State Your Case: Ken Riley

Second all-time among pure cornerbacks in interceptions with 65

(Published February 2015)

Ken Riley will be enshrined in the Black College Hall of Fame at the end of this month.

He’s already in the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, the Florida A&M Hall of Fame, the Polk County Hall of Fame, the cities of Bartow and Tallahassee Halls of Fame and the public-school Hall of Fame. In addition, Florida named him one of the best 33 high-school football players in state history.

“I’m in every Hall of Fame but the big one,” Riley said.

And that’s puzzling.

Riley played 15 seasons at cornerback for the Cincinnati Bengals. His 65 interceptions rank second among pure cornerbacks in NFL history. Only Hall-of-Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane has more. He also ranks fifth on the all-time list behind four Hall of Famers: Paul Krause, Emlen Tunnell, Rod Woodson and Lane.

Yet Riley has never been a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So his candidacy has never been discussed by the full 46-member selection committee.

Why? Apparently, for one glaring reason — 15 seasons in the NFL, no Pro Bowls.

“I’m not going to cry about it,” Riley said. “That’s not me. I’ve always felt your actions speak louder than words. But that’s not true, because I’ve done everything I was supposed to do. And to not let me in because I didn’t play in a Pro Bowl…that’s something out of my control. That’s a popularity contest.”

Riley played in one of the NFL’s finest defensive backfields of his era. Riley and Lemar Parrish lined up at cornerback with Tommy Casanova and Bernard Jackson at safety. Parrish went to six Pro Bowls from 1970-77. He intercepted 25 passes during that stretch. Riley intercepted 36 passes during that same stretch with no Pro Bowls to show for it.

In 1974, Parrish didn’t intercept any passes. Riley intercepted five. Parrish was voted to the Pro Bowl. In 1975, Parrish missed three games with an injury and intercepted one pass. Riley intercepted six. Parrish was voted to the Pro Bowl. In 1976, Parrish intercepted two passes. Riley led the AFC with nine interceptions. Again, Parrish was voted to the Pro Bowl.

“Lemar and I were like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron,” Riley said. “Willie Mays was the flashy one. That was Lemar. But I was the one getting all the interceptions.”

In 1983, at the age of 36, Riley led the AFC in interceptions a final time with eight. Again, no Pro Bowl. Then he retired. He became the coach of his alma mater, Florida A&M, and posted a 48-29-2 record, with two Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championships and two coach-of-the-year designations. Then he spent nine more years as the athletic director at the school before retiring in 2004.

Riley played quarterback at Florida A&M and was a Rhodes Scholar candidate. He would later earn a master’s degree from the University of North Florida. But first he had a football career to pursue.

The Bengals drafted him in the sixth round in 1969 and Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown immediately moved him to cornerback, where he became a starter and intercepted four passes as a rookie. He wound up starting 193 career games. Only eight pure cornerbacks in NFL history started more.

Riley had three PBUs in his only AFC title game against Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Fouts and the San Diego Chargers in 1981, then made three tackles and broke up a Joe Montana pass in his only Super Bowl.

Ken Riley, nicknamed “The Rattler,” was durable and productive. He maximized his abilities and became one of the best defensive players of his era. But the Pro Bowl voters didn’t recognize it then nor are the Hall of Fame voters recognizing it now.

“It mystifies me,” Riley said. “I’ve done everything I was supposed to do as a player.”

Has anyone at all been paying attention?


1 Comment
  1. Deron says

    Nice article Rick, when will they get things right?

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