Forgotten Heroes Part 2: Ken Riley

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Photo Cred: Cleveland 19

Who gets to go into the Hall of Fame? What factors have to add up to determine the fate of various players? Statistics should be the focal point, with individual accolades taking precedence. It shouldn’t matter what type of team the players were on. The Hall of Fame is supposed to be about the individual, not team, success. Yes, it does help to have more accomplishments by being on a competitive roster. However, purely focusing on that or trying to establish a balance between team and individual accolades does not do any justice. Just ask the countless players who languish on the outside looking in.

Photo Cred: Wikipedia                                                             Photo Cred: Wikipedia

I am on a mission to try bringing two regularly-snubbed players to their respective HOFs. This is part two of a two-part series, with the focus being on Ken Riley (RIP). Part one was about baseball’s Dave Stieb and now I will talk about the second forgotten hero. I only recently learned about both players’ HOF cases and want to talk more about them. As I have mentioned before, the focus will be on statistics like it should be. It’s hard enough as is to get in through statistics alone. It would do both players a world of good if subjectivity and bias were removed from the judgment of their playing days.

Photo Cred: Cincinnati Bengals                                               Photo Cred: Bluebird Banter

Ken Riley

Riley may have been a very talented cornerback (CB) in pro football, but he actually started out as a quarterback (QB) in college. He played for Florida A&M University (FAMU). He was known for his academics as well. Riley was a Rhodes Scholar candidate and FAMU’s scholastic award winner. In addition to his CB duties, he also was a kick returner (KR) in pro football.

He was known for his athleticism on the field. Riley could throw and run the ball at a high level. “[Current Bengals owner/president] Mike Brown recalled how Riley switched from quarterback to cornerback when he came into the league and how he stayed there for 15 years. “That’s a long time,” Brown said. “He had a great ability to judge the ball. But he could also run and he was quick. He handled that position for us for such a long time and we just didn’t worry about it. He was worry-proof.

Coach Brown said that I was going to be a Cornerback.“I was put in that position and I had never played it before. I think that was good, as I did not have any bad habits. They felt that I had the quick feet and could change direction. They took a chance on me and it worked out well. I never looked back. I was just happy to have the opportunity.”

Photo Cred: Tampa Bay Times

Position Change

The Cincinnati Bengals head coach at the time, Paul Brown, decided to switch Riley to CB in training camp. While it was ultimately a great change, things could’ve been different. The league looked down upon black players playing QB professionally at the time. Usually, they would be asked to switch to “less-central” positions. Running back (RB), wide receiver (WR), and defensive back (DB), for example. Even though the NFL’s ban on black players ended in 1946, QBs did not get fully desegregated for a long time. That being said, the QB was not as important of a position as it is now. Once the forward pass was utilized heavily in the 1940s, QBs started playing a more important role in their teams.

Photo Cred: Sports History Network                      Photo Cred: NBC 6 South Florida

Riley played his entire career with the Bengals. If he had the opportunity to play QB, he would’ve been the Bengals’ first black QB. For him to be able to do that in 1968, it would’ve been a full 26 years before Cincinnati actually fielded a black QB. Jeff Blake was the one to do that instead when he played on October 30th, 1994. Even though he had the benefit of Brown, Riley had to switch positions professionally. Brown let black players play on his professional teams, which helped in breaking the color barrier. Position switches for QBs don’t always work out, as highlighted by many examples. It is a blessing to see Riley have professional success as a CB. He became one of the best to ever play at that position.

The Statistics & Achievements

Overall Statistics

College

Photo Cred: FAMU Forward

NFL

Key: Games (G), Games Started (GS), Interception (INT), Touchdown (TD), Forced Fumble (FF), Fumble Recovery (FR), Sack (SK), Approximate Value (AV).

All stats are provided by Pro-Football-Reference. Note: Sacks before 1982 are not official.

  • 1969-
    • Defense: 14 G, nine GS, four INT, one FF, two FR, six AV.
    • Kick Returner: 14 returns, 334 return yards, 23.9 yards/return.
    • Offense: Two receptions, 15 receiving yards, 7.5 yards/reception.
  • 1970-
    • Regular Season- 14 G, 14 GS, four INT, two FR, nine AV.
    • Postseason- One G, one GS.
  • 1971- 13 G, 13 GS, five INT, two FR, seven AV.
  • 1972- 12 G, 12 GS, three INT, seven AV.
  • 1973-
    • Regular Season- 14 G, 14 GS, two INT, 1.0 SK, eight AV.
    • Postseason- One G, one GS.
  • 1974- 14 G, 14 GS, five INT, one FF, seven AV.
  • 1975-
    • Regular Season- 14 G, 14 GS, six INT, one TD, two FR, 15 AV.
    • Postseason- One G, one GS, one INT.
  • 1976- 14 G, 14 GS, nine INT, one TD, one FF, two FR, 15 AV.
  • 1977- 14 G, 14 GS, two INT, one FR, seven AV.
  • 1978- 16 G, 16 GS, three INT, one FR, eight AV.
  • 1979- 13 G, 13 GS, one INT, three FR, four AV.
  • 1980- 16 G, 16 GS, three INT, one FR, eight AV.
  • 1981-
    • Regular Season- 16 G, 16 GS, five INT, one FR, nine AV.
    • Postseason- Three G, three GS, one INT.
  • 1982-
    • Regular Season- Nine G, nine GS, five INT, one TD, seven AV.
    • Postseason- One G, one GS, one INT.
  • 1983- 14 G, 14 GS, eight INT, two TD, one FR, 16 AV.

Photo Cred: FAMU

Overall Achievements

College
NFL

Most of the information was taken from Wikipedia and Pro-Football-Reference.

Photo Cred: Florida Times-Union                Photo Cred: Sports Illustrated

Additional Achievements

Key Numbers/Things to Consider

Information was taken from Wikipedia and Pro-Football-Reference.

  • Never received a Pro Bowl vote.
  • Only one player (Rod Woodson) has surpassed him in career INT.
  • One of only 26 CBs to have played 200+ games
    • He is ranked 16th among them
  • Riley has the second-most interceptions of any pure cornerback.
  • Riley is tied with Rod Woodson for having at least eight INTs in a season at or past age 35. Both got eight, Riley in 1983 and Woodson in 2002.
  • Riley has the fourth-most INTs (13) at or after age 35.
  • Career Games Started- 202 (90th).
  • Interceptions-
    • 1975- Six (T-seventh)
    • 1976- Nine (Second)
    • 1982- Five (T-second)
    • 1983- Eight (T-second)
    • Career INT- 65 (Fifth)
  • Other Statistics:
    • Career AV- 133 (133rd)
    • Career AV (weighted)– 96 (184th)
    • Non-offensive TD
      • 1975- One (T-fourth)
      • 1976- One (T-eighth)
      • 1982- One (T-fourth)
      • 1983- Two (T-first)
      • Career- Five (134th)
    • Fumble Recoveries- 18 (155th)
    • Fumble Return Yards
      • 1975- 56 (Fifth)
      • Career- 96 (157th)
    • Interception Return Yards
      • 1976- 141 (Fifth)
      • 1982- 88 (Eighth)
      • Career- 596 (90th)
    • Interception Return Touchdown
      • 1975- One (T-second)
      • 1976- One (T-sixth)
      • 1982- One (T-first)
      • 1983- Two (T-first)
      • Career- Five (32nd)
    • Longest Interception Return-
      • 1969 (AFL)- 66 (Fifth)
      • 1976- 53 (Eighth)
      • 1982- 56 (T-ninth)

Photo Cred: HBCU Gameday

My Inspiration

Mr. Steven F. Johannsen. He is an entrepreneur and senior executive. He contacted me on April 20th, 2022 to see if I could help him out in getting Riley to the HOF. “IF you ever come across anything that is remotely close to or you think could help, please reach out to me. This is something I’m working on myself because it’s not right, and the only way… the only way things happen is if [you’re] first aligned with the right people who care. Thank you for your time and consideration for Mr. Riley and his widow [Barbara].” I also received many pictures from Mr. Johannsen, which I used throughout the article.

He needed assistance with finding more like-minded people who wanted Riley in the HOF. “We need more than just a signed letter from our City Commission and that was a while ago… Honor and respect. That’s what it’s all about.” “Cincinnati + Cincinnati Bengals + Cincinnati sports journalists + HOF, petitions, letters, [a] trip to Canton, OH [with a] young sports writer, ESPN, [a] group from hometown [Bartow, FL], request [meeting] with [the] Hall of Fame = NFL Hall of Fame. Sometimes, you have to be overly aggressive and take some risks to get what you really want.” “I hope to physically go to HOF AND bring others with me. I would like to rally to plan some big or small names [and/or] Cincinnati Bengals players to rally with us. Who? Sky’s the limit, right[?]” “All we can do is keep giving him the exposure that he deserves.”

The way I could assist was by writing an article, and I came up with an idea to initially have a combination article for Dave Stieb and Riley. However, I separated that idea into two separate articles. He even got to speak to and work with Ken Riley II on this. “Spoke with Ken Riley’s son, Kenneth Riley II. Says Senior pick for HOF is in August and he’s trying to get the Bengals Ring of [Honor] back together to honor and express why Ken Riley should be in the HOF!” “I’ll have lunch with Ken Riley II when he comes to Bartow from Houston (he still has a lot of family here). So far, the family members that I have had the opportunity to meet have shown to be great people within their community.”

Photo Cred: Steven F. Johannsen

Quotes About Riley

Part 1- Around the NFL

Picture Cred: The Deriso Report – WordPress.com

Photo Credit: New Orleans Saints

Photo Cred (for both): Steven F. Johannsen. First pic: From the May 5th, 2018 Ken Riley Celebrity Golf Tournament. NFL Hall of Famers Mel Blount (left) and Kenny Houston (right), with Ken Riley in the middle.

Part 2- Bengals

Photo Credit: Local 12

Photo Cred: Cincinnati Bengals                Photo Credit: Local 12

  • My friend, Kenneth Stevens, a lifelong Cincinnati Bengals fan, assisted me by sending a link. It was about Dave Lapham’s thoughts on the Bengals’ 2021 Ring of Honor nominees. Lapham is a former NFL offensive lineman and current Bengals broadcaster.

Picture Cred: Podbean

3: From the Family

Photo Cred: Steven F. Johannsen. From left to right: Kaden Riley, Ken Riley II, Ken Riley.

Photo Cred: Steven F. Johannsen. Here he is meeting Mrs. Riley.

4: From Mr. Johannsen

“If Ken were still alive today, he wouldn’t say much, or maybe he might say, “that’s not my motivation to receive recognition.” Probably one of the most [gentleman-like] off the field, but when it came to football, he was a beast on the field and most did not want to get hit by him. Again, he reminds me of the movie [The Quiet Man’s main character] Sean Thornton. People enjoyed being around [Riley/Thornton] but you never knew he was a football player [or boxer until] he stepped in the ring/field. Sean Thornton’s character was a professional boxer. He was dangerous in the ring and peaceful off it, just like Riley. If Riley couldn’t punish you with his hits, he’d compensate [with] his interceptions. “I’m working on City Council to do something to help him get more exposure. I believe [it’s] anybody’s possibility on that list to get in the HOF.”

5: From the Man Himself

Here’s what Riley had to say about his own credentials: “I’ve done everything I was supposed to do,” Riley said on a Talk of Fame Network broadcast in June, 2019. “So it’s out of my control. You can’t worry about it. It’s a mystery to me,” Riley said on the Talk of Fame Network broadcast. “That’s out of my control. The only thing I can do is be solid and go out and be consistent. And I was consistent every Sunday when I played football. And I played in more games than anybody in Cincinnati. I was durable.

My record speaks for itself,” Riley answered. “It’s just a matter of whether or not someone will take that chance. And I say, ‘Take that chance and do the right thing.’ “Just look at my numbers… look at what I have accomplished over the past years… and, hopefully, you will make the right decision and give me that opportunity.”

Photo Cred: Cincy Jungle

How to get him into the Hall of Fame?

The Pro Football Hall of Fame Seniors and Contributors Committee. They are subcommittees of the Selection Committee. For a player to qualify as a Senior, they needed to have finished their careers at least 25 years ago. For the Class of 2023, the Pro Football Hall of Fame had 54 semifinalists for two categories listed on July 7th, 2022. The 12-person Seniors Committee selected 25 nominees for the Seniors. The next round of results was announced on July 27th, 2022. Of these 25 Seniors and 54 total nominees, only 24 could be Finalists. 12 of the Finalists would be Seniors and the remaining 12 would be Coaches/Contributors.

Riley did make it into the Finalists round as part of the 24 nominees. The next round of voting actually ended a few days ago on August 16th, 2022. Of these 12 Seniors, only three would be considered for the full Hall of Fame Selection Committee to look into. This number had risen from one in previous years. It’s a part of the new revisions for the next three cycles (2023-25). Riley had actually been a finalist for the Class of 2022 as well but lost out to Cliff Branch [RIP].

Photo Cred: Steven F. Johannsen

2023 Results

This year, however, he was able to overcome that hurdle. He WAS selected as one of the three Seniors eligible for the Class of 2023 Hall of Fame! He will join Chuck Howley and Joe Klecko for the final nomination. The final voting process will take place in the third week of January 2023. Traditionally, this voting takes place the day before the Super Bowl (“Selection Saturday”). 49 members of the full committee will need each HOF candidate to get 80% of the votes for induction.

It is to be noted that nearly all Seniors do get 80% of the vote. The last player to not meet that percentage, Dick Stanfel, eventually did make it to the HOF four years later. It seems that, while he is close, Riley’s journey isn’t over yet. I would be very heartbroken to see him miss the 80% cut after seeing him get this far, after seeing him miss the selection last year, and after having researched about him and his career…

Photo Cred: Cincinnati Bengals

More Information

  • He was drafted in the sixth round (135th overall) of the 1969 Common Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.
  • He would’ve retired after the 1979 season, which was one of his and the Bengals’ worst seasons. However, a coaching change from Homer Rice to Forrest Gregg forever changed Riley’s legacy.
    • Riley, after 1979, would’ve still been remembered as a good player and a Bengals legend. However, what Riley did from ages 33-36 further solidified his standing as a great CB with HOF potential.
    • Riley later followed Gregg to Green Bay as a defensive backs coach when he retired. Gregg became the Packers’ head coach in 1984.
  • In his life after football, Riley was a coach and executive
  • He received his Master’s Degree from the University of North Florida.
  • He served as a substitute teacher at Raines High School during stretches of the NFL offseason.
  • The bio on his website lists out what else he was busy with after his NFL retirement.
  • He had a documentary done on him on April 23rd, 2021. It was called “Rattler: The Ken Riley Story”. It was created by three people: ZIM/@zimwhodey, Ace Boogie/@NewStripeCity, and Play Under Review/@TheAce513.
  • Mr. Johannsen had one hope for another way to honor Mr. Riley. “My hope is this town [Bartow, FL] honors this man more by naming a school after him, before the HOF, but we’ll just have to wait and see what happens in August.” “In [the] past Ken Riley did so much for the Bartow community. City of Bartow leadership and administration needs a wake-up call.”
  • Riley would’ve turned 75 on August 6th this year.
    • He passed away on June 7th, 2020 at 72 years old.

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