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Bengals Hall-of-Famer Ken Riley's First Day On The Greatest Team Ever Assembled

Anthony Munoz announcing Ken Riley's election.
Anthony Munoz announcing Ken Riley's election.

PHOENIX, Ariz. _ If the members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame are indeed the greatest team ever assembled, then Anthony Munoz, the greatest offensive lineman of all-time, is the chaplain and his eternal Bengals teammate Ken Riley doesn't have to undergo any kind of a rookie orientation.

"I tell people even though he's a new Hall-of-Famer, he was always a Hall-of-Fame person," says Munoz  as the Gold Jackets gather for the annual Merlin Olsen Luncheon as they always do a few miles and few days from the Super Bowl.

This one is different, though. Heartwarming. Bittersweet. Poignant and powerful. His teammate on that first Bengals Super Bowl team passed away nearly three years ago, but Ken Riley II has brought his mother and family to the desert to honor his father's selection by the greatest team on earth.

"It's a brotherhood on a high level," says Ken Riley II on his father's first full day on the club. "It's amazing to be around all this greatness."

Mel Blount, his Steelers legend as high as his signature cowboy hat, smiles as Riley tells him his dad always said he had to get more interceptions in a season than Mel Blount. Earl Campbell, the ferocious Oilers running back Ken Riley never minded tackling, sits in a wheelchair and takes Riley II's mini helmet to sign. Prolific Dallas and Denver pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, Riley's classmate, is at the new kids' table and crafts a text to Riley's grandson, Ken Riley III, a high school defensive end headed to college. Another classmate, Dolphins resourceful linebacker Zach Thomas, discovers he has a mutual friend with Riley II.

"I'm so happy for Ken," Blount says. "I was talking to his family and he's got to be somewhere smiling down on us from heaven. Such a great family. Everybody who knew Ken knew he was quiet, but he was a good human being. I'm so happy for him. We always used to battle every year to see who had the most interceptions in the conference because we played each other twice a year."

Riley, from Florida A&M, won most of those with his 65 all-Bengals interceptions, most ever by a pure cornerback for one team. Blount, from Southern, had 57 to help raise the Steel Curtain to four Super Bowls. They were the best and brightest of the generation of players from historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) who helped put the NFL in the mainstream of American life.

So there is Aeneas Williams, the sleek Cardinal with a Gold Jacket who played cornerback at Southern two decades after Blount, approaching the new table. Like Blount, he also played against Riley in college. But by then, Riley was the head coach at Florida A&M and there was a freshman on his team red-shirting named Ken Riley II. Williams knew Coach Riley from his numbers.

"I always knew who the NFL leaders were in terms of interceptions," Williams says. "He had (65). Everson Walls (57) was a guy that I was very much aware of. I always knew that Paul Krause was first with 81. All the way back in college I knew that.

"I knew a lot of guys from historically black colleges and universities. I didn't know a lot about (Riley's) career, but I knew a lot about his numbers. After the game, he'd come up and tell you good game. I never beat him. A&M beat us three straight years."

Williams ended up with 55 interceptions of his own in 211 NFL games, four more than Riley played in his 15 seasons in Cincinnati. After the 50 or so Hall-of-Famers are introduced to the luncheon and the bread begins to be passed, Williams leans down to talk to Ken Riley II and then goes over to say hello to Barbara Riley, Kenny's wife of 50 years.

"I just wanted to tell his son his legacy lives on through him. I wanted to thank his wife for sharing him with us," Williams says. "And tell her how much of an inspiration he was to me coming from an HBCU. It's unfortunate he's deceased. But at least his family gets to celebrate his life."

The all-time interceptions list is now complete. Everyone in the top five is now in Canton. The only one who passed Riley in the 40 years since he retired, Rod Woodson, with 71, went into the Hall 14 years ago. Charles Woodson, who tied Riley with 65, went in right away two years ago. The man on top of the list marvels at how the numbers have held up.

Paul Krause shakes his head. He got his 81 picks during 16 seasons in the 1960s and 1970s when the leagues were merging but the passing game hadn't yet in a run league. Maybe there were 25 passes a game by the time Krause retired in 1979.

"There should be more," Krause says of interceptions. "Honestly, I don't believe the guys coaching them know how to create interceptions. It's just not going out there and putting your arms up and catching it. You have to put yourself in position."

Krause says he knew how many interceptions the other guys had, "but I was never worried," and he thinks Riley's background as a college quarterback helped him. He says his career was boosted when he broke in with Washington and Hall-of-Famers on either side of the ball, middle linebacker Sam Huff and quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, constantly talked football with him.

"You have to make your game the game they don't want to play," says Krause, who could have been talking about how Riley confounded receivers by knowing their routes.

And if you think Riley had to wait, what about Krause? It took the all-time interceptions leader 13 years to get into the Hall. Emlen "The Gremlin," Tunnell (79) appeared in 1967 and Night Train Lane (68) roared through in 1974. Krause didn't get in until Munoz went in on his first try in 1998 and it has sparked a bond between the classmates.

"Even though I'm older, he's my inspiration," said the 80-year-old Krause, who has 16 years on Munoz. "Anthony's great. He does everything the right way."

That's the way it is on the world's greatest team. There is Chares Haley badgering one of Riley's classmate cornerbacks, Ronde Barber, yelling at him to get to his seat.

"You're going to get hazed, man," Haley hisses.

There is Munoz thinking about his friend and how much his son looks and acts like him.

"Same temperament," Munoz says. "A true professional. Just a gentleman. Heck of a player. A great example for young guys. Think about it. He was a quarterback with great hands. We joke about DBs. That's why they're not wide receivers. Great hands."

It was Munoz who was charged by the Hall last week to phone Ken Riley II and inform him of his election.

"I knew a couple of days in advance," Munoz says, "and I still lost it. I got three or four words out and the emotion came out. But I was honored to be able to do it."

As Ken Riley's first full day on the greatest team of all-time began to come to an end, Ken Riley II takes a deep breath.

"Still hard to process," he says, looking at a phone that won't stop exploding.

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