Ken Riley headed to Hall of Fame in spite of, and because of, racism

Ken Riley turned himself into a Hall of Famer at a position he never played before because racism kept him from getting a shot at quarterback.

There is irony in the fact that Ken Riley was finally let into the Pro Football Hall of Fame the same weekend two black quarterbacks will face off in the Super Bowl for the first time ever.

Riley was a star quarterback in high school and at Florida A&M University. He led FAMU to three SIAC titles and even though he knew it was highly unlikely he’d be drafted as a quarterback, he told HBCU Gameday’s Vaughan Wilson back in 2019 that he felt he could play in the league. 

Then, after his senior season at FAMU, Riley got his chance. 

“I was at a basketball game and Mr. Niles, who the business manager came up and got me and said we had a call from the Cincinnati Bengals,” Riley recalled. “So I went there, answered the call. They said ‘look —  we want to draft you the next round. We hear you going to engineering school. 

That wasn’t true, Ken Riley said. He was ultimately drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals, who apparently had no plans of using him as a quarterback.

“When I was drafted, they drafted me as a quarterback/running back…you know, athlete,” Riley said. “And when I got to Cincinnati, Paul Brown said you are cornerback and I’ve been there doing that for 15 years and it worked out well.”

Riley, of course, was not the only talented black quarterback forced to make a switch simply because of the color of his skin. There are countless others — few of them as successful as Riley, though. 

Ken Riley Hall of Fame
Ken Riley (finally) elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“I was called a scrambler, I could run around. But I believe, I could have made it as a quarterback, but it worked out for me for the best — because there was only one guy in front of me that I thought was better.” 

That player was Greg Cook, a first round draft pick from the nearby University of Cincinnati. He went on to have a solid carer with the Bengals. But nowhere neaer the Hall of Fame.

Riley, of course, went on to have a brilliant career at a position he had never played before. Riley recorded a total of 65 interceptions in a run-heavy era of the NFL. He had to wait nearly four decades, but he finally made it into the Hall of Fame post-humously. Still, even 50 years later, it was clear that Riley had to have wondered what might have been if he hade the chance to compete for the job.

“But outside of that, I felt that I could have competed,” Riley said. “But it was just the wrong the time at that particular time.” 

Over a half a century after Riley was forced to switch, Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts will square off for the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, and one of them will lead his team to football’s biggest game. Meanwhile, we’ll never know if Ken Riley could have done the same thing, given the chance.

Ken Riley headed to Hall of Fame in spite of, and because of, racism
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