Florida A&M legend Ken Riley at Hall of Fame door

In the NFL, Florida A&M great Ken Riley was nicknamed “The Rattler.” Will 2023 be the year of the Rattler?

It has been a painful wait for the family of former FAMU great Ken Riley.  It has been an anxious ride for the Florida A&M faithful.  It has been even an unjust delay in the eyes of several NFL players who played with or against Riley and sports journalists who covered his career.  To virtually add insult to injury, Ken Riley passed in 2020 and would never get to walk the aisle and accept his gold jacket himself.

Riley, who is a candidate for the hall as a senior candidate, has reached a level he has never attained before.  With a change in selection process, this year the selection committee actually got to hear testimony on behalf of Ken Riley.  It has led him to be selected in the final three candidates in the senior division that started out with exponentially more nominations.  It’s as close as Riley has ever come to taking the final step to enshrinement.

Ring of Honor added a boost to Riley

Another major step to this was Riley’s induction into the Cincinnati Bengals’ inaugural “Ring of Honor.”  One theory as to why Riley hadn’t been selected to the hall of fame was because without the Ring of Honor, the Bengals had not declared him one of their best.  Odd as it seems, this is exactly the scenario that another FAMU great, Bob Hayes, endured.  

Hayes was seemingly a clear-cut candidate for the hall, but was delayed for decades.  In 2001, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones selected Hayes to be added to the Dallas Cowboys’ Ring of Honor.  Shortly thereafter, he would finally earn his gold jacket in 2008.  Unfortunately, similar to Riley the delay would have dire consequences.  Hayes died in 2002 and would not be able to take the walk down the aisle donned in his gold jacket in Canton, Ohio.

With statistics worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Riley’s snub has been unfathomable.  In the minds of most people who have become aware of his omission and his statistics alike, leaving Riley out of the hall of fame can only be attributable to prejudice against him or ignorance of what he actually did as a player.

Florida A&M quarterback turned NFL DB

Riley was a standout quarterback for legendary FAMU coach Jake Gaither.  During that time, blacks were simply not allowed to play quarterback.  Great black college quarterbacks were changed to running backs, wide receivers or defensive backs.  It’s simply how the NFL operated at the time.  There was a belief that black quarterbacks did not have the mentality to play that position at the highest level.  Ironically, Riley was brilliant, earning a Rhodes Scholar nomination his senior year.  “Paul Brown said ‘You are a defensive back’,” Riley said.

After Riley graduated, NFL teams showed interest in him.  The Bengals told Riley to begin training as a defensive back…a position he had never played.  “When I was in high school and in college, as a quarterback we were somewhat pampered. All teams protected their quarterbacks,” Riley said in a 2019 interview.  After being taken by the Bengals, Riley would spend his summer at Florida State training in hip rotation and drills to teach him to break on passes and drive to a receiver.  In the end, Riley credits being a quarterback with understanding what was going on from the other side of the ball.

Riley had to prove himself in the NFL

Riley had a chip on his shoulder since he left FAMU as he faced the scrutiny being from Florida A&M.

“I wanted to prove to everyone that even though I went to a small black college, I could play on a larger level,” Riley said.

“Being a quarterback, I wasn’t a brash guy, I did my job.  Every coach I had from high school to the NFL, I was always taught humility, let your work speak for you,” Riley said. ” “There were some times when I led the conference (three times) in interceptions.  It went unnoticed.  That’s something I can’t control.  There are guys that are in there (Pro Football Hall of Fame)  that don’t have the numbers I have.  In Cincinnati we were not publicized or glorified so to speak.  Paul Brown’s philosophy was that was what he was paying you to do.”

During the Bengals’ Ring of Honor celebration, Riley’s widow Barbara was asked what she thought of the celebration.  In tears she replied “It was wonderful.  I just wish Ken was here to see it.”

The Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023 will be inducted during NFL Honors, which takes place at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday, Feb. 9, and airs on NBC, Peacock and NFL Network.

Florida A&M legend Ken Riley at Hall of Fame door
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