Against the grain II

Pro Football Hall of Fame
committee fails Ken Riley miserably

Vaughn Wilson

According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Website “That Initial Preliminary List of nominations is compiled and sent to the Hall of Fame’s Selection Committee by March 1. The list is provided so that the Selectors can study the nominees.”

This means that for nearly 35 years (accounting for the five years of retirement required to be considered) the selection committee was able to omit enshrining Kenneth Jerome “Ken” Riley with his records in tow.  With a Super Bowl appearance, Pro Bowl selection (another whole story) and his character intact, the committee was able to decide while studying the data that Riley was undeserving of the top honor in professional football.

Riley retired in 1983 as the No.4 leader in interceptions in overall in the entire NFL. His 65 interceptions 40 years later still hold the No.5 slot. Somehow, defensive backs with fewer interceptions, less touchdown and less durability made their way to Canton, Ohio, before Riley did.

Mind you, Riley never played cornerback until a couple months prior to camp.  He was a quarterback at FAMU and in high school, but Paul Brown saw the kid from Bartow, Fla., as an exceptional athlete and deemed him a cornerback shortly after getting drafted. In a couple of sweaty summer months, Riley attained the skills to not only make the team, but after an injury to the starter in the fifth game of the season, never conceded his starting position until retirement. Riley used his knowledge as a quarterback to ascertain what was going on in the quarterback-receiver mindset of his opponents.

Chris Collinsworth proudly talks about how Riley made him a better receiver.

“I just never could beat Ken. He was all over me. He would jump my routes and get interceptions.  He would then come over and tell me what he saw that tipped him off to what I was doing.” Collinsworth said.  

Riley, a Rhodes Scholar Nominee, was cerebral as well as physically talented.

Riley was a humble man. From a young age he was taught to let his work speak for him. After a “pick-six” Riley would casually flip the ball over his shoulder and run to the sideline and take a seat on the bench.  There was no high-stepping, there was no dramatic spiking of the football, and there certainly wasn’t a dance to go along with his accomplishment. 

The amazing part of that is most coaches will tell you that was the right way to play sports.  Riley was the ultimate sportsman.  He was a team-first guy and felt that playing football at a high level was his job and nothing to self-promote about…it just wasn’t in him.

Watching arguably the best defensive back ever, Deion Sanders, he was the polar opposite. Everything “Prime Time” did, he would let you know.  He was the ultimate showman, he was fun to watch and he was a fan favorite.

Sanders was also known as a tight cover man that quarterbacks feared throwing against. He had 53 interceptions and nine touchdowns, some of those were from kick and punt returns. Riley had 65 interceptions and five touchdowns.

Riley and Sanders played in totally different eras, so comparisons are very difficult. In fact, quarterbacks were throwing the ball more in the Sanders era than Riley’s.

As a fan, Deion Sanders was the most dynamic player/promoter the sport or any sport for that matter, has ever seen. He was a darling in front of the cameras and reporters looked for him after games, before games and during games. He said he created “Prime Time” because that’s what people wanted. As fans, we couldn’t get enough of “Prime Time.”

However, the responsibility for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee is not to be fans, but aficionados of the game.  Discerners of the facts of the best that pro football has to offer.  Keepers of the hallowed halls of Canton.

In the case of Ken Riley, looking over the facts and supposedly studying them, the committee failed to pick the diamond from the coal in time for Riley to walk through “the gauntlet” and be welcomed by living Pro Football Hall of Famers to their fraternity, while wearing his gold Haggar jacket in his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity colors.  He never got to unveil his bust and give his own acceptance speech. In the last two decades of his life, he made it known that it was literally the only thing in life he wanted that he didn’t have…and the committee fumbled.

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