EDMOND — When football star Jim Riley proposed, Robin figured life couldn't be sweeter. "I thought we were driving off into the sunset to ... live happily ever after."
What followed were years of strife between the "knockout" blonde and the guy who played on the undefeated Miami Dolphins' 1972 Super Bowl championship team. Jim's drug and alcohol abuse, sexual affairs and guilt over it resulted in a divorce, failed attempts to reform and Robin's feeling that she "hated him as much as I loved him."
But, the morning of July 16, 1985, the Rileys began a new life, in which they would discover true love and their purpose in life. That morning, Jim awoke to find a dozen close friends, along with family, in the living room of the couple's Edmond home.
"He kind of thought it was a surprise birthday party," Robin recalled.
They were there to save his life. Harvey Griffin, Jim's high school football coach in Enid, led off. "You've always been something special to me," he told Jim, tears in his eyes. One by one, they begged Jim to change. When his 11-year-old daughter jumped into his arms and said: "Daddy, I love you. I don't want you to die," Jim recalled, "I knew then I had to do something."
It had been a long slide. As a star player in Enid and an All-America defensive end at the University of Oklahoma, Jim Riley had grown up thinking "I was something special." With the Dolphins, Jim indulged in all that was afforded top athletes, from the fawning women to the painkillers in dispensers on the locker room wall. Back home after his rookie year, Jim decided he wanted the girl he had spotted a few years earlier at an Enid country club.
"I saw this pretty little blond girl wiggling around in the pool," he said. "I really think I fell in love with Robin at first sight."
So, for the second time, he proposed to Robin, then 19. This time, she accepted. "I was just crazy about him," she recalled. Robin soon was pregnant with their first child, Blake. "Things turned south and went pretty bad after that," she said. Jim would stay out late, drinking and partaking of "a little bit of everything," he said.
Less than three years after they headed toward their perfect sunset, the couple divorced on Valentine's Day. Robin took Blake back to Oklahoma. Soon, Jim followed, promising anything. "I came crawling back like the dog I was," he said.
The couple remarried, and things went well for about two years, Jim recalled. More like six months, Robin said. That's when, four games into the undefeated season, Jim suffered a knee injury that would end his career. Doctors gave him morphine, Robin said, and he was "pretty depressed." In Oklahoma, Jim tried the car business. When he learned the difficulty of getting a dealership, he switched to the drilling fluid business with a friend. But Jim's old habits just got worse.
Robin's reaction this time: "Covering up, making excuses," she said. Robin and the wife of Jim's "drinking buddy" became friends, though. The two women started going to Alcoholics Anonymous, and Robin joined a Bible study group.
"It was God that kept our marriage together," she said. "Otherwise I would have left. I kept hoping that one of these days, James was going to be sober and be saved, and I was going to be there when it happened."
Her patience was not rewarded. "I was screaming and hollering," Jim recalled. "I actually went kind of nuts." Robin knew her husband also was cheating, "but I didn't want to think about it."
Her biggest fear was that Blake, a high school sophomore angered by his father's behavior, would have a physical confrontation with Jim. So, Robin went to the last-ditch tactic: an intervention.
It worked. Jim spent six weeks in rehab in Arizona. "I had finally learned how to be a real man," he said. "Our life really started when I got back home."
But the couple would be tested again in October 1989. Police officers came to their home to tell them Blake had died in a traffic accident. "I thought that was the end of my life," Jim said. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, will I ever feel joy again?'"
But, with Robin's resolve, he said, the couple found their way. They attended a series of couples seminars and retreats, and demand was growing for Jim to speak about his career, his problems and the solutions he and Robin had found. The couple had found a calling.
While Jim was working with the national Sports World Ministries, Jim said, the Rileys realized, "You know, we can do this right here in Oklahoma." That was the beginning of Jim Riley Outreach. Today, the not-for-profit organization features a residential mentoring program for recovering addicts that houses dozens of men and women in four homes. With his sports "cred" and life experience, Jim, 65, is in demand as a speaker.
And the couple that once was lost had come full circle. "It's just worked out real special for us," said Jim. Added Robin, "We're best friends."
Jim and Robin Riley are featured in the "Oklahoma's Most Inspiring Couples" 2010 calendar, sponsored by the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. Couples featured in the calendar are being profiled in The Oklahoman's Life section each month. For more about the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative's inspiring couples, go to www.foreverforreal.com.