Riley: real and on the record

On a warm August afternoon, the St. Francis High campus is confined by locks and marked by silence. School is out, athletics are at a standstill and the only pulse is a few scattered workers seemingly keeping the La Cañada Flintridge private school in tip-top shape.

It is far removed from the Friday nights of the last four seasons, in which Dietrich Riley thrilled those gathered at Friedman Field.

Having been unanimously voted the James H. Jenkins Male Athlete of the Year, Riley arrives at St. Francis just a day prior to moving into his dorm at UCLA and just three days ahead of the beginning of his summer practice days as a Bruin.

"It's a chance for a new beginning now," says Riley, who dazzled Golden Knights fans with more than 1,300 total yards, 15 total touchdowns and more than 60 tackles during his senior season. "Now I get to show off what I've been preparing for all my life."

Despite the warm weather, with a camera clicking away, Dietrich insists on putting his Golden Knights letterman jacket on, as he pulls it on over a UCLA T-shirt, sure to pay homage to his past and his present all at once.

His future is on the doorstep, the week ahead will bring him newspaper clippings about standout performances in scrimmages.

But before that, he stands in front of a quiet St. Francis High that he called home for the past four seasons, the last of which saw him lead the Golden Knights to a 9-3 record and the second round of the CIF Southern Section Western Division playoffs.

He was a four-year varsity standout, an All-Area and All-Mission League selection as a freshman.

He received his first scholarship offer, coming from Pete Carroll and USC, shortly after his sophomore season.

Having showcased his overall athleticism with seasons on the basketball and track and field teams and even dabbling in baseball for a time, his true talents and versatility played out on the football field.

Whether it was as a safety, where he will play at UCLA, as a linebacker, as a running back or a receiver or even lining up at quarterback, Riley was a difference-maker, a game-changer, an impact player and then some.

An unprecedented three-time All-Area Football Player of the Year, he earned a cavalcade of All-CIF and All-Mission League accolades and was named an Under Armour All-American after his senior season, one in which scouts came out in droves hoping to persuade him to sign on for a future at Oklahoma or Michigan or Florida or any other in a number of schools in the grand scheme of big-time college football.

In the end, it came down to a live announcement on ESPNU and Riley choosing Westwood and the UCLA Bruins over their archrivals, the USC Trojans.

Having previously committed secretly to Carroll, his plans changed upon the coach's departure to the NFL and Riley remained mum until National Signing Day.

Throughout the circus-like recruiting process in which media and scouts blew up his phone, followed his Twitter and Facebook accounts and shined an unrelenting spotlight upon him, Riley impressed many with his ability to handle the situation and swim with the sharks that often gather during the process.

On this Friday afternoon, Riley catches up with News-Press Sports Editor Grant Gordon for our annual question-and-answer profile for the athlete of the year.

Having known him now for more than four years, it's now the third phone number of Riley's that I've used to get a hold of him. I'm still amazed by how the circus does not phase him. His ability to shoulder the pressure of all the pomp and circumstance is as much of a wonder to me as his talent on the field, which is simply as impressive as it gets.

As I talk to him, he's still as honest as he's ever been, honest about being a leader, about those who doubted him, about his mom and all she's done for him, as well as his closeness with St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds, a former UCLA football player who never pressured Riley to take his talents to the Rose Bowl, but in turn did everything possible to alleviate the pressure.

Dietrich knows he's good, he knows he's exceptional, but he hardly comes off as arrogant. He's simply confident. You get the feeling that his confidence comes from the fact he knows he can outwork you just the same as he can outplay you.

Here are excerpts from that interview:

Grant Gordon: Looking back at an old story, you said coming up through Pop Warner, you were really nothing special, just one of the guys. Obviously that changed, but one thing that never seemed to change in talking to you, your coaches and your teammates, was you being one of the guys. You seemed to take pride in being a good teammate. How much did you pride yourself on being a good teammate and a part of the team.

Dietrich Riley: Growing up, I was always a leader and I just always wanted to represent myself and my community. But like you said, growing up, I was never the most athletic guy out there. It's just hard for me to look these coaches in the eye who used to coach me back then cause they always doubted me and never gave me an opportunity to showcase my abilities. I was just out there the other day coaching a Pop Warner team, the Pasadena Trojans, it was fun just coaching them and teaching them how to do things properly. ... I pride myself on just showing a great example on how to do things and working with kids and all that stuff and being a great teammate and a natural leader.

GG: Looking back at your senior season, you had a lot of high hopes and you seemed to change into more a leader, you even mentioned before the season that you regretted not being vocal the year before. Looking at your senior season, is that the one you feel was the most successful and the one you had the most fun?

DR: Yes, my senior year was definitely [the most successful], we accomplished a lot. It was kind of tough, we battled through a lot of adversity, especially me and Justin Posthuma, I pulled my hamstring and he broke his wrist. But the team didn't fall back at all, we still went after each game. Being a leader, we accomplished a lot. The previous years' [teams] at St. Francis, especially being on varsity as a freshman, I experienced a lot, we had a lot of talent, but no leadership skills, that effected us in the long run. … Senior year, I wanted to leave St. Francis on a good note so I made sure I eliminated all the distractions. As you can see, we had a great turnaround and I just hope they carry that on.

GG: When did it click with you that football could take you somewhere, was it when you got your first offer from USC or was it before that?

DR: It was actually eighth grade, I was going into eighth grade year. I just trained hard with my mentor, Kenny James from Pasadena. I give a lot of credit to him. He always saw something in me since Day One. He always pushed me to become the best. Just working with him in that offseason going into my eighth grade year, I got a lot faster, a lot stronger. Just working with him, it definitely prepared me to become an athlete. Eighth grade, that's when I realized I could definitely do something with my football talents.

GG: In terms of the recruiting process, one of your coaches once told me how impressed he was because it was almost as if you were interviewing the recruiters and the coaches as much as they were interviewing you. How prepared were you? How serious did you take it and, also, how much fun did you have?

DR: I was really organized throughout the whole recruiting process. I knew these coaches, when I went into it, that they were … telling other guys the same stuff they were telling me. They were always telling me you can come in and play right away, and all that stuff, we'll save your number, they were trying to fill my head up with all these things, but I was feeding them the questions. I wasn't just concerned with football, I was asking about the education, the living environments and all that stuff. I was really prepared, my mother and I came up with all these questions. My family, also, they were real supportive. We just came up with a list of pros and cons, so we were real organized and the coaches [recruiting me] were actually surprised. It was just tough for my teammates during the season, coaches wanting me to go out on recruiting visits, doing the red-eye visits right after games. I was just telling the coaches that if they really want me, they're gonna have to wait until after the season for the recruiting season to kick in, because I wanted to be around my teammates as much as possible and not be a distraction towards the team.

GG: Did it become a distraction for you? Stuff was taken off of Facebook, you had media, recruiters, coaches, not just going after you, but teammates, family, everybody. Was it kind of symbolic of how crazy the recruiting process has been and how bad it can be?

DR: Yeah, it was really to the point that it was very stressful on me. My blood pressure was going up. I couldn't even get cleared to play basketball because I was just so stressed out, like what school am I gonna choose. Offers were rolling in nonstop, so I didn't know where I was gonna go, even though I was committed to USC … I still wanted to open up my options. Schools were telling me that Pete Carroll was gonna leave and USC's gonna get hit hard with sanctions. I'm hearing all these negative things, but I'm thinking, no, they're just telling me this so I can't go to USC. In the long run, it ended up becoming true. The recruiting process, I'm glad that I just waited it out until the last minute. [I] just [took] all the visits and [met] all these great coaches. It was a privilege being on their campus and meeting with them face to face, having them in my home around the family. It was definitely a great ride.

GG: On National Signing Day, obviously you'd already told UCLA and some other people, but making the announcement on ESPN, you had your family there, the cameras there, what was that whole day like?

DR: It was a great experience, you know, not too many people can experience that. God, He led me in the right direction. I just prayed the night before after I committed to UCLA, no one knew. Everyone was texting me and calling me the day of signing day, 'Where are you going? Please just tell me, I won't tell anyone.' I was just telling them, tune in, you can watch and see what's gonna happen. It was awesome just having my whole family there and also all my coaches, [St. Francis Dean of Academics Rudy] Trujillo, also Father Matt [Elshoff], just the whole faculty there. That was amazing, just seeing them. I just remember after I came out through the doors just how excited Mr. Trujillo was, seeing the smile on his face, cause he really wanted me to be a Bruin. It was awesome.

GG: Later that day, I remember you were pumped just to go play basketball. I think a lot of people forget you've played a lot of sports, basketball, you even tried out some baseball, you ran track. How much do you enjoy just being an athlete?

DR: Growing up, my family always pressured me into playing more than one sport. They wanted me to be active. Growing up, I always participated in basketball and baseball, it was part of me. … I remember that night I committed to UCLA, I actually had my best [basketball] game against Alemany, I ended up putting up [nine points and five rebounds]. I was just so excited and it was my senior night, too.

GG: How do you view football, is it a sport you love, is it just something you're good at it and you're taking advantage of it? How do you view football and Dietrich Riley.

DR: Football's actually my life now. I can say, I'm really the hardest worker, just the time and effort I put into that sport. I don't think anyone puts in as much time into the sport as me, because I'm always working out nonstop, I'm always watching film. I'm just doing the extra things just to become a better athlete. Growing up, I really didn't realize I could do well in football and excel at it, but I always worked hard at it and had a great work ethic.

GG: How excited are you [about playing for UCLA], what are your goals?

DR: I'm really excited. A lot of people are trying to put pressure on me, saying you better start. …They're all telling me, 'You better be playing.' Everyone's telling me they have season tickets. I have to live up to the hype. … I'm excited though to be playing in front of my home crowd on Saturdays, I'm ready to make it happen. UCLA's been doubted. Everyone's saying why are you going to UCLA, they're not even ranked? … I just believed in Coach [Rick] Neuheisel. I see great things happening. We gathered a great recruiting class. … We want to be remembered for putting UCLA back at the top.

GG: Looking back at your time at St. Francis, do you have any regrets, are there any memories that stick out most, how do you look back at your time at St. Francis?

DR: I have to say the stuff I went through freshman year. I didn't think I was gonna make it through academically, I struggled. Public school, middle school, I made it easily. So I thought I could carry those same study habits here. It was just a rude awakening. I barely made it by with a 2.1 [grade-point average]. The same with sophomore and junior year, I was barely making it through with 2.4s, 2.5s. Senior year, I had more motivation with all these offers coming in. I didn't want to become one of those guys waiting to be cleared by the [NCAA] Clearinghouse. … I just wanted to make it through academically and I ended up finishing with a 3.2 GPA. A lot of guys think, OK, it's alright, but a 3.2 at St. Francis is like a 4.0 anywhere. I have to say that was my best memory here at St. Francis.

GG: Lastly, there's obviously a lot people in your life, a lot of people who have contributed to where you are now. Are there a few particular people who you owe thanks to?

DR: First and foremost is my mother, of course. Being a single parent, it's not easy, especially dealing with me, I can be a headache sometimes. That's my idol. I always do good for my mom because of everything she's done, sacrificing her time for me. Everything I do I always owe it to her. And also my family, of course, my whole family. They're always supportive, they're at each and every game. They were there for my recruiting process, they were there for me on nights I couldn't sleep, they were there just to comfort me. And, of course, the whole faculty at St. Francis, Coach Bonds and Father Tony [Marti]. Not having a father around is not easy, but Coach Bonds was always there for me. I consider him a father figure for me. I was just happy to have him around. He wasn't pressuring me to go to UCLA, he was always there for me. He always called me into his office, asking me what schools do you like? Do you want me to call them and tell them to stop coming to the school, I can do that. That wasn't easy for me just to tell a coach personally I don't want to see you anymore. Just to have Coach Bonds there was amazing, it took a lot of pressure of my shoulders. I would say those are three that stick out to me.

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World