It took waiting 40 years, 1 month, and 8 days since Ken Riley played his last game in the NFL to add the final piece to his career legacy. That translates to 14, 300 days of waiting. A quiet and patient man, for all practical purposes, the wait was too long, but most certainly three years too long.
Destiny has finally come for Kenneth Jerome Riley. Known as “Ken” for those close to him and “Rattler” for those who played with him in the NFL, he has finally made his way to Canton. At the NFL Honors on Feb. 9, Riley was announced as a member in the senior division of the 2023 Pro Football Hall of Fame class. It was a long time coming…four decades in the works.
At the Metrodome in Minneapolis, MN, Ken Riley was joined by his family and famed coach Jake Gaither as he announced his retirement from the NFL. In that season, he would lead his team with 8 interceptions and earn NFL All-Pro.
The 5’11” standout high school quarterback from Union Academy (Bartow, FL) had previously been a standout for Florida A&M. He led the Rattlers’ explosive offense while academically being a Rhodes Scholar nominee. “We were pampered as quarterbacks in high school and college,” Riley said. But he was also known as a speedy athlete with the toughness to play both ways.
Ken Riley played quarterback for the Rattlers from 1965-1969, four years as a starter. In that time he led the Rattlers to three SIAC championships under Gaither.
His senior year, the Cincinnati Bengals selected Riley in the sixth round of the 1969 draft. Immediately after drafting him, they made the decision to switch him from quarterback to defensive back. “Paul Brown called me and told me that I needed to train as a defensive back because that’s what they wanted me to play,” Riley said. He had never played defensive back. “They sent a coach down to train me and Ron Sellers. We would train at Florida State with the guys they had going to the NFL as well.” He would learn quickly and his natural talent would shine as he was blessed with quick feet, quick reaction time and mobile hips…all valuable assets to be an NFL defensive back.
During this time in the NFL, black players were not allowed to play quarterback in the NFL. It was an unwritten rule. Talented quarterbacks from HBCUs were either switched to running back, defensive back or wide receiver when drafted to the NFL.
His career was one for the ages. While the NFL was not nearly the passing league that it is today, he would garner 65 interceptions while playing his entire career for the Bengals. Ken Riley would play 207 consecutive games without missing a single game due to injury. He would return those interceptions for 596 yards, while scoring 5 touchdowns.
He actually got better over time. He was selected as second team All-Pro in 1975 and 1976. During the first seven years of his career he carded 29 interceptions. Over his last eight seasons he grabbed 36 interceptions. His last three seasons he nabbed 18 interceptions.
While only one hall of famer got more interceptions that Riley since his departure from the NFL (Rod Woodson), it was a question on many peoples’ minds as to why Riley was not selected to the hall of fame. Over the past few years especially, some who had already earned their gold jackets were vocal about Riley’s omission.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Mel Blount led the charge. “I watched Ken Riley for 14 years of my career play cornerback, and played it as well as anybody even including myself. Ken Riley was a true All-Pro and hall of famer and I think it’s an injustice to not only the hall of fame but to guys like myself who are in the hall of fame to have a guy like Ken Riley sitting out there and has not been recognized for the work that he did and the contributions he made to the National Football League,” Blount said.
Riley made it public to friends that he was hoping to go into the NFL’s 2019 class which was the centennial class. He waited over three decades for the call, but was certainly disappointed once again not to make the centennial class.
“If there’s any such thing as a hall of famer, it’s Ken Riley. A man like Ken Riley who has not only made such a great contribution to the game of football, but to the game of life. A decent human being who gave his life to the community and to the NFL,” Blount concluded.
Riley’s words in one of his last interviews in 2019 with HBCU Gameday lets you into his mentality as a player. “I was always taught humility. Let your works speak for you.” With the unfortunate passing of Riley in June of 2020, his induction today represents his works on the gridiron truly speaking for him.