Comb through the career interception leaders for the National Football League and sitting right there at number five is a guy by the name of Ken Riley. Bet you never heard of him huh. Well NFL quarterbacks throughout the 1970’s sure knew who he was.
Despite being 5th on the All Time NFL career interception’s list, inexplicably does not have a bust in Canton, Ohio home of the NFL’s Hall of Fame. It remains one of the biggest travesties in the NFL. Being slighted was not new to Ken Riley however but he never let it stop him from excelling.
Riley like many great defensive backs hailed from the state of Florida. Born and raised in Bartow, Riley attended Union Academy high school and later signed on with Florida A&M to play his college football. Riley was an accomplished quarterback at FAMU and often displayed his athleticism in leading to the Rattlers to victory. The Cincinnati Bengals thought enough of Riley to draft him in the 6th round of what was known as the Common Draft in 1969. O.J. Simpson was the #1 overall pick that season.
Immediately upon joining the Bengals, Riley was moved to cornerback by famed coach Paul Brown. It didn’t take long for Riley to make an impact and earn a spot on the team. In his rookie season Riley intercepted 4 passes returning them for 66 yards. It would be the first of 9 seasons in his 15 year career that Riley would intercept four or more passes.
If Riley was one thing in his NFL career it was consistent. The 5’11” 182 lb. cornerback had four seasons in the TOP 10 in interceptions. Only three times in his 15 years did he intercept less than three passes. In 1976, Riley intercepted 9 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. That year he sent future Hall of Fame QB Joe Namath out in his final game as a New York Jet with two interceptions. He also picked off a 3rd vs. the other Jets’ quarterback Richard Todd in the game. Shockingly despite his ’76 success, Riley was not selected for the Pro Bowl. In fact, he never was elected to the Pro Bowl for his entire 15 year career. He did make All Pro in ’76 along with 1975 and his final season in 1983.
A 15 year career in the NFL is definitely noteworthy. What’s even more noteworthy about Riley’s 15 year career (all with the Bengals) is that it finished strong. In his final three seasons, Riley had 5, 5 and 8 interceptions. Three of his five career pick sixes came in his final two seasons. Riley retired in 1983 after a season in which he finished second in the NFL in interceptions.
Riley was an academic scholar while at Florida A&M and was considered for a prestigious Rhodes Scholar award. He would return to head coach FAMU from 1986 to 1993 amassing four winning seasons before retiring. Sadly, Riley passed away last month on June 7th at the age of 72.
37 years removed from his playing days in the NFL and Riley, the 5th All Time Interceptions leader has not yet made it into the Hall of Fame. I hope the NFL fixes that one day soon.
Chad Wilson is the owner of All Eyes DB Camp and author of "101 DB Tips". He played college football at the University of Miami and briefly in the NFL for the Seattle Seahawks. Over his 15 year high school football coaching career, he tutored over a dozen Division I defensive backs and as a trainer has worked with NFL All Pros, first round draft picks, college football All Americans and Top 10 ranked high school football prospects.