CANTON, OH — It’s been nearly 40 years since Ken Riley played a snap for the Cincinnati Bengals. His storied career was given the ultimate gesture of respect as he was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH this weekend. Unfortunately, Riley himself would not get to enjoy the moment as he passed in 2020, but family, friends and a contingency of Florida A&M supporters showed up to witness the moment that Riley longed for while he was living.
Barbara Riley, his widow and Ken Riley II, his son, would tag team to do the formalities at a packed-out Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. It didn’t take long at the ceremony for the Riley family to hit the stage as they were presented second, following former Miami Dolphin Zach Thomas.
Barbara gave an impassioned speech that had the entire stadium in tears. She talked about her husband’s humility coming from a small town. She then uttered the words that made all hearts flutter as she shed a tear.
“I just wish Ken was here to accept this himself.”
A hush came over the crowd, then a thunderous applause. After her video presentation, she and Ken II went over for the dramatic unveiling of his bust that will reside forever in Canton.
The resemblance was uncanny. His bushy sideburns, tailored afro and always serious look was captured to perfection. It was then time for Ken II to deliver the much-anticipated tribute in honor of his father.
“As a kid, I didn’t know what I was watching when he was training in those long hot summer Florida days,” Riley said. “Sometimes we would all ride in the car as he ran on those old country roads. But as a man, I understand that I was seeing the dedication, commitment, and hard work that it takes to be great. The good ones make it look easy. Most people think, ‘Oh, they’re just born blessed with talent,’ which is true. But what they don’t see is the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making that talent shine.”
Hall of Fame ceremonies are extensive
While many are familiar with the enshrinement ceremony, there is literally an entire week of activities leading up to the enshrinement. Friday’s gold jacket ceremony is one of the most important events in the Hall of Fame week. 106 current Hall of Famers were present. It was a Who’s Who of professional football. Peyton Manning, Warren Sapp, Kellen Winslow, Ray Lewis, Jimmy Johnson, Jerry Jones, Calvin Johnson, Tony Dorsett, Emmitt Smith and Jerome Bettis were among those in attendance. Former B-CU great Larry Little was also in attendance. While the living players had the opportunity to be “coated” by the person of their choice, deceased players like Riley and Don Coryell had their jackets presented to the family in a shadow box.
Saturday morning brought even more excitement. The Hall of Fame Parade went through downtown Canton. The three-mile trek would weave through the city with tens of thousands of fans lining the streets the entire route. Florida A&M VP/AD Tiffani-Dawn Sykes arranged a special tribute to Riley for the parade. She rented a float for former players to ride in the parade. She also had the Venom and Lady Venom mascots. An additional contingent of Rattlers joined in the fun as they handed out Ken Riley commemorative coins. The groups were met with a warm reception at every block of the parade. Sykes also arranged a convertible to drive FAMU alum and Hollywood producer Will Packer and his wife Heather to ride in for the parade. Sykes also tried to solicit the Marching “100” to have a band perform in the parade, but they have not reported back to campus yet. Instead, she hired a high school band an outfitted them with Ken Riley t-shirts.
Finally, to top the tribute off, she rented a video truck. The 15-foot truck with two LED walls on the side played Riley’s highlights the entire parade route. It also had a fitting tribute to Riley on the rear. After the ceremony, the Cincinnati Bengals put on a big private celebration for Riley at the elite Quarry Club House. The event was posh at every point and Riley branded from start to finish. Even the soap dispensers in the bathroom had Riley’s no. 13 on it. The front doors had Riley’s jersey on it. Then, there it was. His official bust was there. The only stop it would make before it’s permanent position at the hall. It was accessible in a photo booth area. FAMU President Dr. Larry Robinson and his wife Sharon, Sykes, Deputy AD Michael Smith and several other administrators and athletics staff were in attendance. The delectable menu of seafood and spirits along with a DJ made for a spirited celebration.
For the the Ken Riley family, the Hall of Fame enshrinement is closure. There will always be the regret that it didn’t happen while Riley could enjoy it, but there is no doubt that everyone enjoyed the ceremony and left feeling satisfied. Ken II summed it up at the conclusion of his speech.
“Finally, I want to say thank you to everyone who’s here to share this great day with us. Many thanks go to the hall…to the fans…to my dad’s teammates…and to everyone who loves the game the way that he did,” Riley concluded. “It’s been a long time coming, Dad—but you made it!”