Elijah Riley grew up in Port Jefferson, about a two-hour drive from MetLife Stadium. He played football for Newfield High School and also attended Jets training camps as a kid. He made that long drive to Cortland, when camp was held there, and the far, far shorter drive to Hofstra University, too.
The first game he ever watched live was at MetLife Stadium — a Jets-Panthers game a few days after Thanksgiving (the Jets won). But as good as the view may have been then, Sunday afternoon’s was infinitely better.
Riley, who was signed off the Eagles’ practice squad on Nov. 9, was thrust into the starring role of his childhood dream, starting at safety for the Jets in their 24-17 loss to the Dolphins. It was the 23-year-old’s seventh NFL game in a journey that began in 2020, when the Eagles signed him as an undrafted free agent.
"It’s indescribable," Riley said of putting on the jersey. "I can’t put that into words, to be honest. It was everything that I hoped it would be."
On Sunday, he had two solo tackles, six combined. Afterward, coach Robert Saleh lauded his intelligence and his hard work as a reason he got the call.
The Jets’ secondary, already a young group, has been beset by injury. Riley’s inclusion was part of a number of moves meant to bolster a tissue-thin defense — moves that included sitting out Jarrad Davis in lieu of Quincy Williams at inside linebacker and starting outside cornerback Isaiah Dunn for Brandin Echols.
"Getting Elijah Riley out there was good," Saleh said. "He’s put together a couple good weeks. He’s a smart young man . . . [That along with the other defensive changes] felt like it was the best matchups for us to win."
There’s no doubt that Sunday left Riley with indelible memories. His parents couldn’t attend because they were at his little brother’s PAL Super Bowl game ("They can watch my game on TV," he said), but he had his grandparents, his girlfriend and her family in the stands.
His phone was jumping for hours before the game, he said, and then there was the moment: coming through the tunnel.
"It was an amazing feeling walking out there and playing in the stadium that I got to watch my first NFL game," said Riley, who earned the Carl A. Hansen Award, given to Suffolk’s top player, while at Newfield. "It was quite the experience, especially coming out of the tunnel and having my name called on the loudspeaker — that was a cool experience. That’s a memory that will stick with me for a while."
And, if things go right, he’ll get the chance to do it again.