Four years, three surgeries and three concussions, two states and one well-earned bachelor's degree–that’s just a few of the stats for UNM senior Syaire Riley.
The kind-hearted, hardworking winter graduate is flipping his tassel with a degree in multimedia journalism and a minor in political science. While many know him as number 36, the 6-foot tall linebacker defending the Lobos, many other parts of campus recognize him as a journalist extraordinaire or friend. In fact, it’s rare for longer than five minutes to go by without someone calling his name or waving in Albuquerque.
“I just took a chance and it paid off. I wanted to do something important when I graduated, and I wanted to have something to be able to show for that, and now I have a couple of things built up in front of me,” Riley said. “I have a couple of opportunities to go and to jump right into my career. UNM has helped me do something, and there is so much I’ve learned.”
Ready for radio
Riley always knew he had a role to play in storytelling. His grandparents unintentionally made sure of that, with talk radio on blast in car rides throughout his hometown of Inglewood, CA.
“I've always been interested in TV and radio. It's just been in the background of everything that I've been raised on. Any time I got into the car with my grandparents, they always had news radio on. As a little kid, I used to hate listening to that because all they were doing was talking and giving me news. I wanted sports or actual live coverage or something,” Riley said.
With a surplus of sports knowledge and strong communication skills, the UNM Communication & Journalism (C&J) Department helped Riley make the most of both.
“It's been really cool taking those classes. I thought I wanted to do print, but the more that I dove into football and heard my voice talking about it, I was like ‘maybe I need to go into audio or video.’ I didn't realize I was a multimedia journalist until my sophomore year,” he said.
Riley was also chosen for a prestigious opportunity with New Mexico PBS (KNME-TV), as part of the New Mexico Local News Fund Fellowship Program. As just one of a handful of interns, he explored the role sports and news radio serve in every local community.
“I wrote a whole bunch of new stories, I edited a whole bunch of radio scripts and, you know, it was a great experience producing the written aspect of it. Now when I get in front of a TV or do a podcast, I know what I'm saying after shaping the context and all the little things,” Riley said.
Riley says now, with a slew of career opportunities and offers ahead of him in video and audio journalism, he could not have done it without C&J professors Gwyneth Doland and Michael Marcotte.
“Those guys– they helped open my mind. I really wouldn't have been any good at work or had as great as my college experience without those two. I definitely want to thank them for everything that they've done and been trying to give back to them,” he said.
It’s something he hopes even more future journalists have more resources to take advantage of at UNM.
“They’re working to get a $3 million grant department to try and create newsrooms and create better curriculum to give students like myself a chance to become reporters or analysts or journalists, and to have them stay in Mexico and build the state up,” Riley said.
Mixing work and play
That real, hands-on experience grew even more when he launched a sports podcast with fellow student athlete Skye McMillon–the Sy & Skye podcast. They’ve scored athlete guests from cross-country star Samuel Field, to Lobo and NFL great Brian Urlacher.
“It's been really nice. The UNM athletes have been awesome. We’re bringing in people so that the Albuquerque community can have a sense of athletes and who we are and the voices and the players that they see on the fields or the courts or things like that,” Riley said.
Beyond being an expert in the sports world, Riley has been a mentor just as long. He hit the field as a 4th grader, under the support of his parents and under the wing of his older brother Syr. He passed that same passion down to his little brother Savyour, and his little sister Samaiya, who learned how to win.
“We kind of grew up with each other. My sister doesn't do any sports, but she knows how to play them because I taught her how to play them and I wouldn't take no for an answer. I would have her play against my little brother. So whether that be basketball or football, I would be referee,” he said.
The Riley brothers all turned to collegiate football, a dream not easily achieved. Still, Riley was the only one who had a COVID-19 fueled intro to university life.
Linebacking through a pandemic
“I started playing football in 4th grade. I always knew I wanted to play college football and didn't necessarily care about how, but I always knew that college football was a dream for me,” he said.
He came to New Mexico on a chance, crossing his fingers, and only going off of the pictures found online.
“I was like, you know, let's give it a shot and I came here with no visits– just Google Pictures. I didn't have any in-person classes. Everything else was online and then I didn't have my first in-person class until spring 2022,” he said.
It’s hard to compartmentalize being away from home, during a global pandemic, while also taking classes entirely online–not even in the same state of your school. Still, Riley excelled in courses in between football practice at UNLV’s Las Vegas stadium.
“It was a little bit different living and being with your teammates, seeing them every single day for an entire year. It was even more crazy because we were living in and out of a hotel going to practice in another stadium,” he said. “I am glad it was different because you create even tighter bonds and experiences that nobody else on this earth has ever had before. It was just a unique time period for me.”
Living with teammates day in and day out strengthened connections among the Lobos, but led to difficult changes in routine as pandemic restrictions shifted.
“That was definitely an adjustment, having taken almost four semesters worth of classes before I even got an in-person class. It kind of made it a little bit challenging for me,” he said.
In person courses brought Riley new pals, new lessons and new ways of thinking.
“Being able to actually talk with actual students, you know, like everybody could do discussion posts, but nobody's really reading discussion posts. It was definitely cool being able to meet new people. Political science has been entertaining and very insightful with the material the teachers create. The students are always really engaging,” he said.
Tackling others and tackling mental health
Football came back just as intensely and back in Albuquerque. Riley played in every single game when not injured, with only six absences under the direction of a doctor.
“It feels like I've been playing here for 8,000 years–in a good way. In a good way. It's just been a unique journey on the football field. It's been really cool to have the same coaches for all four years to have some sort of stability,” he said.
Yes, Riley recorded over 136 tackles across 37 games, but it came with a cost.
“That battle is a lot–the physical side and the mental side. I never, ever wanted to have surgery. Last offseason I had three, so it's just been a grind and a fight. That was one of the biggest challenges that I've had, not even as a football player, but just in life I didn't want to have,” he said. “I've had two concussions in high school, and I always said if I got the third, then I'm done, and you know, this year I got my third one. I always take time to figure out what I want to do and what type of adjustments that I need to make to put myself in the best position long term.”
Injuries and losses aside, Riley remained positive and committed under the leadership of Assistant Coach Rocky Long and many more. It’s a feeling he says the team as a whole shares.
“The city of Albuquerque cares about New Mexico athletics and as a football program we haven't been too good over the past couple of years. You go on Twitter and you just see all the stuff that fans are saying on TV and in the newspapers, so being a journalist and being in the media side of things, I know that stuff is pretty real, so that’s taken its toll on me” Riley said.
While fans may passionately disagree with plays, share disappointment with results or have a bone to pick with records, Riley says perspective is key.
“We try to do our best every single time. We work hard to be able to have a pretty good collegiate experience as well,” he said. “I think that that's just another motivation that we add into the toolbox that fuels us in the offseason when we're doing our workouts, when we're playing games. Nobody knows what it's like to be out there besides the guys that are in that locker room.”
It also helps when he looks into the crowd and sees some familiar faces.
“My family did a great job trying to come out here and visit me as much as possible with my other brothers playing. This season, man, they attended three. It's been a pretty cool, unique experience having them come to games and being able to see me play and see my journey,” Riley said.
His parents and siblings are just some of the many influences in his life Riley wants to thank for his experience as a Lobo.
“I could take 10 hours naming, but my dad, mom, brothers, sister, grandpa, grandma, nana, aunties, uncles, cousins, godfather, godsister, step-godmother, and my church community. I will also want to thank the Santanas, the Marras and other Albuquerque families that have taken me into their family,” he said. “I've been extremely grateful for them taking a kid from Los Angeles and trying to make
them feel at home so far away from home.”
Finding a community like he found, Riley says, no matter if like-minded or not, is something UNM students should take advantage of.
“Once you find those that are like minded, it makes life so much easier because you have the support system, and can build great trust and rapport with each other–you'll have a blast.” he said. “I came here to not only play collegiate level football but to also earn a degree. That's always been my goal. I didn't know how I was going to pay for college. I didn't know what college I was going to go to, but I knew I wanted to go to college. I knew I wanted to play football and it's just been great.”