Followers of Trinidad and Tobago football in the late 1970s and early 80s would remember Curtis Riley. A hard-tackling defender, he played for Mucurapo Senior Comprehensive and John Donaldson Technical Institute in the Colleges Football League, and alongside the likes of Brian Williams and Clayton Morris on the national youth team.
Riley went on to line up for local professional outfit ASL (Aviation Services Ltd.), before taking up a scholarship at Davis and Elkins College in Virginia, USA.
Off the radar for some three decades, the name Curtis Riley has surfaced again. Riley has been playing professional football in the United States since 2015. No, this is not an incredible story of a 53-year-old man being signed to a team in the MLS (Major League Soccer).
Curtis Riley Jr is on the roster for the NFL (National Football League) team Las Vegas Raiders. Rather than pursue a career in what we in T&T know as football, the son of the former John D standout is making a name for himself in American football.
The road to the NFL was not an easy one for Riley. Born in New York in 1992 to Trinidadian parents Curtis Sr and Joanne Mitchell, the younger Curtis played American football for University High School in Orlando, Florida.
“Out of high school I wasn’t highly recruited,” Riley tells the Express, “so I attended a Division 2 university called Mars Hill in North Carolina. After one year, I left and attended Fullerton Junior College in California where I couldn’t play because my GPA (Grade Point Average) was too low. My coach at Fullerton told me to my face that he didn’t see me going Division 1.”
Many would have accepted the coach’s assessment. Curtis Riley Jr, however, is no ordinary athlete. As his mother explains, he has just the right mix of talent and tenacity.
“Curtis is very athletic. If you put a tennis racket in his hand, he would succeed. And he’s very humble.”
“Mammy,” Mitchell continues, “made sure he got a solid West Indian upbringing. I brought him up to follow his dreams; to not be a quitter.”
The Trini “bad mind” kicked in, and the rest is history.
“I used that whole year as motivation to bring my grades up,” says Riley, “and I still practiced with the team and attended all the games. Following Fullerton I received an offer to play at Division 1 school Fresno State in California where I finished my last two years of school.”
Riley’s character was tested, and he came away with the victory, his perseverance earning him the last laugh on the Fullerton coach. The young “Trinimerican,” however, did not enjoy a fairytale passage to the NFL.
“I didn’t get drafted in 2015,” Riley explains, “but I got a call after the draft to become an undrafted free agent to play for the Tennessee Titans. I played there for three years. It’s been rough in the NFL fighting to prove myself, after being undrafted. But I love the challenge every year, and it drives me to work to be one of the best.”
Riley’s connection to T&T is strong.
“I went every year for Carnival and the summer up until I turned 17.”
Do not expect, however, to spot Riley playing mud mas on J’ouvert Morning or chipping through the streets of Port of Spain on Carnival Tuesday.
“It’s been hard to come with the (American) football season and off-season workouts. I haven’t been in a long time, but I need to go one off-season soon. The last time I was there, in 2010, I stayed with my grandmother in East Dry River apartments in Port of Spain.”
Riley is a fan of Machel Montano. Carnival, though, is not the only Trinbago draw for the NFL pro.
“I like the kindness of the people and the food.”
Riley’s favourite local dish is chicken roti. But while the 27-year-old is very familiar with all that is T&T, not all of T&T can appreciate his role for the Titans, New York Giants and now the Raiders. For those who have not caught the NFL bug, Riley provides an explanation.
“I play safety. I came in as a cornerback. Corners are the players who prevent the receiver from catching the ball. Safeties have a similar job, but we have a bigger role in stopping the other team from running the ball also.”
Formerly known as the Oakland Raiders, the team officially moved to Las Vegas last month. Riley, though, is not certain to make the famous resort city his new home.
“I’ll become a free agent in March,” the safety explains. “We’ll see if they want to re-sign me.”
Whether or not he wears Raiders colours, Riley plans to have a long run in the NFL.
“I think I can play in the league for 15 years total, maybe more if my body stays healthy.”
Riley’s passion for American football did not prevent him from excelling in basketball and track and field as well during his high school and college days. He represented University High School in all three sports.
Riley’s life might have taken a different course had he been born here in T&T. Perhaps he would have followed in his father’s footsteps, making waves on the football field. Or maybe he would have done like former sprinter and renowned strength and conditioning coach Antonia Burton, a cousin on his mother’s side of the family, making track and field his sport of choice.
As fate would have it, Riley was born in the US, and American football took centre stage in his life.
“When I started playing football in ninth grade, I fell in love with it. My goals are to become an All-Pro multiple years and one of the best safeties in the league.”
Now that T&T has been introduced to Curtis Riley Jr, it’s safe to say his support base will expand as he strives to create a huge impact in the rough and tumble world of the NFL.