PHOENIX, Ariz. _ Willie Anderson shook off the disappointment of not reaching the Pro Football Hall of Fame Thursday night despite his second straight trip to the finals and echoed all of Bengaldom hailing the election of fellow Bengals Ring of Honor member Ken Riley.
"I'm in a good mood because Kenny Riley is in," Anderson said. "Because I know what it meant for him. He mentioned it to me before he passed away. The only sad part about it is he's not here to see it, but I talk to his son. We text. They're excited. They've been pushing for me, pulling for me and we've all been pulling for them. Tonight's a great feeling. I know what that man meant. I love when the greats who came before me get honored."
Riley, one of the three senior candidates who played more than 25 years ago, was honored less than three years after his sudden death at age 72. But Thursday night's reaction to the end of his journey that began with his two-interception game in his 1983 finale that left him with 65 for the fourth most of all-time in his career reflected his eternal popularity with his old teammates and boss. Only fellow Hall-of-Famer Rod Woodson with 71 interceptions passed him on the list in the 35 years since he retired.
"Well-deserved, well-earned and way overdue," said Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, the former guard who played 10 seasons with Riley that included the team's first trip to the Super Bowl after the 1981 season.
"He had the ball skills of an offensive skill player and that's what he was, a former quarterback. He was so smart and he was so solid, like when he picked off Joe Namath multiple times down the stretch of Joe's career. But he talked about how great Namath was, not how great Kenny Riley was. That was Kenny Riley in a nutshell. A great human being and player."
Bengals president Mike Brown remembers that first training camp in 1969, when Riley, a sixth-round quarterback from Florida A&M, arrived in position drills that included first-rounder Greg Cook, the future AFL Rookie of the Year. Brown remembers his father, Bengals founder and head coach Paul Brown, pointing Riley to the cornerbacks and saying, "Go over there."
"Ken did. He had never played the position and he took to it so quickly and it was quite remarkable," Mike Brown said. "He would have a feel by the pattern when the ball was going to come. He would think like a quarterback. He would just sense what was going on in the quarterback's mind as he covered."
Brown remembers Riley as much for his all-out tackling as he does his coverage. Lapham often regales his audiences with stories of Riley taking out the legs of receivers in cartwheeling fashion.
"Ken was a top cover corner. He could play the ball at the point of reception so well that he became one of the top interceptors of all time. And he would tackle," Brown said. "Only 185 pounds, he hit hard. Receivers knew they would pay a price if they caught a ball in front of him. Most of all, Ken was a smart player. He didn't miss assignments. Ever. He was a wonderful person. He looked out for others. Everyone with all levels of the team respected him. He was a man that could be counted on."
One Hall-of-Fame quarterback who Riley studied approached Ken Riley II backstage Thursday night before the announcement at NFL Honors to offer congratulations. Dan Fouts was there to introduce the election of his coach, Don Coryell. They were the pair that couldn't thaw the Freezer Bowl when their Chargers lost the 1981 AFC title game in Cincinnati, but the younger Riley could always count on Fouts' support on the road to Canton.
"He remembered he was a student of the game and said he had great hands," Riley said. "That's the one thing that stood out. He could catch the ball. That's how he had 65 interceptions."
It's a number that caught the attention of two of Riley's Hall classmates elected in the modern era category, cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Darrelle Revis. Barber, who had 47 in 16 seasons with Tampa Bay, turned to Revis (29 in 11 seasons with four teams) at the post-awards news conference and said, "Darrelle, I don't know if we had those combined. That's close to it."
They combined for 76 interceptions in their careers that both ended in the decade of the teens of the 21st century. When Barber retired in 2012, 18 quarterbacks threw at least 500 passes. When Riley retired three decades before that, five did it. Those 65 picks are the most ever by a pure cornerback for one team.
"He was one of those guys that I think we all can say he should have made the Hall of Fame many, many years ago," Barber said. "His numbers speak for themselves. You don't get 65 interceptions very easily. He was what the embodiment of the corner in that era was and it's nice for his family to see him get his space."
Barber fist-bumped Riley II when he followed him on to the stage at the news conference, capping a star-studded night for the family. It began when his mother, wife sister and two sons walked the red carpet. It ended walking out of the Phoenix Convention Center preparing for Friday's Merlin Olsen Super
"It's kind of like I'm dreaming. I feel like the kid in the candy store," Riley said. "I love football and to see all the greats of the past and present backstage. Namath and Barry Sanders and Jimmy Johnson, I can go on."
Riley knows two of those Hall-of-Famers well. Receiver James Lofton, a Hall-of-Fame voter, and Mel Blount, the Steelers cornerback who made sure he watched tape of Riley every offseason, have been vehement supporters of the Riley candidacy. It was a sweet night for the candidate's family and the supporters.
"My phone is blowing up," said Riley, who broke away to do a brief Zoom with BengalJim Foster's fan group that endorsed him so long and so well. "Teammates from Florida A&M. The fans in Cincinnati have been so great and behind us all the way."
Back in Cincinnati, Mike Brown had been composing his thoughts in case one or both of his Bengals were elected. When it came to Riley, "I find myself thinking I'll ask Kenny about this or when that happened. It just doesn't seem right he's not here."
Riley II did his best to keep him. He wore the orange tie his dad wore during the 2014 NFL Draft when he announced the Bengals selection of second-round pick Jeremy Hill. He also wore his dad's ring with the KR initials. He urged his own son, long, lean Ken Riley III, a high school edge rusher from Houston, to introduce himself to one of the new Hall-of-Famers, the long-time Dallas edge rusher DeMarcus Ware.
"Big night for everyone," Ken Riley II said.
A bittersweet night. But like Willie Anderson, Mike Brown took joy in one of the great moments in franchise history.
"Ken would have been delighted in being selected for the Hall of Fame,' Brown said. "Now the extended Bengals family will celebrate for him. We miss him."