Matt Riley didn’t necessarily have a grand plan to be a kicker.
After two years of soccer as a child, he then decided to join the Abbotsford Falcons youth football program.
He always volunteered to kick with the Falcons, but when he made the jump to the W. J. Mouat Hawks and high school football when he was older, he promised himself his kicking days were done.
At that very first team meeting he was determined to focus on something new on the gridiron.
“I didn’t want to kick anymore just knowing the stigma around being a kicker,” he said. “I didn’t want to put that on me. So it came to that question again where coaches asked the team, ‘Is there a kicker here?’ ”
Complete silence from the team followed.
“But then the friends that I played with in community football started pointing at me and saying that I can do it,” he said, laughing. “So I ended up taking that shot.”
And he stuck to it. A successful run with the University of Manitoba Bisons followed and last month Riley was signed to a Canadian Football League contract by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He said getting to continue his football journey as a professional is a dream come true.
The club has added four players to the roster.
— WPG Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) February 11, 2020
“In my mind I was thinking this could be my very last year playing football,” Riley said, noting he played his final game as a Bison on Nov. 2, 2019.
“And with me playing my whole life, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do next. I can’t really put into words what it means to be able to continue playing and be able to do what I love the most.”
Riley’s final season was an excellent one for the 24-year-old. He was named a Canada West all-star in both the place kicker and punter positions.
He also had the third-most made field goals ever by a Bison in 2019 with 21, a stat that led the conference and had him third in the nation.
He converted on 70 per cent of his attempts and was a perfect 19-for-19 on PATs. His 82 points tallied were also tops in the conference and third in U Sports.
His longest made kick this season was a 53-yard boot against Regina on Oct. 25, 2019. He said his time with Manitoba pushed him and also got him on the Blue Bombers radar – as the CFL club shares its facility with the university program.
“I honestly believe that every single year with the Bisons I learned something and got better,” he said. “They pushed me and pushed my boundaries hard to get me where I am today.”
Next up on Salute Our Seniors week is kicker/punter @MattRileyy!
Matt hails from Abbotsford BC and had a MONSTER of a senior year. This season Matt was named CanWest Allstar Kicker and Punter!
— U of Manitoba Bison Football (@MBBisons) February 8, 2020
Another big factor in Riley’s development was the connection he created with two-time Grey Cup champion and legendary CFL kicker Don Sweet.
Sweet excelled as a kicker at Washington State University and was named a Pacific-10 Conference all-star back in 1971. His claim to fame at that school was kicking the game-winning field goal to upset defending conference champion Stanford on that game’s final play.
The Vancouver native went on to play 13 seasons with the Montreal Alouettes, Montreal Concordes and Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
He won Grey Cup titles with Montreal in 1974 and 1977, and played in the Grey Cup with the Alouettes in 1975, 1978 and 1979. He was named the Grey Cup Most Valuable Canadian three times over that time period. Sweet was also a CFL all-star from 1977 to 1979.
Riley got into contact with Sweet in his Grade 10 year and said he learned a tremendous amount from him.
“He would have pros coming in to work and train with him every April for his camp in May and during that time I was able to do split sessions with all those pros and also get coached by Don,” he said. “Being there really inspired me and lit a fire under me. That experience made me think that could be me one day and made me strive to get there.”
Riley said Sweet is ecstatic that another person he trained is getting a shot in the CFL.
Joining the Blue Bombers will allow Riley another opportunity to work under a current top kicker – Justin Medlock.
“He’s been a pro in the NFL and CFL and has had an extensive career winning so many awards,” Riley said. “He really knows what he’s doing, and is actually a super nice guy and has been willing to work with me in the past.”
Riley noted that Medlock has offered him kicking critique in the past and also helped him hone his kicking game.
He said he’s excited for the season to begin, and added he’s under a three-year rookie contract deal with Winnipeg.
Riley and the Bombers are scheduled to play the B.C. Lions in Vancouver on Oct. 23.