Jim Riley cannot imagine his life without football. It took him to amazing heights, playing for Oklahoma, then for the Miami Dolphins during their glory days of the early 1970s. But along the way, he was also introduced to the substances that would leave him addicted to alcohol and drugs.
Clean and sober since 1985, Riley now runs an addiction recovery outreach ministry with his wife, Robin.
I was an oil-field kid. We weren’t really embraced by the community. We were kind of looked at as, “Oh, the little oilie kids.” But football gave you a way out of that. You could have your own identity.
Football was where I found myself.
When I was a sophomore in high school at Bristow ... I was a wrestler and a football player. But I was 5-foot-10, 165 pounds. I wrestled at 157 pounds. I thought wrestling was going to be my sport. I had taken third at state as a sophomore, and I was all pumped up about that.
My dad came in and said we were being transferred to Enid, and Enid had no wrestling program at that time. I went to my football coach there at Bristow and told him what happened, and here’s what he said to me. He said, “Son, you’ll never play for Enid High. You’re not big enough. You’re not strong enough. You’re not fast enough. I’m not even sure you could start for me next year. But good luck.”
Two years later ... I’m 6-foot-3. I’m 225 pounds. I’m a high school All-American, the first one out of Enid.
I got a high school All-American jacket. I got it, like, in April and it was leather with wool. Hot. And I put that jacket on and borrowed my mom’s car and I drove to Bristow and I went to see that coach. I said, “I’m the one that you said probably wouldn’t make Enid’s team.” He goes, “Yeah, probably the reason I went 4-6 last year.”
From that day on, that guy became a friend of mine. I bet he came to half of the home games I played at OU, and he was at both Super Bowls.
He had encouraged me. What that was was a challenge. Everybody likes a challenge if you have anything to you.
My dad grew up in the Depression, so you had to kind of outwork people to get a job. That was something that was instilled in me as a kid. I always worked. I started hauling hay when I was 11 years old.
My dad ... when I was playing at Enid, I don’t think he ever missed a football game. We were playing Putnam City up in Enid, and I was looking around and I didn’t see him. About halfway through the first quarter, I looked down in the end zone, and in the back of the end zone, my dad was standing there in his greasy coveralls. He had just come in off of a job. He didn’t have time to clean up.
I can always remember seeing him standing down there watching me playing football.
I don’t blame football for the stupid crud I did. College, that’s when I started my drinking. It was mostly for fun. I didn’t do that much of it until later on, and during football season, I always curbed it because, you know, I was playing ball.
It was in the pros that I really lost my way. They had an open cabinet. You could get all the drugs you needed. You didn’t have to check ’em out. Alcohol, the coaches weren’t telling you not to drink. They were drinking with you. Smoking. We smoked in the locker room. We did. At halftime, we were smoking in the locker room.
(Coach Don) Shula never did buy any. He just bummed ’em off of us.
I became chemically dependent and didn’t have any idea what that meant — “No, no, look at all the stuff I do. I can’t be.” It became ugly. It became really ugly.
Thank God my wife and some people that love me enough intervened on me in 1985. That’s when I turned my life around. I learned how to be a real man, a father, a husband, a friend.
To go back to that life? Put me in my grave before you do that.
It’s pretty simple. When you’re doing the wrong thing and you want to turn it around and do the right thing, you do just the opposite of what you were doing.
Football is important when you’re playing it. It’s extremely important to players. But it’s not life. And it doesn’t last forever.
Former Oklahoma and Miami Dolphins defensive end