Accepting a full football scholarship to Indiana State in the fall of 2009 was “a no-brainer” for Tanner Riley. Not only was the scholarship financially enticing, but it was also extra challenging to play football with the Sycamores.
“At the time,” Riley said, “ISU footfall held the longest losing streak in D1 history.”
However, what some might have seen as a “losing” option, Riley viewed as a “winning” prospect. “I saw it as an opportunity to play early and often and potentially help turn around the struggling football program.”
Sure enough, that is what happened.
“Our first win my freshman year broke ISU’s losing streak,” he said. “I remember the school treated it like we won the Super Bowl, and SportsCenter even showed footage of our fans rushing the field afterwards. We went on to go 6-5, 6-5 and 7-4 the next three seasons.”
Among his unforgettable football memories, Riley said, are “beating North Dakota State at the FargoDome. North Dakota State went on to win five consecutive D1AA National Championships. We were one of their seven losses since 2011. They have some of the best fans in the country as well, which made our win even sweeter on their home turf.”
Born in Indianapolis, Riley was diagnosed at age 5 with Crohn’s disease which causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract and can lead to abdominal pain, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition. But the chronic disease didn’t slow Riley down. Instead, his medical diagnosis made him work even harder and to empathize with other people who have serious illnesses.
His earliest childhood ambition certainly was a physical one. “My adolescent desire was to always be a garbage man, so I could ride on the back of the big trucks without needing to wear a seatbelt,” he said earnestly.
When it came time to choose a college, Indiana State came calling and Riley accepted. “None of my family members went to ISU, but I had a few friends that did.”
Riley part of the Sycamore football program for five years — he was redshirted his junior year when he fractured his clavicle four days before the seasoning opener against Penn State. He also maintained a cumulative 3.5 grade average — not an easy achievement for someone who spends so much time preparing for and playing football.
“It took a lot of self-discipline and commitment to thrive in both academics and athletics, which resulted in several sacrificed nights of sleep,” he said. “I often relied on naps and learned to creatively sneak them in throughout my days to keep my mental well-being and sanity. Time management was vital in my success throughout my tenure at ISU.”
Aside from academics and athletics, Riley also represented the Sycamore football team on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “This committee influenced all of the ISU athletic teams to get involved and give back to the community of Terre Haute but also allowed us to get to know other teams and athletes on a more personal basis,” Riley said.
The most challenging times for him, Riley said, were the fall semester of his final undergraduate year and the fall semester of his first graduate year. “Both of these semesters I was balancing a full-time academic schedule in the midst of my final two seasons as a starter on the football team.”
The personal touch offered by Indiana State was a great benefit, Riley added. As for professors and coaches who played an important role in his time at Indiana State, Riley said, “I could go on a long-winded monologue talking about everyone who had an impact on me.”
For starters, former head football coach Trent Miles “will forever be appreciated as a teacher and mentor in my life,” Riley said. “Coach Miles was a hard-nosed coach which wasn’t liked by many players, so many of us didn’t realize how lucky we were to have him until he left to coach at Georgia State. I learned so many life lessons playing for Coach Miles and I’m forever grateful for him and his leadership.”
Head strength and conditioning coach Dave McMannus also played and continues to play an important part in his life, Riley said. “Aside from physical development, Coach McMannus influenced me to improve my health and wellness as well as my mental toughness, which has helped me to sustain my overall well-being even after my collegiate years.”
From an educational standpoint, “Kim LaGrange and Dr. Jeff Harper played very important roles during my time at ISU,” Riley said. “I was very fortunate to have Kim as a professor in both undergraduate and graduate classes. I credit Kim for me having my current job today. I’m also very appreciative of Dr. Harper, as he gave me the opportunity to be a part of the MBA program and also taught one of the graduate courses apart of the curriculum.”
From an outreach standpoint, Riley said he is “forever thankful for Al Perone and Freda Luers. They played a huge role in my community involvement at ISU and allowed me to meet so many great people along the way. Al and Freda truly bleed blue, and the Sycamore community is very lucky to have them.”
Meeting Perone and Luers early in his career helped Riley get involved in the St. Jude’s organization, whose goal is to coordinate events to raise money for childhood cancer research.
“I saw my involvement in this organization as a great opportunity to give back and potentially help avoid or cure long-term illness for children with cancer. I met so many great people through this committee and it was an experience I’ll never forget.”
During his sophomore year, Riley was nominated by LaGrange to attend the Executive Dining Experience. Coordinated by Denny Sponsel, president and owner of RJE Business Interiors, the annual event provides a way for Indiana State students and successful professionals in the Indianapolis marketplace to meet and network.
“I met several notable executives at this event but actually sat specifically at Denny’s table,” Riley said. “He left a great impression on me and seemed like someone I would like to work for one day. The next several years I made a point to keep in touch with Denny.”
Located in downtown Indianapolis, RJE Business Interiors provides design, commercial-grade furniture, operational and research solutions to influence collaboration and productivity throughout workplace environments for corporate, healthcare, higher education and technology industries.
After his last season of football in 2013 and his first year of graduate work, Riley reached out to Sponsel to see if there was an opportunity to gain some professional experience as a seller at RJE.
“Unfortunately, there wasn’t an opportunity and the time wasn’t right, so I decided to go ahead and complete my graduate degree while doing a graduate assistantship in the Academic Enrichment Center, where I mentored and tutored student-athletes,” Riley said.
Once he completed his MBA degree in 2015, Riley again contacted Denny. “Fortunately there was an opportunity available. After what seemed to be hundreds of interviews, the rest is history,” said Riley, who is now an account executive at RJE Business Interiors. “I’m grateful to be working under such great leadership in Denny.”
Looking back over his five years at State, Riley said he is glad he made the choices he did and would encourage others to see what the university offers.
“I’m obviously biased in saying so, but of course I would recommend ISU to others,” he said. “With great leadership, faculty and students as well, I foresee nothing but a bright future for ISU moving forward and look forward to seeing the university grow.”