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Jets' Elijah Riley finds motivation in memory of former Army teammate

Jets rookie defensive back Elijah Riley lines up

Jets rookie defensive back Elijah Riley lines up against the Miami Dolphins in his NFL start on Nov. 21, 2021. Credit: New York Jets/Dan Szpakowski

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – The banner on Elijah Riley’s Twitter page is dedicated to one of his former college teammates who helped the Port Jefferson native become the player and person he is.

Brandon Jackson was killed in an automobile accident in 2016 hours after helping Army to a victory.

Jackson and Riley were close. Riley met Jackson on his first official visit to West Point. They both were from New York. Jackson hailed from Queens. They both played cornerback and spent a lot of time together.

Riley’s banner has a picture of Jackson in his Army uniform, with his name and "1996-2016" on it.

"He was somebody that I spoke to and I could relate to," Riley said after Jets practice Wednesday. "He was somebody I was able to look up to when I got there, was out there practicing and stuff. After that second game that night he tragically passed away. It was tough."

Riley was given Jackson’s starting cornerback spot after his tragic death.

"I get put into that position," Riley said, "and it’s like ‘Well, I got to do what he would have done. I got to just continue on and play the role that’s been given to me.’ My teammates at Army we rallied around each other. That season was a great season. We beat Navy that year. Twenty-eight was with us the whole way. Brandon Jackson was with us the whole time.

"He’s still kind of a motivation for me. I hold him near and dear to me. That’s my guy."

Riley, 23, is living out his dream now of playing in the NFL, and for one of the teams he grew up liking.

The former Newfield High School star said he liked both New York teams, but he was more of a fan of the Jets. Riley went to Jets’ training camp in Hofstra.

Riley spent part of last year and this season with the Eagles. The Jets signed him off the Eagles practice squad less than a month ago. They needed bodies in the secondary, and Riley made his presence felt quickly.

He’s started the last two games at safety – the first two starts of his NFL career. Riley will get a third start Sunday when the Jets play his old team, the Eagles, at MetLife Stadium.

"It’s going to be cool competing against guys that I shared a locker room with," Riley said. "I’m not changing my approach to the game whatsoever. Not treating it any different."

Jets general manager Joe Douglas had strong interest in Riley. Robert Saleh said Douglas tried to "poach" Riley last year. Jets defensive backs coach Marquand Manuel and game management coach Matt Burke were with Philadelphia last year and vouched for Riley as well.

"Having Burke here and Marquand to just piggyback and talk about him and kind of reaffirm everything Joe had been talking about since the day we walked in," Saleh said, "It was kind of an easy pick up.

Saleh said Riley "was kind of an easy pick up" because Burke and Marquand were able to "reaffirm everything Joe had been talking about since the day we walked in."

Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich have been impressed with how quickly Riley has picked up the defense and his play on the field. Riley’s teammates have mentioned how Riley has been vocal and speaks up.

But that’s nothing new. After all, Riley spoke up in the Oval Office when he met former President Donald Trump after Army won the 2018 Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.

Riley asked the commander in chief if he would defer the active-duty service for military athletes who had a chance to play professional sports.

Trump, Army coach Jeff Monken and General Darryl Williams, the superintendent of the United States Military Academy spoke. Trump quickly agreed and directed the Pentagon to create a new policy, allowing athletes from military academies to directly transition to professional sports.

"I was standing there," Riley said, "jaw dropped, like ‘Wow. This is really happening. This is pretty cool."

Riley wasn’t about to let the opportunity to play professionally go without attacking it with everything.

"This has been a dream of mine since I was a kid," he said. "Regardless of the barriers that were put in place, that didn’t change this being my ultimate goal. As a result, my work ethic didn’t change.

"Whether it was West Point or Alabama, I’m approaching it same way every single day. West Point’s a great school. I loved it there. I’d do it again. Is it easy? Hell, no. I’m very fortunate to have been able to attend such a prestigious institution and allowed me and afforded me this opportunity and be here."

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