Getting into any sports hall of fame is no easy accomplishment, as not just statistics are considered, so too is character on and off the field. Even then, it is no guarantee that prestigious honor will be bestowed upon those deserving. Such is the situation with Bartow native Ken Riley.
As an NFL player who spent his entire 15-year playing career with the Cincinnati Bengals, Riley posted impressive statistics. From 1969 to 1983, as a cornerback, he intercepted 65 passes that he returned for 596 yards and five touchdowns. Also among other accomplishments, on three separate occasions, he intercepted a pass three times in a game. He led the league three times in interceptions.
“It got to the point where quarterbacks wouldn’t throw anything in my direction if they could avoid it,” said Riley. Even so, and being among a handful of defensive players with 50 or more interceptions, he is the only one not in the Football Hall of Fame. The four players ahead of him in interceptions, along with the one player behind in that statistic, are in the Hall of Fame.
That, however, is not his biggest frustration.
“The biggest frustration, was never playing in the Pro Bowl,” he said. It still hurts, even after all these years. “I don’t know what else I could have done.”
When pressed, Riley believed there may be several factors that worked against him ever being selected for the Pro Bowl, and may be the same factors as why he is not a member of the Football Hall of Fame.
“I’ve always been a modest person,” he said, and added he let actions speak louder than words. “I did my job.” On top of that, he played in Cincinnati, which is one of the smaller NFL markets. Then there was Coach Paul Brown.
“Coach Brown didn’t want anyone being a ‘superstar.’” Regardless, Riley still holds Brown in awe, and stated he learned a lot from Brown.
It is additionally frustrating, because Riley also played in the 1982 Super Bowl in Pontiac, Mich., the first year a Super Bowl was not held in a warm-weather stadium. The Bengals lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 26-21.
In the eyes of many, not just those who live in Bartow and Polk County, Riley’s non-inclusion into the NFL Hall of Fame is a miscarriage. There are many who sing his praise, among them Patrick Brett, who is just one of many people who have petitioned the NFL Hall of Fame seeking to redress what they consider an onerous admission.
“He was one of those consistent threats to the passing game,” said Brett. “He never did much showboating, but he was very effective.” However, Brett saved most of his praise for Riley for what the former NFLer did following retirement. “It’s important for us to recognize individuals in our community who have done so much, and Ken is one of them.”
Following his retirement as an active player, Riley entered the ranks of coaching, with stints at both the college and professional levels. For
10 years he was the athletic director at FAMU. Later, he returned home and Riley became an educator in the Polk County Public Schools System, where he remained until his retirement last year as a dean at Winter Haven High School. Riley is particularly proud of his years with the school system. He graduated from Union Academy in Bartow when the high schools were still segregated. He played football there for four years.
“I enjoyed being an administrator,” he said of working in Winter Haven. “I got to deal with youth one-on-one.” There were, however, frustrations. “It’s very disheartening to me to see our youth. They don’t dream anymore today.”
Among other problems he encountered, chief among them was a lack of respect for authority, which he also considered confounding, as he believes they actually do want to respect authority.
“A lot of these kids want to be disciplined. They are really looking for male role models, mentors,” said Riley. “We need more of that.”
One thing I see is, we don’t have enough males. You need more male figures (in the schools),” he continued. “You have to be a man to make a man.”
Riley also expressed concerns about too many guns in the street, and peer pressure. Today’s youth, he said, would rather face a parent than go against his peers.
Regardless, Riley was effective in dealing with students, and he pointed to one reason among several.
“I would listen to what you (a student) would have to say,” he said. He added it did not mean he would support the student, but it did mean giving the student the opportunity to present another side of the issue. Most times, the student would realize it was he/she who was in the wrong.
Showing further how he gives back to young people, Riley is the chairman of the Teen Youth Summit that is held every year at the Carver Recreation Center. It features speakers from around the county in education, law enforcement, life skills, spirituality, sports health and financial, just to name a few.
This year’s event is scheduled April 20 and last year when he spoke to students, the Florida A&M grad and four-year quarterback there, spoke of the importance of education and not to rely on something like football. The Rhodes Scholar candidate worked on his education to have something to fall back on.
“I played until I was 36, which is pretty old for sports, but don’t put all your marbles in one ring. With education, once you have that that’s something they can’t take away from you. You’ll have that (knowledge) all your life,” he told a roomful of youth last year at the summit.
Now there are those in the community who are hoping to impress upon those on the selection committee (at this point, Riley is now eligible for the Veterans Committee, one of two that make selections) that it is wrong for Riley to not be nominated and entered into the Football Hall of Fame.
“It’s an absolutely ridiculous thing he doesn’t already belong,” said George Dunlap, an attorney with Boswell and Dunlap. “He deserves to be in there.” Dunlap said more than Bartow residents need to join the effort. “We need to get the city fathers behind this.” He called upon city commissioners to offer some sort of proclamation.
As for Riley himself, as much as he wants to be a Hall of Famer, he is too modest to join any petition drive. Still, it bothers him that others are in it and he is not. It hurts when he is asked why that is, because he cannot answer.
At the same time, he admits to being slightly embarrassed, as he never has and never would take it upon himself to campaign for admission. Still, maybe this will be the year he gets in. Riley certainly hopes it is.
“I really do believe I’m deserving,” he said.