We’re just a few days from the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2021 to be revealed.
But the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a lie.
Its mission: To Honor Heroes of the Game; To Preserve its History; To Promote its Values; and To Celebrate Excellence Everywhere.
Or so it says.
But what do you call it when one of those heroes, who just happens to be one of the greatest players at his position of all time, gets repeatedly and pointedly ignored, year in and year out?
At best, the Hall of Fame has failed at its mission. At worst, that mission is a lie.
Case in point: Ken Riley. The Rattler. Riley, who played cornerback for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1969 through 1983, was a three-time All-Pro and a member of the Bengals’ 1981 Super Bowl team. His 65 interceptions are tied for fifth all-time with former Oakland Raiders’ great Charles Woodson, who is one of 15 finalists for the 2021 NFL Hall of Fame.
Perhaps former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2018, said it best:
“I’ve always said this, men and women lie, but numbers don’t,” Lewis said after his own induction ceremony. “When you have the numbers Ken has, I don’t know how you don’t (get in). Ken should be in.”
The top four career interception leaders, Paul Krause, Emlen Tunnell, Rod Woodson and Dick “Night Train” Lane, have all been enshrined in Canton, Ohio. Charles Woodson, who won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers, will be joining that list very soon.
Joining Woodson on the list of 15 finalist is former Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber. Like Riley, Barber made First-team All-Pro three times, and, like Woodson, has a Super Bowl ring to his credit. But he has 18 fewer interceptions while playing in a career that spanned 16 years, one more than Riley’s.
But that’s just the latest example. Two former cornerbacks were elected to the Hall of Fame in 2019. Champ Bailey, who, like Riley, played for 15 seasons, was also a three-time first-team All-Pro selection. His career interception total: 52.
Ty Law played for 15 seasons and was named first-team All-Pro on two occasions. He was a three-time Super Bowl champ and finished with 53 career interceptions.
And Riley is not alone here. Riley and Dave Brown are two of the three hall-eligible players currently in the top 10 career interception list. Darren Sharper is the third, but considering he’s currently serving an 18-year prison sentence for drugging and raping women, he can stay out of Canton.
The Hall of Fame currently boasts six defensive backs with fewer career interceptions than Riley - Ronnie Lott, Dick LeBeau (who coached Riley during his last four years with the Bengals), Emmitt Thomas, Lem Barney, Mel Blount and Aeneas Williams. Blount, who ranks 13th in career interceptions with 57, came into the NFL one year after Riley and retired the same year as Riley.
In 1983, in his final year in the league, Riley led the then-AFC Central with eight interceptions and two touchdowns.
John Stallworth, Blount’s teammate on many of those Pittsburgh Steeler teams, a four-time Super Bowl champion and a member of the 2002 Hall of Fame class, certainly counted Riley among the best he had faced.
“I always felt that he knew our system, our game plan, that he had viewed our films, that he knew our tendencies, my tendencies,” Stallworth said in a 2013 interview. “From an intellectual standpoint, he was going to take away what I did well. He wasn’t an in-your-face bumping guy, but he was going to be where he needed to be when he needed to be there. I knew he was going to challenge me every play.”
Riley, who passed away last year, is no longer here to challenge the Hall of Fame to do the right thing, to live up to the mission that it claims to uphold.
Now, it is up to those of us who saw Ken Riley play, and to the rest who can see the numbers and recognize the injustice of it all, to stand up in his place and stead to call the Hall of Fame out on its lie. It is well past time for the Hall to tell the truth and to give the Rattler his rightful place beside the greatest the game has ever known.