Savannah native and former professional football player Avon Riley has died. He was 62 years old. The son of Ivory Boyd and Lucille Riley Stevens, Riley attended Savannah High School where he was a three-sport athlete for the Blue Jackets in football, basketball, and track & field. His play on the gridiron led to him receiving a football scholarship at the College of the Canyons (COC) and later at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). He graduated from SHS in 1997.
Riley was not the only athletic person in his family. Sisters Shirley and Cynthia both played college basketball with Shirley starring at Savannah State and Cynthia at South Carolina State.
Charlie Smith, who was an assistant football coach at Savannah High under Chester Gayheart, said that Riley was a “horse.” Smith went on to say that “Avon was a highly recruited athlete and a good student. He was recruited by South Carolina and Tennessee State among many other schools.”
Smith noted that Riley and fellow Blue Jacket Stanley Gardner both went to College of the Canyons and both played major college football with Riley going to UCLA and Gardner playing on the defensive line at Kansas.
The west coach connection was established by former Tompkins coach Joe Turner said Smith. “Coach Turner developed a relationship with the junior college coaches in California that helped players from Tompkins, Beach and Savannah High get scholarships such as Frank King Jr., Russell Garrett, Leroy Varnedoe, Leroy Ponder, George Scott and Gino Gibbs.” Riley was a star for the Cougars at the College of the Canyons and was inducted into the COC Hall of Fame in 2015.
Following the 1977 season Riley was selected All-Western State Conference (WSC) First- Team. At the college’s annual Fall Sports Award Banquet that year he was honored with the Most Outstanding Linebacker Award and named a team co-captain.
A unanimous All- WSC First-Team selection at the conclusion of the season, Riley was also a 1978 All-State Second-Team honoree. He was named a team co-captain and won the Most Outstanding Linebacker Award for a second time.
At the conclusion of his COC career, Riley accepted a full athletic scholarship to UCLA. Playing under head coach Terry Donahue, the talented linebacker ranked among the team leaders in tackles in 1979 and 1980, while earning All-PAC 10 honors his senior season. Riley helped the Bruins finish the 1980 season with a 9-2 record and ranked 13th in the Associated Press Poll. In 1980 Riley was also awarded the UCLA Paul I. Wellman Memorial Award for All-Around Excellence
Riley was selected by the Houston Oilers in the ninth round of the 1981 NFL Draft. Listed at 6-foot- 3 and 230-pounds, he went on to play professionally for seven years. He finished his pro football career with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1987. During his pro career, Riley started in 61 of the 91 games he played in, had 6.5 sacks, six fumble recoveries and three interceptions. He also had a 24.2 yard average on punt returns.
Upon retiring from football, Riley found a second career working with students as a substance abuse monitor in the Houston Independent School District. He served in that position for 25 years, mentoring young men and women to overcome obstacles, seek fulfillment and achieve their goals.
Those who were fortunate enough to know him affectionately referred to him as “Big Man”. Riley was always concerned about young people and was a vigorous supporter of youth athletics and education in Savannah, Georgia and Houston, Texas.
Larry Lee who played on the offensive line at UCLA said that Riley’s actions spoke louder than his words. “Avon Riley was a gentleman’s gentleman. He was a leader not only in word but in action also. We had some great times together in Westwood.”
Survivors include his mother Lucille R. Stevens, a daughter Avion Riley Frazier and a son Avon Rashaun Riley (Steven); three grandchildren: Sydney Gabrielle Frazier, Steven Paul Frazier, Jr. and Sage Emerson Frazier; five sisters: Lilly Mae Council (James), JoAnn Reese, Shirley B. Mackey-Crim (James), Deborah L. Dixon (Glenn), Cynthia S. Rivers (Ozie); three brothers: Leon Riley, Anthony Riley (Stephanie), and Kenneth O. Riley; and an aunt Easter Mae Riley all of Savannah.
Funeral services were held July 10, 2020 in Sugar Land, Texas. His remains were brought back to Savannah where he was buried in Evergreen Cemetery on July 18.