FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Elijah Riley's journey back home — and through the NFL — began with one of the saddest moments of his young life.
The New York Jets safety was a freshman defensive back at Army five years ago when he received the stunning news his teammate and buddy Brandon Jackson had died.
“He's still kind of a motivation for me, and I hold him near and dear to me,” Riley said Wednesday. “That’s my guy.”
Jackson died in a single-car accident in Croton, New York, on Sept. 11, 2016, just a few hours after helping the Black Knights beat Rice in their second game of the season.
The two had become fast friends, bonded by their New York roots: Riley from Port Jefferson, and Jackson from Queens. Jackson, a sophomore, helped Riley on his official visit to West Point.
“When I got there, he was somebody that I spoke to, who I could relate to,” Riley recalled. “And he was, you know, somebody I was able to look up to when I got there and was out there practicing and stuff.”
Then, Jackson was suddenly gone.
And Riley had to step in as the starter, replacing his friend after mourning him.
“It was tough,” Riley said. “It was like, ‘Well, I’ve got to do what he would've done. I've just got to continue on and play the role that's been given to me.' And my teammates at Army, we rallied around each other.”
The Black Knights went 8-5 under Jeff Monken, beating Navy for the first time since 2001 and defeating North Texas in overtime in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“Twenty-eight was with us the whole way,” Riley said with a smile. “Brandon Jackson was with us the whole time.”
The header on Riley's Twitter page features a photo of Jackson in his Army football helmet and pads, symbolically keeping tabs on his friend as he developed into a star on the football field and one of the team's leaders — while pursuing his NFL dream.
“Regardless of the barriers that were put in place, that didn’t change this being my ultimate goal,” Riley said. “So as a result, my work ethic didn’t change whether it was West Point or Alabama, I’m approaching it the same every day."
Being an athlete at a military academy once required at least two years of active service before being able to apply for a waiver to play a professional sport. After Army beat Navy in 2018, the Black Knights were attending the ceremony for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy when Riley found himself near President Donald Trump.
He boldly asked him if athletes could apply for waivers to play professional immediately and fulfill their service time obligation when they were done playing.
“I was very fortunate that I didn’t get in trouble for asking the question," Riley said smiling. “I was just standing there, jaw dropped. Like, this is really happening. This is pretty cool.”
Several military academy athletes and coaches made similar requests in recent years — maybe not directly to the president, like Riley — but the Department of Defense adopted a policy in November 2019 that allows athletes to delay their active-duty service.
So, Riley was able to pursue his NFL career after his senior season.
He signed with Philadelphia as an undrafted free agent last year and played in five games, all on special teams. Riley was among the Eagles' final cuts this summer, signed to their practice squad and played on special teams in one game this season.
With the Jets dealing with several issues at safety, they signed him off Philadelphia's practice squad on Nov. 9. Riley was inactive five days later — but then slid right into the starting lineup.
“I come to compete,” he said. “So once I got the opportunity to take it and get the starting job, you know, full speed ahead.”
He has 11 tackles and one tackle for loss in two games for the Jets.
“He’s been a ball magnet over the first three weeks,” coach Robert Saleh said. "His superpower is his mental horsepower. He is a very smart young man, he can process very quickly, does a great job communicating pre- and post-snap.
“He’s a hair trigger-type player in that when he sees it, he is 100 miles an hour to the ball. But he’s very accurate when he does see it.”
And this week, he'll be doing it for the team he grew up watching at home, rooting for the likes of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie — against the team for which he began his NFL career when the Jets host the Eagles on Sunday.
"Oh my gosh, it’s cool," a beaming Riley said. “It’s a dream come true. You know, hometown kid playing for a hometown team. It’s, yeah, it’s amazing.”