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‘This cements his legacy’: Ken Riley gets his posthumous Pro Football Hall of Fame call

The legendary Florida A&M and Cincinnati Bengals cornerback died in 2020 but family never stopped fighting for his induction

The Pro Football Hall of Fame induction process routinely stirred such emotion and anticipation that Ken Riley II compared those feelings to a major holiday.

“Every year it was like Christmas time, and you’re telling yourself, ‘it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,’ ” said Riley II. “And when Christmas would finally come, you still didn’t get your favorite toy.”

Thirty-five years since former Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Ken Riley became eligible for the Hall of Fame — and nearly 15 years since Riley II went on a dedicated campaign to make that happen — Riley II was finally informed in February that his late father will be inducted this weekend in Canton, Ohio.

Riley joins Anthony Munoz as the second Bengals player in the Hall and, along with Bob Hayes, is only the second player from Florida A&M University (FAMU), a historically Black university, to be inducted.

After so many years of writing letters, making phone calls and sending emails to voters and other members of the media stating his father’s case, Riley II was pleased to see his effort finally pay off.

But the honor comes with mixed emotions. His father died from a heart attack in 2020.

“This brings a sense of accomplishment and a sense of relief,” Riley II said. “But it’s also disappointing, especially for my mother. They were high school sweethearts. For him not being here and for us not being able to celebrate together as a family isn’t something you can get used to.”

Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Ken Riley looks on from the sideline during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium on Sept. 19, 1982 in Pittsburgh.

George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Before Riley became an All-Pro cornerback in the NFL, he was a four-year starter at quarterback for FAMU in Tallahassee, Florida. He led the Rattlers, hence his NFL nickname, to a 23-7 record and three Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles.

Off the field, Riley was selected for a Rhodes Scholar Candidacy. As a senior, he and teammate John Eason became peacemakers during protests in Gainesville.

“Our coach called us in and told us the governor, Claude Kirk, wanted us to help calm people down,” said Eason, Riley’s No. 1 target at receiver. “We flew to Gainesville with the governor on his private plane. We walked the streets talking with people to keep the peace.”

Years later, Riley became FAMU’s head football coach and athletic director. He also became a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame and the Black College Football Hall of Fame in 2015. 

The Bengals drafted Riley in the sixth round of the 1969 AFL/NFL draft. Coach Paul Brown moved Riley to cornerback immediately in training camp. The Bengals drafted much-ballyhooed University of Cincinnati quarterback Greg Cook with the fifth overall pick. Riley made an impact as a rookie with four interceptions in nine starts. That was a preview into Riley’s Hall of Fame career. For the next seven years, Riley’s reputation as a glue-like corner, hitter and ball hawk grew.

Hall of Fame wide receiver Paul Warfield remembers those battles.

“He was very competitive and an excellent cornerback,” said Warfield, who faced Riley as a member of the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins. “I had to utilize all of my know-how when he was in man coverage. I had to constantly work myself free for a reception.”

Riley had a career-high nine interceptions in 1976. That was the same year he encouraged rookie linebacker Reggie Williams, an Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brother. 

“I come in and he pats me on the butt and whispers ‘Invictus,’ a poem every Alpha learns as he crosses,” Williams said. “When Ken Riley welcomed me with that, it became my mental framework when I played for the rest of my career.”

Williams played on the right side in front of Riley, who literally had Williams’ back.

“A great corner is like having eyes in the back of your head,” Williams said. “Ken had a soft voice. I remember a game he was yelling for me to watch for the crack back. I turn and ask what he is saying and, ‘pow,’ my feet are over my head. From then on, no matter how calm his voice was, I could hear Ken, even in a packed stadium.”

Former Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Ken Riley waves to the crowd during a halftime 50th anniversary ceremony of a game against the Baltimore Ravens in Cincinnati on Sept. 10, 2017.

Gary Landers/AP Photo

Riley ended his 15-year career with 65 interceptions, tied for the fifth-most in NFL history with Charles Woodson. Only Rod Woodson intercepted more passes from the cornerback position. Riley had more interceptions than 29 other defensive backs in the Hall of Fame.

Critics point out how Riley was named All-Pro only once and was never chosen for the Pro Bowl. But remember, Riley was a four-year starting college quarterback.

“I think about what the NFL lost and what could have been with Ken as one of the early African American quarterbacks,” Williams said. “I can only suspect that he would’ve been just as good as quarterback as he was at corner. Because he was a former quarterback, he could read quarterbacks as a cornerback, and that was one of his superpowers.”

Motivational power helped lead Riley II, 51, on his quest to persuade voters to elect his father into the Hall of Fame. Once Riley II finished his college football career as a defensive back at FAMU, he reached out to voters for information about the criteria and process to enter the Hall of Fame. 

“Those emails pointed out his stats and it got more sophisticated when I started doing charts with comparisons between all of the players that he played against,” Riley II said. “It was very detailed.”

But Riley II’s persistence still didn’t generate any success. The omission of his father’s name from the Centennial Class in 2020 was especially painful. 

“We strongly believed he’d get in with that class,” Riley II said. “I mean, it had 20 guys. That was the first time I saw him deflated. He said he’d probably wouldn’t get in during his lifetime.”

Riley’s death only encouraged his son to continue his fight. He’d speak about his father on radio shows, television interviews, podcasts and at various football events, like the Bengals Ring of Honor. Riley II also received support from fellow Hall of Famers Mel Blount and James Lofton, who would speak about Riley’s greatness in interviews.

A breakthrough arrived in the summer of 2022 when Riley made it as a senior committee nominee. The senior committee nominees come from a pool of anyone who retired more than 25 years ago. 

Someone close to Riley II was all too familiar with the process of entering the Hall of Fame through the senior committee. Riley II is a member of the same church in Houston as Cliff Branch’s sister Elaine Anderson. Branch, like Riley, was overlooked for years until he made the Hall of Fame through the senior committee last year.

“She definitely felt our pain,” Riley II said. “She’s been one of our biggest supporters. She helped through the whole process. And just like my dad, Cliff died before he got in.”

Before this class, the senior committee would pick just one nominee. But that was changed to three this year: Joe Klecko of the New York Jets, Chuck Howley of Dallas and Riley.

“This cements his legacy,” Riley II said. “It’s an honor, and we’re just so proud he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves. It’s closure and a job well done. I know my father’s looking down and smiling.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.