Bengals Legend Ken Riley Passes Away at 72

Ken Riley: 65 picks.
Ken Riley: 65 picks.

Ken Riley, one of the most popular and prolific players during the history of the Bengals as one of the greatest interceptors in NFL annals, died suddenly Sunday morning in his hometown of Bartow, Fla. He was 72.

Nicknamed "The Rattler," by Bengals defensive coach Tom Bass in honor of Florida A&M's mascot, Riley came out of the Tallahassee, Fla., school to play the most games in Bengaldom with 207 during 15 steel-belted, no-frills seasons while racking up the fifth most interceptions of all-time.

"Everybody here loved Kenny," said Bengals president Mike Brown, stunned by the loss of a man he first met when they drafted him in the sixth round 51 years ago and welcomed for a Legends Weekend this past season. "We put him over there for a decade and a half and we didn't have to worry about it.

"I'm going to miss him. He was a good a guy, a solid man and we send our best wishes to his family."

Those 65 interceptions ranged from three during Joe Namath's last game as a New York Jet that included thievery of backup Richard Todd, to a career-high nine in 1976, to the AFC-best eight in his final season at age 36.

Looking back at the career of Bengals legend Ken Riley, who passed away at the age of 72. Riley played 15 seasons for the Bengals as a defensive back, with 65 career interceptions for 596 yards and five touchdowns -- all franchise records.

And it was those interceptions that annually put Riley in the discussion for a berth in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the senior category, about the only honor that ever eluded him. For a man who had been elected to everything from the Black College Football Hall of Fame to his hometown Polk County Hall of Fame, Riley, like his supporters, had no answers.

"People ask why I'm not in and I say I don't know," Riley told Bengals.com last season. "I'm really embarrassed by it because I've got my high school petitioning. The county commissioners petitioning. I appreciate it, but it's embarrassing. I'm not like that. I guess I just didn't get the exposure."

While Riley held down the right corner with a coach's tenacity that included his meticulous handwritten journals on opposing wide receivers, Lemar Parrish got the exposure roaming the left corner with a flashy game that included a glittering punt and kick return resume.

Parrish went to six Pro Bowls during eight seasons he had 25 Bengals interceptions and while Riley went to none, his 65 picks are nearly double anyone in team history in a career that included seven play-off games, the Bengals' first Super Bowl appearance and an invite from former Bengals head coach Forest Gregg to move with him to Green Bay and coach in the Packers secondary.

That jump-started Riley's career as a coach and he returned to his beloved A&M as head coach and went 45-40-2 in eight seasons before becoming the school's athletic director.

Kenny Riley was a coach on the field before becoming a coach.
Kenny Riley was a coach on the field before becoming a coach.

"Kenny Riley was the first time I ever came across a pro's pro," Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham recalled several years ago about his rookie year that was 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."

Imagine the attention Riley would have received nowadays. He never played a snap of cornerback until he was drafted and ended up becoming a Hall-of-Fame caliber player. But Riley, the quarterback who led A&M to a magical season in 1967 during a junior year that ended in a tight but memorable loss to Grambling and future NFL quarterback James Harris in a showdown of the nation's two best history black college football programs, never backed away from the notion he could have played the position in the NFL if attitudes about black quarterbacks had been more open-minded.

Think Russell Wilson, Riley once told Bengals.com

"I even wore No. 3," Riley said several years ago. "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."

Not only did Riley never play corner until the pros, neither did Parrish.

"When he came here, Kenny and Lemar Parrish had never played cornerback and they're the two best we've ever had," Brown said. "And we've had a lot of good ones."

Riley summed up his career probably better than anyone during the weekend he came to Paul Brown Stadium to be honored before a 2013 game. That was the day he watched the Bengals beat the Colts from the Ken Riley Suite with wife Barbara, son Ken Riley II, his wife, and two grandchildren.

During the week he was asked what could possibly be the reasons for all those interceptions back in an era they just didn't throw it as often as they do now. And he pretty much shrugged.

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

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