the team better.”

“I always felt that he knew our system, our game plan, that he had viewed our films, that he knew our tendencies, my tendencies,” Stallworth, the Steelers great, told me in 2013. “From an intellectual standpoint, he was going to take away what I did well. He wasn’t an in-your-face bumping guy, but he was going to be where he needed to be when he needed to be there. I knew he was going to challenge me every play.”

Now the challenge resides with the Hall of Fame nominators and voters. If anyone deserves Canton, Ohio’s, gold jacket for the accomplishments he compiled on and off the field, it is Ken Riley. Until he receives it, in death if not in life, he is one more prophet without honor in his own land.

Samuel G. Freedman has contributed to Andscape since it was launched as The Undefeated. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights.