Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, the Bengals accidentally leaked what very much looked like the start of a Ring of Honor. After 50+ years since their inception and 40 years since their first Super Bowl run, it’s about time the club honors its greatest and most influential people.
In this series, we will highlight players we feel are either well deserving of a spot, or will be worthy very soon. The list has grown fairly sizable with how long Cincinnati has hosted the Bengals, and they have plenty to catch up on with the potential installation.
We’re fortunate that most of the players in this series are still with us. The Bengals have been around for a long time and some of their greatest players were a part of their original rosters. We also cannot forget those that have passed away too soon. This is our attempt to fix the NFL’s egregious mistake.
Ken Riley (No. 13)
- Height: 5-11
- Weight: 181
- Position: Cornerback
- Bengals Career: 1969-1983
- Drafted: 6th round, 135th pick (1969)
Ken Riley was born in Barlow, Florida in 1947 where he attended a segregated high school. After graduation, he attended Florida A&M—a historically black university—and excelled in the classroom and on the field. He was a star quarterback for the Rattlers, leading the team to three conference championships. Off the field, he was the president of his senior class and a Rhodes Scholar candidate.
It’s not surprising that Riley was a candidate for such a prestigious academic scholarship. His NFL teammates and opponents raved about his intelligence.
In an interview with Samuel G. Freedman, Bengals great Cris Collinsworth said, “I probably learned more football from Riley than from anyone I played for or against. Everything I did that worked against everybody else never worked against him. But as soon as he would pick off a pass on my route or beat me to a spot, he’d tell me why, explain what I’d done wrong. He wanted me to be better because that made the team better.”
John Stallworth, a Steelers Hall of Fame receiver and another HBCU great, also held Riley in high esteem.
“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. “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.”
In 1969, Riley was drafted by the Bengals in the sixth round. He arrived at training camp as a quarterback, but Paul Brown decided he was to become a cornerback. He made an incredibly quick transition, earning a starting role as a rookie, and snagging four interceptions that season.
15 seasons later in 1983, Riley would play his last season with the Bengals and double that interception total to eight. In between, he had only three seasons with fewer than three interceptions. In 1976, he hauled in nine interceptions. This was a Bengals record that stood until 2005.
In his career, Riley pulled in 65 opponent passes and returned five of them for touchdowns. His 65 interceptions ties him with recent Hall of Fame inductee Charles Woodson for fifth on the all-time list. To make all of these accomplishments even more impressive, Riley played when the NFL regular season was just 14 games long.
Former Bengals cornerback Louis Breeden registered 18 of his 33 career interceptions as a teammate of Riley. Breeden knew better than most what made Riley and his accolades truly special.
“How great is it that he had 65 interceptions at a position he never played until he got to the NFL? That’s how frickin’ good Ken Riley was,” Breeden said. “I had to learn from Kenny. What I knew, Kenny taught me. Kenny took me under his wing. He was quiet. Smart. The quiet guys gravitated toward him. I was a lot like Ken. Not a rah-rah guy, but just go out and play.”
Seeing younger players like Collinsworth and Breeden talking about how much Riley taught them, it is not surprising that when his playing career was over, he moved to the sideline. Riley was an assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers before becoming the head coach and later athletic director at his alma mater of Florida A&M.
On the topic of not being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Riley said, “This is my personality. It’s the way I was brought up — parents, grandparents, everybody. Let your work speak for itself and be humble. We had a coach on the Bengals, Paul Brown, who felt it was your job to do certain things. If you got an interception, if you got a sack, he’d say, ‘That’s what I’m paying you for.’ He didn’t want superstars.”
While Riley’s humility is commendable, the Hall of Fame voters did him a serious disservice by leaving him out for all these years, and now with his recent tragic passing, he will never get to wear the gold jacket that he deserved.
Ring of Honor Resume
- 1983 All-Pro (two-time 2nd-Team All-Pro in 1975 and 1976)
- Three or more interceptions in 12 of 15 seasons
- 65 interceptions (tied with Charles Woodson for fifth in NFL history)
- Five interceptions returned for touchdowns
- 596 interception return yards
- 207 games played
- One of two players in franchise history with three interceptions in a single game
- Nine interceptions in 1976 is second-highest single season total in franchise history
- 18 defensive fumble recoveries is second in franchise history to just Reggie Williams
Riley was inexplicably never nominated for the Pro Bowl. Although this was more meaningful at the time than it is now, it should not bar him from the Ring of Honor. He has many much more relevant factors in his favor.
Not only should Ken Riley be on the Bengals Ring of Honor; he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In the words of Ray Lewis, “I’ve always said this, men and women lie, but numbers don’t. When you have the numbers Ken has, I don’t know how you don’t (go to the hall of fame). Ken should be in.”
Riley was an incredible player and teammate, who never got the recognition that he deserved while he was playing or after his retirement. The Bengals need to make him an inaugural member of their Ring of Honor.