By Miguel A. Melendez, Staff Writer
LA CAADA-FLINTRIDGE – Dietrich Riley’s road to stardom had humble beginnings on the fields of Victory Park in Pasadena.
This was where he played flag football, and having lived in Altadena and later in Pasadena, Victory Park practically became Riley’s backyard.
Also at the time, St. Francis High School football coaches noticed an aggressive Riley, who was heading into the eighth grade the summer he attended St. Francis’ football camp.
Since then, it was Riley’s dream to play at St. Francis. The three-year letterman not only accomplished that dream, but he’s built a legacy at the school.
Riley, with over 20 major Division I offer, including USC, UCLA, Florida, Notre Dame, Alabama, Michigan, Oklahoma and Tennessee, has no doubt left a foot print at the football-rich program.
That he’s one of the most coveted recruits in the nation is a testament to Riley’s unparalleled work ethic on and off the field.
That he got there at all is a true testament to Riley’s mother, Marika McWhorter.
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McWhorter raised Riley as a single parent, but she had plenty of help from her big family.
They would piggy back off another, whether it was picking Riley and his cousins from practice or school, it didn’t matter. They were there for each other.
McWhorter works two jobs to put Riley through school at St. Francis. Going from public to private school was a tough transition at first, but it was something McWhorter promised Riley if he worked hard in middle school.
Riley did, and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
No matter what he sets his mind to, Riley’s gone above and beyond.
But what makes his story all the more remarkable is his relentless effort that’s put him on the fast track, especially on the gridiron.
He was 3 years old when he put on his first football uniform.
“He had a costume we bought for $50 and we put it on him,” said McWhorter with a laugh. “I still have the pictures.”
When his uncle, Daron McWhorter, picked him up for flag football practice, Riley was focused on the ride to the park and taking advice on how best to flag down opposing players.
“I used to be really worried when he would play flag football because he was too aggressive,” McWhorter said. “Parents with kids at that age they’re real sensitive. I couldn’t wait for him to go to pads, so now he doesn’t have to be shy.”
To this day, McWhorter finds it surreal USC offered Riley a scholarship his sophomore season.
“We were getting ready to leave the camp when they told us USC wanted to talk to Riley,” McWhorter said. “So we went up stairs and talked to (USC) coach Pete Carroll and he offered us a (scholarship). I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock for a few days and was like, `Wow, the school that was his dream offered him a scholarship.
“I knew about football a little bit, but I didn’t know that much. Every parent wants to think their kid is the best, but when they offered him a scholarship I thought, `OK, maybe he is good.”‘
But Riley wasn’t the best, not to begin with, and he not only understood that but embraced being surrounded by better players.
“He wasn’t the best but he strived because he worked hard and learned from the kids around him and would watch and try to use the same techniques,” McWhorter said.
Some of those better players were older guys Riley grew up idolizing, but it wasn’t long before they wound up hanging out with the wrong crowd.
“There’s a lot of kids that he’s played Pop Warner with that he’s looked up to where they’re now smoking, they’re in gangs and it really hit him hard,” McWhorter said. “He couldn’t understand why. He would say, `These are my idols. What happened?”‘
Riley always kept busy because that’s what his mom wanted. Whether it was because of sports after-school programs, Riley was too busy to get into trouble.
He’s become a role model for his younger cousins who eagerly anticipate his presence at their Pop Warner games.
“They love when Dietrich comes to the games,” McWhorter said. “They get all nervous because he’s watching them play and they care what he has to say.”
Despite his father being out of the picture, Riley has not lacked men who assume father-figure status.
“(St. Francis) coach (Jim) Bonds is like a father to me,” Riley said. “He’s always given me great advice, not just about football, but about life in general.”
Riley, 17, developed into a fine young man, and it’s evident by his poise and demeanor.
He recently planned a senior breakfast. They’ll meet on Friday at a local eatery. In his three varsity seasons, Riley says this team has the best chance at making a deep run in the CIF-Southern Section Western Division playoffs. St. Francis (5-0) is ranked No. 1 in the division.
“This team loves football,” Riley said. “They want to win and they’re tired of the 6-5 seasons.”
Riley’s ultimate goal is to reach the NFL ranks, but for now it’s a distant thought.
“I’m focused on the field and what we’re doing right now,” he said. “I feel like I don’t have any offers because it’s not what I think about.”
USC’s Carroll stood by the goal post and watched Riley wreak havoc against El Rancho last week. Cal visits Friday and later that night he’ll hop on a Red-Eye flight and land at O’Hare International Airport before making the drive to South Bend, Ind. for an official visit to Notre Dame on Saturday.
But Riley’s life is not defined by football.
He wants to major in business if he goes to Tennessee.
“They have a great business school,” Riley said. If he chooses USC he wants to major in communications.
“They have the best communications department in the nation,” Riley said.
He’s studious about football as he is about what academic opportunity a school can offer.
When teams visit Riley he asks that they visit during lunch or after school.
“I don’t want my teachers thinking, `Oh, he’s a superstar so he wants to find ways of getting out of class,”‘ Riley said.
And when schools do visit, Riley always points visiting coaches to his teammates who may have been overlooked.
“They might not be Division I players but those coaches know other coaches,” Riley said. “And maybe something can happen.”
Riley recently took the SAT’s, and his mother was more proud at his scores than his football accolades.
“All the hard work he’s put in will now earn him a free college education,” McWhorter said. “It was hard, but watching him develop into a young man has been a blessing. What a blessing.”
Riley recently served a stint last summer as a camp leader at Victory Park. He talked about football and what his recruiting process has been like.
But most importantly he wanted them to understand that through hard work anything is attainable.
Riley’s actions speak just as loud.