Several months ago, Ken Riley II nervously packed up about 30 footballs from his late father’s legendary Bengals career and shipped them to the Wilson Sporting Goods factory to have them properly reinflated and conditioned. When the box returned safely to his Houston home Tuesday, it was the second-best moment of his day.
Not even the return of such precious memorabilia could top the phone call he received from Canton, Ohio, informing him that his father and namesake was one of three finalists moving on to the final step in the selection process for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“The first person I called was my mom, and I couldn’t even get the words out,” Riley II said. “I was really emotional. But it was such a great feeling, and I thought about all of the hard work and sacrifice my dad put in to get to that level.”
The elder Riley, who passed away in June 2020 at the age of 72 after playing cornerback for the Bengals from 1969 to 1983, received his first great posthumous honor when he was part of the inaugural class inducted into the Bengals Ring of Honor last year. Now he joins former Jets defensive lineman Joe Klecko and Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley as the three selections from the Hall of Fame senior committee’s list of 12 finalists. To become a member of the 2023 Hall of Fame class, a player will need to receive 80 percent of the vote from the regular committee when it meets in February.
That 80 percent threshold is viewed as a formality. The last player to be recommended by the senior committee who did not receive full approval from the regular committee was Dick Stanfel in 2012. Four years later, Stanfel was inducted.
According to Hall of Fame records, since the number of names submitted by the senior committee grew from one to two in 2004, only three others have been recommended and not enshrined that season: Claude Humphrey (2009), Marshall Goldberg (2008) and Bob Hayes (2004).
Humphrey (2014) and Hayes (2009) were later enshrined.
“This is a big step,” Riley II said. “It’s the major step. I’m still in disbelief because it’s been so many years and there’s been so many disappointments in going through the process. It still seems unreal right now.”
For another former Bengals great and Ring of Honor inductee, Wednesday marked another disappointment. Ken Anderson was also one of the 12 finalists to join Anthony Muñoz as the only player in the Hall of Fame who played the majority of his career for the Bengals.
But the always classy Anderson said there was nothing bittersweet about Wednesday’s news. The only thing he said he was feeling was joy and pride for Riley and his family.
“I’m ecstatic for Kenny. I just wish to heck that he was here to enjoy it,” Anderson said. “But for his son and his family, this is outstanding.
“You can’t argue with any of the three selections,” Anderson said. “And to have another Bengal go in, especially a guy like Kenny who is so deserving, I can’t be disappointed with the selections.”
Riley played 15 seasons in Cincinnati. His 65 interceptions are a Bengals record and the fourth most in NFL history, and they’re just the start of his amazing numbers. If you add his postseason picks, the number jumps to 68.
In his final season at age 36, he totaled eight interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. It was the only season of his legendary career in which he was voted All-Pro.
“This is so deserved,” said Bengals radio analyst and Riley’s former teammate Dave Lapham. “Aside from his incredible talent, the other thing about him is he never got hurt. It was amazing. He never had any sort of significant injury, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t play hurt. Some guys don’t play hurt, but he did all the time.”
Riley shares the team record of 207 games played with current punter Kevin Huber, and his 202 starts are the most in franchise history. In 15 seasons, Riley only missed eight games. And aside from his immense talent, he was one of the most influential players in the Cincinnati locker room.
“He was the epitome of a teammate and a mentor, not just for fellow corners, but everybody on the team,” Lapham said. “I remember one time as a rookie after I had a rough day in the pass-rush drill against Mike Reid. I’m in the locker room with my head down, and he comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, big boy. Listen, everybody has an adjustment time. Mike Reid’s an All-Pro. Everybody tells me they know you can play. Keep your confidence up.’ He was just unbelievable as a teammate. And more important than that, he was a gem of a person.”
Riley’s almost-certain enshrinement in Canton is being celebrated by former teammates and fans alike. Superfan Jim Foster, aka Bengal Jim, has spent the last couple of years pushing hard for Riley and Anderson with his “Jungle to the Hall” events and by getting video testimonials from former greats who played against Riley.
And after Riley II called his mom, sisters and son, the next call he was made to Foster. Both ended up shedding a few tears.
“Jim has been a big, big, huge help,” Riley II said. “I can’t thank him enough for all of his support. And the fans in general. I could never say ‘thank you’ enough for their support. They’ve been second to none in all the support they’ve given, especially the last couple of years.”
Foster deflected the credit to Riley’s resume — and the Bengals.
“The Bengals organization did the lion’s share and worked their ass off for this,” he said. “The videos we were able to obtain for Ken helped, but probably not as much as he’s giving us credit for.”
After the announcement, Bengals owner and president Mike Brown issued this statement:
“This is long deserved. It is unfortunate Kenny is gone because we know how much he would have appreciated this. His family is surely pleased at this news. Kenny was a splendid player and still holds the Bengals record for most interceptions over a career. It would be a wonderful thing if he were selected for the Hall of Fame.”
After Wednesday’s practice, head coach Zac Taylor, who wasn’t even a year old when Riley played his final game, talked about the importance of linking the franchise’s current players to those from the past.
“Something we’ve really tried to do is highlight a number of former players to make our players aware of the history,” he said. “Because 10, 20, 30 years from now, they’re gonna be a part of that history, and they’re gonna want people to know and respect what they’ve done. It’s certainly awesome to see (Riley) get to this stage.”
As thrilled as Riley II was to get the news, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of melancholy as he recalled one of the final conversations he had with his dad, one that occurred after Riley missed the cut to be one of the 20 finalists for the special centennial class in 2019.
“I just remember that conversation, where he was like, ‘Awww, this is it. I’m done.’ That was the most disappointed I’d ever seen him,” Riley II said. “So all that flashed through my head yesterday when I got the news. I’m still trying to soak it all in. I know there’s still one step to go, but this is such a great honor. It’s just huge.”
(Photo: Clifton Boutelle / Getty Images)