Started from the bottom now we're here
The familiar lyrics from Drake's hit song might have echoed through the mind of rap icon Lil Wayne while he assessed Duke Riley's profile.
The rapper was in search of a marketable athlete to jump-start Young Money APAA Sports, which merged with Lil Wayne's successful Young Money Entertainment record label. According to the company's website, Young Money APAA Sports' main areas of expertise and execution are contract negotiations, marketing opportunities and client concierge services.
It helped that Riley, the Atlanta Falcons rookie linebacker and third-round draft pick from LSU, is from the New Orleans area where Lil Wayne -- born Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. -- grew up and ascended to fame. But the hometown tie wasn't the only reason the two connected.
Lil Wayne, an avid football fan, knows talent when he sees it. He also knows what it's like to overcome great odds growing up in a rugged environment.
"Duke's drive to be the best, his work ethic, charisma and personality reminded me of an artist I signed on the music side of Young Money. The world knows that music artist as Drake," the five-time Grammy winner told ESPN. "Just as I saw a superstar in Drake from the beginning, I see the same for Duke Riley."
Such a strong statement creates lofty expectations for Riley, a player drafted to bring more speed and playmaking ability to an ascending Falcons defense. But he's still a rookie who has yet to play in an NFL game or even make it through an entire training camp.
Riley was humbled to be the first player to sign with Young Money, regardless of the pressure it puts on him to produce.
"I know it kind of sounds corny, but Lil Wayne said I'm the Drake of football. ... He basically said I'm their first [sports] guy that's going to go big," Riley said. "They know what type of person I am. They know I put in the work. They know I came out of nowhere and I came from nothing to be where I'm at right now. And I'm not even close to where I'm going to be. Young Money, they're bringing me in as family."
Jacksonville Jaguars rookie wide receiver Dede Westbrook and Dallas Cowboys rookie defensive end Lewis Neal, along with NBA rookie guard Frank Mason III of the Sacramento Kings, were among those to follow Riley and become the first group of athletes to sign deals with Young Money.
Riley's new teammates were well aware of his unique tie to Lil Wayne even before he officially became a Falcon.
"When I took my [pre-draft] visit, they were like, 'You're rolling with Wayne,'" Riley said. "They already knew me because of that. Everyone is a fan of Wayne, especially if you like rap music."
Falcons coach Dan Quinn, also a rap fan, wasn't initially aware of the connection. He is now.
"I wish I got to be part of that crew," Quinn said with a smile. "I do like Lil Wayne."
A video of Riley's unusual workout routine earned him his first taste of the national spotlight as a pro. His affiliation with Lil Wayne is sure to garner even more attention, particularly if he performs at a high level on a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance.
Here's the story behind how the football/hip-hop partnership was formed and what it means for Riley moving forward.
Working with a 'living legend'
Lil Wayne and manager Cortez Bryant, a marketing guru, attended LSU-Alabama game in Baton Rouge last November. It was a hard-fought effort by Riley and the 13th-ranked Tigers, but the top-ranked Crimson Tide emerged with a 10-0 win.
After the game, Riley received a FaceTime call from Lil Wayne and fellow Young Money rapper Mack Maine.
"They told me they were starting this football agency and they wanted me to be a part of it," Riley said. "And they wanted to meet with me, but I was meeting with a lot of people at that time."
Riley eventually agreed to meet with Lil Wayne and his business partners after the college football season concluded. The meeting took place in Miami, home of the $11.6 million mansion Lil Wayne purchased and, reportedly, recently sold that included his recording studio and private skate park.
"You see like a living legend standing right in front of you," Riley said of his face-to-face with Lil Wayne. "It was kind of crazy at first. But like as soon as I walked in, he came up to me and had a full conversation. It's so crazy to know how much Wayne actually knows about football. He knows more players in the NFL than I do. He knows the routes. He knows the coverages. He knows all that."
As if teaming up with one of his all-time favorite rappers wasn't enough, Riley was totally sold when Lil Wayne and the Young Money contingent took an interest in Riley's 1-year-old son, Elijah.
"They were the last group I met with, and out of everyone I met they were the first ones to bring up my son throughout the interview," Riley said. "That was so huge to me because I'm a family guy, and I know they're all about family. I just wanted to be a part of that.
"A lot of people were like, 'Man, you don't want to do that,' just because they thought [signing with Young Money] was all about the music. There's so much more. They do so much for me."
Riley actually signed Vincent Taylor of Elite Loyalty as his contract agent and maintains a close daily bond with Taylor. Young Money helped set up Riley's pre-draft training in Fort Worth, Texas. The training helped him drop a couple tenths of a second off his 40 time to turn in a 4.58 at the NFL combine, one of the fastest times among linebackers. Then Riley made his NFL dreams reality as the draft's 75th overall pick.
Once Riley was drafted by the Falcons, the marketing plan started to take shape.
"If he would have been picked in the first round early, I probably could have done more on the marketing side," said Bryant, who previously secured national commercials for Lil Wayne with Samsung and Nicki Minaj with MAC Cosmetics. "But now, I told Duke it's going to be an effort where we're going to work together. I told him the better he does, the easier it will be for me to sell the opportunities."
Some of the first publicity Riley received with Young Money was a signing party hosted by Lil Wayne in May at an Atlanta nightclub. Riley, who inked a four-year, $3.518 million contract ($889,752 guaranteed) with the Falcons, made money off the appearance as well.
"Basically you're getting the best of both worlds," Riley said. "It's kind of like I get to live a rapper's lifestyle. If Wayne's going to perform somewhere and there's an after party, I can be at the after party. It's kind of crazy because everyone who is a fan of Wayne, they're a fan of me, too, because I'm part of Young Money."
'Makings of a real leader'
Riley is originally from Buras, Louisiana, some 60 miles south of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina forced his entire family to relocate.
"We had like 17 to 20 feet of water and when I went home, it was just a slab of concrete," Riley said. "But honestly, Katrina was like the worst and best of things that ever happened to me. I say worst because I lost a lot of friends and I got separated from my family.
"But where I came from, when I was younger, I never saw myself in this position because everyone in my family --- I'm from the swamps -- so basically they either worked offshore in the oil field [where Riley's father worked], they're fishermen or shrimpers, or they sell drugs. It was just those three options, so it was good for me to get away from that area."
Riley and his family finally settled in Belle Chasse, 10 miles south of New Orleans. He went to John Curtis High School and left there as a four-star recruit. He didn't start at LSU until his senior season while playing behind future Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander and his new Falcons teammate, Deion Jones.
"We saw how Duke's trajectory came in just a couple of years," Bryant said. "From high school to LSU, just how he moved up. What better story than to start with someone who is kind of homegrown, and then get behind him and help him fulfill his dream?"
Now Riley has a new home in Atlanta with the Falcons and a new foundation with Young Money. There is a chance Lil Wayne will attend the first regular-season game at the Falcons' new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It's Sept. 17, a Sunday night matchup against Green Bay.
"Yes, Wayne is a huge Packers fan," Riley said. "Brett Favre is my favorite player because I used to play quarterback, and Wayne once posted a picture of himself performing in a Favre jersey. But Wayne is definitely a Falcons fan now. I already told him, 'I'm going to get you a jersey.’ I'm pretty sure he might make that game."
Time will tell if Riley will be in the starting lineup by then. Quinn envisions Riley as part of the base defense alongside Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, a pair of second-year players. Riley also could push to remain on the field with Jones in the nickel package.
"He's got very good football instincts," Quinn said of Riley. "The way he's going for it with the early meetings, he wants to do extra to get [it] right. And I think we've seen some real leadership qualities there. I think he's got the makings to be a real leader."