The Pro Football Hall of Fame will formally welcome its Class of 2023 on Saturday. This week, Yahoo Sports is highlighting each member of the nine-man class, leading up to the big ceremony.
Although Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Ken Riley was never selected to play in an AFL All-Star Game or a Pro Bowl after the AFL and NFL merger, his impact on the game went beyond those accolades.
A four-year starter in college, Riley was a quarterback at Florida A&M who brought the Rattlers to three Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles and a 23-7 record. He also shined academically, earning Rhodes Scholar candidacy.
Riley was selected in the sixth round of the 1969 Common Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, where he would spend all 15 years of his professional career. Hall of Fame head coach Paul Brown converted Riley to a cornerback since the Bengals selected quarterback Greg Cook with the fifth overall pick of the draft.
“We were stereotyped then,” Riley told The Ledger in 2008 of Black players. “Everything down the middle — the quarterback, the center, the middle linebacker — those positions required thinking, so they didn’t put us there.”
However, Riley excelled at his new position.
Riley’s impact on defense was clear — he made his first career interception in his fifth game.
“Kenny was a splendid player and still holds the Bengals record for most interceptions over a career,” team owner Mike Brown said in 2022. “It would be a wonderful thing if he were selected for the Hall of Fame.”
Riley’s team record of 65 career interceptions has yet to be broken. He also held other Bengals records, such as most seasons played (15) and most interceptions in a single season (nine).
“I don’t know how you put a number on intelligence,” Riley’s former Cincinnati teammate Cris Collinsworth said. “And I don’t know how many touchdowns he saved the Bengals because he knew what was coming.”
“Ken showed tremendous leadership as a student and a quarterback,” Florida A&M Sports Hall of Fame chairman Alvin Hollins said to the Tallahassee Democrat in 2020. “The only regret is that he didn’t get in the Pro Football Hall of Fame before he passed. Several of the players he coached made it to the NFL. We had great success with him as a coach and athletics director.”
After his retirement from the NFL, Riley spent two years with the Green Bay Packers as an assistant coach. He eventually returned to his alma mater and served as Florida A&M’s head coach from 1986-1993, earning two MEAC conference titles. Riley also served as FAMU’s athletic director from 1994-2004.
He died in 2020 at the age of 72 from a heart attack.
Although this honor comes after his death, Riley believed that his work would eventually speak for itself. He never complained or sought public recognition.
“Your work speaks for you,” Riley once said about the possibility of receiving the honor. “If it’s God’s will, maybe one day it will happen.”
Riley’s widow, Barbara, will represent him in Canton when he is officially enshrined.