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‘A Dream’: How Elijah Riley Went from Army Cadet to NFL Safety

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Steelers safety Elijah Riley

PITTSBURGH — Not everyone’s journey is exactly the same. For new Steelers safety Elijah Riley, his journey to the NFL and Pittsburgh is a long, winding road of many stops. It all starts in West Point, New York, where Riley enrolled in college to play football for Army. In the NFL, there are simply not that many players that are from the service academies. Every now and then, someone comes along, but Riley was an exception to the rule.

Riley committed to Army during a time when players had to fulfill their service times prior to going pro. However, in late 2019, that rule changed. Those athletes at the service academies can now defer their service to continue their pro careers. Riley was part of the first class that benefitted from that, having come out in 2020 to the NFL Draft. He watched it change right in front of his eyes prior to his senior season.

“So, we were at the White House getting the Commander in Chief’s trophy, and President Trump had said it there,” Riley said. “It was just an exciting thing to hear going into my senior season and then from there pursue the NFL. In a lot of ways, it was a dream come true having the chance to pursue those dreams.”

Riley’s time in Army helped prepare him for anything. The disciplined nature of the Army keeps even the toughest football players on their heels throughout their tenure. Having been through that, Riley feels like he could be prepared for anything the NFL and life throw at him. It was a learning experience that helped shape everything he does from here on out.

“West Point has prepared me for a lot,” Riley said. “I don’t think I’m gonna face too much harder than there, you know? It set the stage for the adversity that I’d face. The only thing guaranteed is change, so constantly learning and growing, I’m trying to put my best foot forward.”

Since that point, Riley’s NFL journey has taken him to Philadelphia and New York. It was a journey that brought the adversity he knew he would find. Now, Riley has signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers to give him a third team to have landed with since his entry into the NFL. It is a journey that has taught him a lot about the business of the NFL, and it has allowed him to find some inner strength to keep going.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Riley said. “You know, I’ve got to be quick on my toes and adjust. The only thing that is guaranteed is change. So, that’s just going, putting my best foot forward, and controlling what I control, no matter where I am.”

The final stop of Riley’s journey to this point was in East Rutherford. Riley started seven games for the Jets in 2021 but was cut on Monday from the team. Still, in those games, Riley was able to prove to himself more than just that he could make a team, but that belonged in the NFL. For his confidence and peace of mind, that has allowed him to keep on going.

“I was able to prove to myself that I could play at this level, at a high level,” Riley said. “And I’m looking for that to transfer over here. At the end of the day, it’s just football and I’m going to play the best I can.”

Riley’s unusual journey has got him here to this point. From the Army to starting to New York and back to rock bottom, he’s been through it all. There is no guarantee that he does anything with the Steelers, but he has one final preseason game to prove something. If he can, there is a good chance Riley can find himself on the Steelers practice squad.

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