The joy for Riley’s HOF induction does not supersede the disappointment

After 40 years, Ken Riley has finally got his place in the NFL’s Hall of Fame.
Photo submitted
Vaughn R. Wilson

Kenneth Jerome “Ken” Riley played his last NFL game with the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 17, 1983.  At the time he retired after playing 15 years with the same team, he would make first team All-Pro. He went out on top after leading the league with eight interceptions his final year. That was an exclamation point on an amazing career in the NFL.

During his first seven seasons, he collected 29 interceptions. He would better that in his last eight years nabbing 36 interceptions. He returned five of those interceptions for touchdowns. He retired leading the Bengals in most categories associated with the defensive back position. Since 1983, only Rod Woodson has eclipsed his mark of 65 interceptions, with 71 since Riley stopped playing. Woodson finished his career in 2003 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

Dick “Night Train” Lane finished his career with 68 interceptions, and is just one spot ahead of Riley on the NFL all-time interceptions list. He finished his career in 1965 and went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974.  

Riley sits tied with Charles Woodson who amassed 65 interceptions during his career.  Woodson retired from the NFL in 2015 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021. 

Riley sits ahead of Ronnie Lott, who retired in 1995 with 63 interceptions and went into the Hall of Fame in 2000, and Ed Reed who retired in 2013 with 64 interceptions and went into the hall of fame in 2019.

An attorney would say the precedent was set that within the first decade of retirement, defensive backs leading the all-time NFL interceptions list are inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Why did it take 40 years for Riley to get in?

There are committees, writers, former players and media personnel alike who are involved in the process. How did they fail Riley so miserably?

There have been players who have been delayed or denied for halls of fame before, but there usually is a clear reason. Most notably baseball. Pete Rose is arguably the best hitter to ever play in Major League Baseball, yet his conviction on gambling on MLB games has been a finite reason voters have not allowed him into Cooperstown’s hallowed hall.  Home run kings Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa were embroiled in a steroids scandal. There are obvious reasons that they have been held out of the baseball hall of fame.

With that said, there is absolutely no acceptable excuse for Riley to have been omitted for so many years, while players who did not do as much as he did and played after him, were admitted into the Pro Football Hall of fame.  IT IS SIMPLY UNFATHOMABLE.

The toll on him was evident in 2019 in an interview where he conceded that he has no idea why he was being shunned, that he had done everything he could do on the field.

“I have the stats,” Riley said.  He would conclude that interview saying, “I just don’t think I’m ever going to make it.”

If that wasn’t bad enough a commentary, Riley died in June of 2020. That meant even if the voters decided to put him in, as they declared on Feb. 9, 2023, he would never get to wear his gold jacket…he would never get to take that walk down the aisle…he would never get to be an active member of the fraternity of greats…he would never get to share the moment with his family.

There have been travesties in sports, but this might be the biggest of them all. The Pro Football Hall of Fame committee must look itself in the mirror as Ken Riley II subs for his late father in the ceremonies this summer in Ohio and ask themselves if their omission has led to the absence of the one who desperately desired to be there.

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