By Vaughn Wilson
Florida A&M University (FAMU) alumnus Ken Riley was one of three honorees in the inaugural class of the Cincinnati Bengals’ Ring of Honor on September 30 in a nationally televised game won by the Bengals 24-21 over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Riley, who died in 2020, joined Bengals co-founder/coach, the late Paul Brown, quarterback Ken Anderson and Pro Football Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz as the first to earn the honor. Riley’s son, Ken Riley II, took part in the festivities in honor of his late father.
In a pre-game banquet, members of the 1981 Bengals team traded stories about their historic Super Bowl season. Several members of the team spoke about the challenges of making it to the Super Bowl and all the characters on the team.
Riley was the very definition of “favorite son.” He came to FAMU in the mid 1960s and was a trademark student-athlete. Under Coach Jake Gaither, he thrived at quarterback and led the Rattlers’ high-powered offense. He was also a Rhodes Scholar candidate, signifying his academic prowess.
After playing professional football from 1969-1983 with the Cincinnati Bengals, Riley returned to FAMU to become head football coach. Recognizing his administrative skills, FAMU president Frederick S. Humphries, Ph.D., hired Riley to oversee the FAMU athletics department.
As with everything, Riley did it with his calm and reserve demeanor. His management style would lead to an era of the biggest crowds and highest profitability in FAMU athletics history. When he left FAMU, it had a rare funding surplus of over $1.2 million, which was unheard of for FCS programs.
While playing for the Bengals, Riley set several records. He was a three-time All-Pro selection. Upon retirement, he was fourth all-time in interceptions and to this day he remains fifth on the list. He also returned those 65 interceptions for a total of 596 yards. He was also known as a great returner, taking five of those interceptions back for touchdowns.
Riley’s wife, Barbara, was emotional about the festivities.
“It was heartwarming and breaking at the same time because he’s not here to accept this for himself. I’m proud of my son who stepped up and my daughters,” she said. “It’s so heartwarming to know how the fans really appreciated and loved him.”
Unlike many of the flashy players who are a part of the league today, Riley was a humble and low-key guy. Known as “Rattler” for his time at Florida A&M, he was a team leader and mentor to new players. Bengals great Chris Collinsworth credits Riley with teaching him the most about playing receiver than anyone.
“Out of everybody that taught me football…after every route that I ran and he jumped it for an interception or knocked it down…I could never get away from him, he’d come back a go ‘you tipped your right elbow, or you dipped your head.’ Every single play he came back teaching me what I did wrong, how to do it right,” said Collinsworth, who described his friendship with Riley as one of the most enlightening relationships he’s ever been a part of.
Following his death last year, Riley was honored with an elaborate funeral in Lakeland, Fla.
Riley II was pleased to be a part of the ceremonies to commemorate the ring of honor.
“I think that Cincinnati is one of the last teams to get a ring of honor. We’ve always talked about that if you don’t honor your own, you can’t expect the rest of the nation to do it for you. We are a family that is appreciative of this opportunity,” Riley II said.
Riley Sr. is credited with being a solid but versatile athlete. He never played defensive back in college but learned the position between his last game as a Rattler and his first game as a Bengal.
His exclusion from the pro football Hall of Fame remains a mystery. Riley’s 65 interceptions should be a benchmark. Every single player with 65 interceptions and above is already enshrined in Canton, Ohio. For the family and fans of Kenneth Jerome Riley, the hope is that the recognition from the Bengals’ Ring of Honor will lead to his nod in the NFL Hall of FAME.