Bengals Ring of Honor legend Ken Riley, whose 65 interceptions have been bested only once since his 1983 farewell at Riverfront Stadium, is just one more snap from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Riley's candidacy survived a star-studded ballot battle of 12 that claimed fellow Ring of Honor member Ken Anderson when his name emerged Wednesday as one of the three senior nominees advancing to the Hall finals set for the third week in January.
Riley, who has the most interceptions by a cornerback for one team, needs 80 percent in that vote of the 49-member Hall board of selectors to become just the second Bengal in the Hall. Anthony Munoz, the first, celebrates the 25th anniversary of his first ballot election at the next induction ceremony at the Canton, Ohio shrine next summer.
"He's almost home," said Ken Riley II, whose father died two years ago. "I'm just so grateful for all the support from Cincinnati and the greatest fans in the world. We've been waiting 39 years and I would tell him, 'Your time will come.'"
Riley joins former Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley and Jets ex-defensive lineman Joe Klecko from the group of players who have been retired at least 25 years. They'll be on the finals ballot with 15 modern era players who have been retired at least five years but not longer than 25.
In that January meeting, each of those candidates is voted on separately after debate by the Hall selectors and must get 80 percent "Yesses," for induction. Bengals.com is a member of the selection board.
Bengals president Mike Brown, who was there when they selected Riley in the sixth round of the 1969 common draft, was also there in that first training camp when the swashbuckling Florida A&M quarterback was switched to cornerback and went on to play a Bengals-record 207 games.
"This is long deserved. It is unfortunate Kenny is gone because we know how much he would have appreciated this," Brown said Wednesday, "His family is surely pleased at this news. Kenny was a splendid player and still holds the Bengals record for most interceptions over a career. It would be a wonderful thing if he were selected for the Hall of Fame."
Riley's seemingly endless journey isn't over, but it's so close to a triumphant end. Very few senior nominees fail to get that final 80 percent. It's believed the last time the board rejected a nominee from the senior committee is ten years ago, when guard Dick Stanfel didn't get in. But he did win election four years later.
The newly expanded 12-person senior committee had a Zoom Tuesday in the first meeting of the new senior voting process. Expanding the list of senior nominees from one to three for the next four years gave the long-time candidacies of guys like Riley and Anderson new hope after years of waiting.
Hall of Fame president Jim Porter called Ken Riley II with the news Tuesday and the son admitted tears were shed. Riley is tied for fifth on the all-time interceptions list and everyone ahead of him is in the Hall. Charles Woodson tied him and is a first ballot Hall of Famer. Rod Woodson, who played from 1987-2003, is the only one who has passed him in the last four decades with 71.
"He had a high football IQ. I think that was coming from the offensive side being a quarterback," said one of Riley's many supporters, Mel Blount, the Hall-of-Fame Steelers cornerback who played in the same era.
"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."
Like most senior finals balloting, the cuts were brutal. As one voter said a couple of years ago about this point in the process, "When you leave, there are Hall-of-Famers strewn on the floor."
This was no different.
Anderson, Riley's teammate and 1981 NFL MVP, didn't make it despite being the only quarterback with four NFL passing titles not in the Hall. A nine-time Pro Bowler, Lions linebacker Maxie Baughan, didn't make it. Broncos linebacker Randy Gradishar, a Defensive Player of the Year and seven-time Pro Bowler, didn't make it. A six-time Pro Bowler from the two-time Super Bowl champion Dolphins, offensive lineman Bob Kuchenberg, didn't make it. The final six also had Kuchenberg, Gradishar and Packers wide receiver Sterling Sharpe.
But, like his son said, Kenneth Jerome Riley's time would come and it looks like the clock has struck 12.
"I don't know how you put a number on intelligence. And I don't know how many touchdowns he saved the Bengals because he knew what was coming," Cris Collinsworth, another old teammate, told Bengals.com the day Riley passed.
"But how many times in your life have you been told that football games are decided by the turnover margin? And here's one of the greatest to ever do it."