Ken Anderson and Ken Riley, leaders on each side of the ball for the franchise's first Super Bowl team, have been elected to the Bengals' inaugural Ring of Honor class.
The voters offered a fitting tribute on the 40th anniversary of the first AFC championship season when Bengals Season Ticket Holders selected Anderson and Riley to join fellow Super Bowl starter Anthony Munoz and club founder Paul Brown, the leading architect of what is generally regarded as the best Bengals' greatest team.
In a vote that was announced Thursday, Anderson, the Bengals all-time passer who won the NFL MVP that season, and Riley, one of the greatest who ever lived at intercepting passes, headed up a ballot of 17 franchise greats.
"Both of them quality people. They led exemplary lives after their playing days," said Bengals president Mike Brown. "They are the kind of people you'd like to have as ex-players. Players who reflect credit for who they are as people and credit on the team."
By virtue of their election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Paul Brown and Munoz were named to the Ring in April. The entire class is set to be installed at halftime of the Bengals' Sept. 30 game against the Jaguars at Paul Brown Stadium on a Thursday night the club is also honoring that 1981 Super Bowl team.
The four men have their fingerprints all over the juggernaut that finished second in NFL offense and 12th in defense on the way to a 12-4 record. The franchise's first two post-season victories also were products of '81, including the storied Freezer Bowl in the AFC title game at Cincinnati's ice-encrusted Riverfront Stadium, where the Bengals stoned the Chargers, 27-7, in minus 59-degree wind chill.
"It's special because they're bringing back in the '81 Super Bowl team as well," Anderson said. "We do have a great football tradition and I'm just glad that can be recognized so we enjoy it. I think back to those days because I think those days are coming again.
"The thing (about a vote) is there are so many really, really good players this franchise has had. I'm really glad Kenny got in at the same time because we're talking about Paul founding the franchise and Kenny was there very early and I was there very early, so I think it's kind of nice to get some of the old guys in there. And you have to include Anthony in there because he's the best player the franchise has ever had."
Ken Riley II took the phone call from Bengals president Mike Brown earlier this week informing him that his late father had been elected.
"The Ring of Honor is the Mount Rushmore for the Bengals. It's incredible for my father to be included in the inaugural class," Riley said. "To be recognized by the fans, that makes it even more special. My father would receive so much love every time he came back to Cincinnati, and to have them vote him in makes it that much sweeter."
His father died last year of a sudden heart attack at age 72, nearly four decades after retiring with those 65 interceptions in 207 games that have remained Bengals' records. Barbara Riley, his high school sweetheart, looked at a framed picture of her husband of 51 years in their Florida home and told him of the honor after speaking with Mike Brown.
"His whole heart was with the Bengals," Barbara Riley said. "It was like the Hall of Fame. I wasn't going to think about it. I was just going to let it happen. (The Hall of Fame) came up every year and when he didn't get in, he'd say, 'When I get in the Hall of Fame, I probably won't be here.'
"That was his home, too," Barbara Riley said of Cincinnati. "When we would go back, the fans showed how much they cared about him."
Riley and Anderson are two of the Bengals' leading candidates for the Pro Football Hall of Fame from the senior category, a list of players that have been out of the league at least 25 years.
The day Anderson retired, Paul Brown said, "Someday he belongs in the Hall of Fame." On June 2, 1987, he was the NFL's all-time leader in completion percentage for a season, a post-season career and in a game with more than 20 attempts. Since Riley retired after the 1983 season, only one player, Rod Woodson has had more interceptions. Charles Woodson tied him at 65, fifth on the NFL list.
Steelers Hall-of-Fame cornerback Mel Blount didn't have as many interceptions as Riley, but he beat him to Canton with the help of Pittsburgh's four Super Bowl titles during his career. Blount never misses a chance to lobby for Riley's Hall of Fame bid.
"Every chance I got, I wanted to see what he was doing. Just like he said, every year he wanted to have more interceptions than me," Blount recalled of his film work for Bengals.com last year. "That's just part of being a competitor. He was a student of the game. He had a high football IQ. I think that was coming from the offensive side being a quarterback. I think he kind of knew what formations were going to bring you. I think he knew the timing of it. I think he knew how the placement of the ball mattered because he was a quarterback on the other side of the ball. He had a higher I.Q. than most of us in the game."
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."
Anderson, 72, became one of the game's top quarterbacks avoiding throwing those interceptions. He's one of only five men to win at least four NFL passing titles.
His third one in 1981 not only gave him the league MVP, but also NFL Comeback Player of the Year. After getting benched in the opener, Anderson showed the resourcefulness of his franchise-longest 16 seasons when he bounced back the next week to lead them to a 31-30 victory over the Jets at Shea Stadium. The press box phones conked out and Anderson had to decipher the hand signals before he helped carry the team to Super Bowl XVI.
"It didn't start very well for me," Anderson said of that season. "I think we had five games in November all against playoff contenders and not one of them was a close game. All of a sudden it was, 'We are for real.'"
Mike Brown, who thought Anderson was the real thing when he scouted him at Division III Augustana College, has often said if Munoz is the best player in Bengals history then Anderson is the most important.
"He played the most important position and he played it well," Brown said. "We were competitive with anybody when he was going at his peak. I remember the Super Bowl game with him at quarterback up in Detroit. To this day I think we were the better team. We just didn't win. He played well."
Anderson and Riley are two of the three oldest players on the ballot (76-year-old Bob Trumpy is the oldest) and yet they outpolled more recent popular stars such as Chad Johnson, Willie Anderson and Boomer Esiason.
"All those guys are very worthy of it for what they've done for the franchise," Anderson said. "Let the older guys enjoy it for a little bit. When they started it at Augustana they would kind of go by decades and I think that's kind of a fair way to do it in some sense."
Both families are going to have a large contingent with Anderson bringing a dozen children and grandchildren and Riley represented by Barbara and their three children. It's old hat for Ken Riley III and Kaden.
"It is bittersweet he's not here," said Ken Riley II, recalling that last trip to PBS in 2017 to honor his father as one of the Bengals First 50 players. "I've never missed a time when the Bengals had something. It was always a trip for me and my boys. So this will be the first time he won't be with us."