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Bengals celebrate life of Riley

Bengals cornerback Ken Riley poses for a photo ahead of the 1972 season.
Bengals cornerback Ken Riley poses for a photo ahead of the 1972 season.

When it comes to Kenneth Jerome Riley, who walks to midfield for the opening toss Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at Paul Brown Stadium like he did so many times at Riverfront Stadium as a Bengals defensive captain, there is the book.

And then there is The Book.

The book Breaking The Line gives Riley the latest platform to make his case as the best cornerback not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Book is a big reason why he managed to intercept 65 passes, the fifth most of all-time, even though he played most of his Bengals-best 207 games in what his teammate and fellow Hall should-be Ken Anderson calls "the dead ball era."

First things first.

Riley is back in town this week as the major character in a book that takes on the compelling subject of race and football against the backdrop of the late 1960s brew of change and confrontation and is featured in Thursday's 7:30 p.m. panel discussion at Cincinnati's downtown Freedom Center.

In Breaking The Line, Sam Freedman, a journalist and professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, chronicles the 1967 season of Grambling and Florida A&M through the lens of their coaches and quarterbacks for the nation's two black college programs.

Before becoming one of the NFL's most prolific cornerbacks of all-time, Riley was the heart and soul of Florida A&M. Think Russell Wilson.

"I even wore No. 3," Riley says. "I think I was a little bit faster than him. I could throw it on the run, right and left. I read defenses well. I could anticipate. I was just happy to get an opportunity. The quarterback that we drafted that year (1969) was Greg Cook. He was 6-2, 6-3, very polished. Outside of Greg, no doubt in my mind that I could have contributed. But that never fazed me."

That is just one of the many things that drew Freedman to Riley. Not only was Riley the epitome of A&M coach Jake Gaither's model for the student-athlete, but he also reinvented himself in the pros with the same resilience and determination that drove the Rattlers to that showdown with Grambling and quarterback James Harris. Freedman believes if the Bengals hadn't drafted Riley in the sixth round, a Rhodes Scholarship loomed.

"I think he is wistful, a what-if feeling about it," Freedman says. "Ken is like anyone who was a star in a particular position and then never got to try it at another level. I think he wonders what would have happened. On the other hand, he's incredibly proud of what he accomplished with the Bengals. He's such a dignified, classy guy. His personality probably hurt his chances of getting to the Hall. He really believes if you do your work well, your work should stand up for itself. He never felt like he had to be a self-promoter or be his own ad agency."

That's where The Book comes in.

It is a notebook. It's one of those tablets from the '70s. Riley began keeping notes on receivers as part of his whirlwind transition to cornerback that began when coach Paul Brown greeted him with, "You're a cornerback now," while teammates dubbed him "Rattler" for his college team's nickname and his quick-strike tackling.

"Receivers like Paul Warfield, Charley Taylor. I took a beating but I learned a lot from them," Riley says. "I kept the same book. I just kept adding to it. It's packed up somewhere now."

While Riley would become the epitome of the Gaither student-athlete model who would go on to attain his Master's degree and be the head coach of his alma mater for eight seasons, he would also become the prototype of a Paul Brown Bengal. A student of the game who used his wits first and then did the rest. When rookie receivers like Isaac Curtis or Cris Collinsworth needed help, Riley gave it to them.

Curtis, the speedster who was catching 21st century "go" balls in the '70s, remembers Riley coming up to play bump-and-run in practice and if he had his head down, Riley would tap him on the helmet with: "Keep your head up, Rook; you can't see anything with your head down."

"Kenny Riley was the first time I ever came across a pro's pro," says Dave Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst who was a rookie during Riley's sixth season. "Not only on the field, but off the field. He handled himself the way you're supposed to in every situation. He knew his stuff. He was always prepared."

Riley still remembers some of those jottings from The Book.

"I could tell when a receiver was going to run an out route. How he raised his shoulders, started chopping his feet; little things," Riley says. "You watch the film, you look at the split on the side to the hash. If he's out 12 yards, he's going to run a go or a turn in. Six yards or less, they'd run an out. Those things I had in my book. I'd watch the receivers. It was an edge. And if I could make our receivers better, it made us a better team."

Freedman describes a remarkable journey. Riley's south wasn't our south. His all-black high school that won a Florida state title stood across the street from a golf course where only blacks could caddy. Gaither had to spend as much time mapping a safe bus trip for road games as he did game plans, complete with rest stops and meals in order to avoid confrontations.

"Usually we'd sleep in the gym and eat on campus," Riley says.

When Riley picked a college, his high school coach hoped he'd go to Wake Forest, an ACC school that was just beginning to integrate. But a lot of his buddies from the state title team were going to A&M and he wanted in.

But interaction on the Bengals was never in question even though Brown had players from all over the country. Essex Johnson and Charlie Joiner played at Grambling. Curtis played on the integrated West Coast. Cook was a hometown guy from the University of Cincinnati. And Riley didn't have trouble adjusting to that. They all fell under The Law of Paul.

"Paul Brown didn't care about color. Only what you did on the field. And he was up front on that with everyone," Riley says. "He'd get in guys' faces and scream, 'You're killing us. I'll replace you.' But he reminded me a lot of Coach Gaither because he cared about you off the field. They wanted you to be able to do well off the field. He and Coach Gaither were great friends and Paul invited him to Cincinnati for Ken Riley Day (his last home game). Paul Brown would always talk about quality of life. He'd say, 'I pay you well enough, you shouldn't just have to get by.' "

Riley loved Brown's honesty because all he cared about was performance. When the Bengals drafted two cornerbacks in Riley's ninth season, the year after he led the AFC with nine picks, Brown approached him and asked, "Did you see who we drafted?"

"Yes Coach, I did," says Riley, who then pulls off a great imitation of the man.

"I'm trying to replace you."

And then Riley remembers picking off two balls in Miami in the preseason and coming home and Brown saying, "Now you're playing the way you can play. Go back to your side and stay there."

Thanks in part to The Book, Riley got better as he got older. In his last two seasons at ages 35 and 36 in 1982 and 1983, he led the AFC in interceptions. And along came a young secondary coach named Dick LeBeau in 1980.

"I had fallen into some bad habits and Dick helped me get out of them," Riley says. "We had played a lot of zone and my man-to-man technique had fallen off. But Dick worked on the little things with me and he really helped me. He came along at just the right time in my career."

During those last four years they needled each other about the all-time interceptions list when Riley suddenly started to close the gap on LeBeau's 62, at the time the third most of all-time. In four seasons under LeBeau, Riley racked up 21 and in his last game in Minnesota he picked off two for 65 to move behind the two Lions, leader Night Train Lane with 68, and LeBeau.

"Dick said it couldn't happen to a better guy and I really appreciated that," says Riley, who has watched LeBeau go into the Hall as well as the four guys in front of him on the list. "Sometimes we'd kid each other in practice and he might say, 'You're going to have to do a lot better than that to catch me.' "

He apparently had to in order to get into the Hall. Never mind that he never made a Pro Bowl.

"That's unbelievable," Curtis says. "He was a good as those other guys. You couldn't run a sloppy route against him. You couldn't cut it off. You had to be mechanically sound to get open on him because he was so disciplined and I think the fact he played quarterback helped."

Anderson, Riley's quarterback in the pros, has had the same problem when it comes to the Hall. He's the only guy with at least four NFL passing titles not in Canton. But like Riley, he didn't bother to tell anyone how great he was.

"I think what hurt Kenny is that he got overshadowed a little bit," says Anderson, referring to the other cornerback, six-time Pro Bowler Lemar Parrish. "Kenny just went out and did his job. Lemar was a little flamboyant, to say the least, and he also returned punts and I think some of what Kenny did was overshadowed."

Anderson threw against a lot of great corners in the AFC (Mel Blount, Willie Brown) and says Riley stacks up there with them.

"You don't survive 15 years at cornerback in the NFL without being fundamentally sound and a great athlete," Anderson says. "Great feet, great hands, great cover skills and an outstanding tackler. You don't ever forget seeing Kenny Riley come up and flip the receiver upside down as soon as he caught it."

Maybe that's why Curtis still remembers this bit of advice from Riley:

"The best thing I can do is try to keep my feet on the ground as much as possible. When you're up the air, you're free game."

When offenses began throwing the ball around in the '80s, Riley started to get those picks. But to get 65 interceptions when he broke in during an era where 18 passes in a game was a lot, that means he couldn't have dropped many.

"I see these guys do cartwheels when all they do is knock it away," Riley says. "That's not your job, just to bat it down."

Now Riley, 66, with the help of Freedman, gets his 66th interception this weekend. They have broken between the numbers to present the man behind the records. Freedman joins Riley, wife Barbara, son Ken Riley II, his wife, and two grandchildren, in the Ken Riley Suite on Sunday.

The Book says when the sold-out crowd sees the highlights of No. 13 before the game, they'll see some of those picks he didn't drop.

"Your job," Riley says, "is to intercept it."

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