Skip to main content

Bengals Great Ken Riley Finds A Corner In Canton With Election To Pro Football Hall of Fame

Ken Riley Hall Of Fame 020923

PHOENIX, Ariz. _ Ken Riley II vowed never to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame until his father's induction.

The door opened Thursday night when the Hall announced its 2023 class here in the star-studded NFL Honors ceremony a few miles from the site of Sunday's Super Bowl. The date is set. Aug. 5. That's when Bengals Ring of Honor member Ken Riley, the late, great Bengals cornerback, carries his 65 interceptions into the Canton, Ohio, shrine forever.

When her son called with the news, Barbara Riley went into her living room and told a picture of her husband of 50 years that he was a Hall-of-Famer.

"It's bittersweet," said Ken Riley II, his relentless journey to get his father recognized complete.  "Just relief. And disbelief because it's been over 30 years for this to finally happen. It's like, 'Wow.'"

Willie Anderson, the Bengals Ring of Honor right tackle, didn't make it on his second straight trip to the Hall finals as a member of the modern era category. Another AFC North tackle, former Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, made it on his first try. So did cornerback Darrelle Revis, who did his best work with the Jets and Patriots. Also elected were Dallas pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, Tampa Bay cornerback  Ronde Barber and Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas in what has turned into a celebration of defense.

Riley, who died suddenly at 72 in 2020, was one of three senior members selected, joining Cowboys Super Bowl MVP linebacker Chuck Howley and versatile Jets defensive lineman Joe Klecko. Long-time head coach Don Coryell, architect of the modern passing game, went in as the contributor candidate. They were chosen from a list of 19 finalists last month during a virtual meeting of the 49-member selection committee, of which belongs.

It was Coryell's Chargers that lost to Riley's Bengals in the 1981 AFC Championship game encased in lore and the minus-57-degree wind chill of Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. The "Freezer Bowl," put the Bengals in their first Super Bowl and their left tackle that day, Anthony Munoz, went into the Hall of Fame 25 years ago. He's been saying how much he wants a Cincy teammate in Canton and he's got one with Riley's 15 seasons, 207 games and one of the greatest stories in NFL history joining him in the gallery.

It was Munoz who informed Ken Riley II last week that his father was in last week during a phone call.

"He wanted to officially welcome my dad to the Hall of Fame and it was his honor," Riley recalled.

And it was Munoz who introduced Ken Riley II to the NFL Honors crowd.

A top-flight quarterback and Rhodes Scholarship finalist at Florida A&M, Riley never played cornerback until Bengals head coach Paul Brown moved him to defense after taking him in the sixth round of the 1969 draft. He started nine games as a rookie, when he had four interceptions, and went on to lead the AFC in interceptions three times. When he retired after the 1983 season, he had the fourth most interceptions of all-time. When he went into Canton Thursday, only Hall-of-Famer Rod Woodson has passed him on the list.

Praised for his cerebral play and a quarterback's approach to defense, Riley went into coaching and ended up as the head coach for his son, the first Riley to play cornerback at Florida A&M. That's when Ken Riley II began to wonder of the greatness of 65 interceptions.

"Playing the position, I just realized how hard it is to get interceptions and so this has been on my mind for about that long. I was trying to do everything I could for the last 30 years or so to get that recognition for him," Riley said. "The big thing for him was you could only control what you could control. The only time he would really think about it was around election time when people would ask him about it. It got to a certain point where he felt like it was out of his control and you can't worry about what you can't control."

They sensed a turning point in 2015 when Riley was elected to the Black College Football Hall of Fame, a shrine that has 34 members in Canton. Some of those players, such as former Steelers wide receiver John Stallworth, spoke on Riley's behalf. A one-time Hall foe and current Hall voter, wide receiver James Lofton endorsed him. So did Mel Blount, the Steelers Hall-of-Fame cornerback, as did another Hall-of Fame cornerback named Dick LeBeau, the position coach Riley credited for reviving his career during his last four seasons.

The support grew in the fan base, where BengalJim Foster organized Hall rallies on behalf of worthy Bengals, the trips that Riley II politely turned down.

"Guys like Willie Anderson, all the support has been really wonderful," Riley said.

And the support came from unlikely sources. Such as Elaine Anderson, a member of Riley II's church in Houston, Texas. She is the sister of the late Cliff Branch, the Raiders' long-ball ace who was the senior candidate elected last year after his 2019 death.

"When you think about it, it really is a small world," Riley said. "It's very similar. He passed away before he got in and she not only told us what to expect, but gave us the support."

What's next is the annual Hall of Fame luncheon here on Friday and then a visit with the sculptor to talk about crafting Riley's bust that's going to study museum visitors like he did opposing quarterbacks. Thanks to advice from Elaine Anderson, Riley II is bringing some extra pictures.

Most of the family made the trip here. Barbara. Riley II's wife Tiffany and sons Ken III and Kaden. His sister Kenisha Avery. Ken and Barbara's youngest, Kim Connor, couldn't be here, but is expected in Canton.

It's going to be quite a trip for them. Not like the 2019 week-long celebration Riley II staged in Mexico for his parents' 50th anniversary. He remembers his father turning to him and saying, "Man, we're going to have a hard time topping this trip."

"We'll never forget that trip," his son said. "That's the best trip I ever had. This will be kind of closure."

Related Content