Meningitis, meniscus tear, Katrina: Duke Riley faces adversity head-on

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons linebacker Duke Riley laughed sarcastically while reflecting on the "hate" that followed a subpar individual showing in Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers.

Critics flexed their Twitter muscles at Riley, who was thrust into the spotlight at middle linebacker after foot surgery landed Pro Bowler Deion Jones on injured reserve. They jabbed at Riley about his performance, particularly after he failed to wrap up and tackle Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore down the middle on a play resulting in Moore's 51-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.

Riley clapped back.

"Honestly, I like it," Riley said of being the target of criticism. "It motivates me. I go on Twitter now and people are just dogging me. But it's like, 'Y'all don't know me. If y'all knew me, you wouldn't say nothing, because y'all would [know] what I put in, what I've been through.'

"You know what they were saying. You can type my name and look for whatever. Yeah, I missed the tackle at the end. Everybody misses tackles. But at the end of the day, I should have made the play. Of course I should have made it."

Riley has grown accustomed to being doubted. The Louisiana native always was the kid viewed as too slow to ever really excel in football, baseball or whatever other sport he chose.

"Where I'm from, even some of your family members dog you," Riley said. "Cousins dog you like, 'You ain't never going to be good enough.' Like, I was told [by family] I would never make it to the NFL and I'd never go to college -- by cousins and everybody."

As Riley attempts to rebound with Sunday's NFC South clash (1 p.m. ET, Fox) against his home-state New Orleans Saints, he's always mindful of how his rugged, humbling, yet enjoyable past -- which included a brief bout with a potentially deadly illness and being displaced by Hurricane Katrina -- set him up for success today.

Riley, a 2017 third-round draft pick from LSU, defied the odds. But he's far from content with just making it to the NFL.

Growing pains

Riley was too young to remember every detail, but he recalled sprawling across a hospital bed and being able only to wave to his parents through a glass window.

At age 7, Riley said doctors told him he developed spinal meningitis, an infection of the fluid and membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. According to Mayo Clinic studies, the majority of spinal meningitis cases evolve from a viral infection, although bacterial, parasitic and fungal infections are other causes.

"You know when somebody is in the hospital really sick and they have kids sending them letters? I was the one getting 'Get well' letters from kids I didn't even know," Riley said. "That's how bad it was. I really don't even know how I got over it. They were surprised I didn't die or even go blind."

After a short hospital stay and treatment, Riley proceeded with living what to him was a normal life. He spent his early years in Buras, Louisiana, described by one tourism site as a "small town on a ribbon of road traversing the water-pocked islands and peninsulas of southernmost Louisiana." His father, Duke, worked in the oil fields while his mother, Kesha, was for the most part a stay-at-home mom who also owned a catering business and sometimes moonlighted as a chef.

While other kids his age attempted swinging a bat or throwing a football, Riley fired his first BB gun at age 5 and was shooting a 12-gauge before the age of 10. He hunted squirrels, rabbits, ducks and hogs. And the days spent trolling down at the bayou created everlasting memories.

"You know how you see people catching those shrimp in the big nets? Oh yeah, I loved it, man," Riley said. "Especially as a kid, sometimes you'd pick up a damn ... we picked up alligators in the trolley net before. We picked up stingrays."

Riley said he lived in a three-bedroom trailer with at least 10 other family members, including his mother and grandmother, in 2005.

"We used to sleep on a pad, but it was like blankets in the living room," Riley said. "The trailer was so messed up. They used to have holes in the floor. If you were outside, and someone who was walking in the house fell through the floor, you could see their legs. That's how bad it was.

"But we were young. We didn't care. We were outside. I was happy. I think life was better back then."

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, and Riley and his family evacuated to Baton Rouge to escape harm. The only item remaining in the trailer in Buras after the storm passed was a Bible, which Riley said miraculously managed to stay dry while sitting atop a mattress.

Riley and his family moved to the town of Kaplan for the rest of '05, then eventually settled in Belle Chasse, 10 miles south of New Orleans. He still considers Buras home, which is why he plans to own a place there one day.

"I just want my 2-year-old son [Elijah] to live the life I had as a kid, you know what I mean?" Riley said. "I want him to know what it's like to really use your hands. I don't want to live there because there's nothing there -- before Katrina, there was no Walmarts, and there's not a red light -- but I want a place there so I can get away and hunt and fish and spend the weekends down there with my son."

The next phase

Riley doesn't take for granted having a starting position in the NFL.

He was somewhat of an afterthought coming out of John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge, Louisiana, when LSU didn't offer him a scholarship until a week before signing day. Even with the Tigers, he didn't become a regular starter until his final season in 2016.

As a rookie starter at weakside linebacker for the Falcons last season, Riley encountered another obstacle when a meniscus tear set him back.

"I don't worry about looking ahead anymore," Riley said. "I looked ahead last year, and I got hurt. I'm not doing that anymore. I'm taking everything day by day, moment by moment, and just enjoying it."

The next step is proving the doubters wrong and showing he's a quality starter in the middle (until Jones returns, possibly Nov. 18) or at weakside linebacker. He is sure to be tested Sunday against one of the best quarterbacks of all time in Drew Brees and a dual-threat running back in Alvin Kamara, whom Riley might have match up with out of the backfield in coverage. Kamara had a team-high seven catches for 58 yards on nine targets when the Saints defeated the Falcons, 23-13, last December.

Last week, the Falcons had trouble covering Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield as McCaffrey caught 14 passes for 102 yards on 15 targets. Riley tied teammate De'Vondre Campbell with a team-high nine combined tackles in the game, but he missed tackling McCaffrey across the middle right before surrendering the long touchdown to Moore.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn wasn't too down on Riley's performance despite the noticeable hiccups.

"I definitely thought he had emptied the bucket, in fact so much so at the end we put Foye [Oluokun] in at the end of the game where Duke had really played himself -- OK, he needs a blow and the next guy goes through, too," Quinn said. "So on the first game for him taking all the calls, we were encouraged. Is there going to be some on-the-job learning for him? You bet. But he was definitely ready for the challenge."

The injured Jones offered Riley strong words of encouragement, telling Riley he did "a lot of great things" in the game.

It would be hard for any player to give the Falcons the same time of production as Jones, who has developed into arguably the best coverage linebacker in the league with his 4.38 40-yard dash speed. Riley, a 4.58-guy, needs to be sound with his tackling and more disciplined with his angles and technique.

"The next step for me is to take this next practice and go all out and do what I can," Riley said. "I'm not even worried about the game yet. I'm worried about improving today.

"The more reps I get, the better I'll be. The story is always going to flip around. It always has done that throughout my life, so I know it will. I just keep digging. I keep doing what I do."