The words “live once” are tattooed over the knuckles of both of Duke Riley’s hands.
It’s a mantra that illustrates how the animated and charismatic Miami Dolphins linebacker chooses to live his life.
After the birth of his daughter, River, the phrase took on a whole new meaning for him and his fiancée Julieanna Marie Goodard, a popular social media influencer commonly known as YesJulz.
River was born with gastroschisis, a condition in which a baby’s intestines are outside the body, creating issues for digestion requiring surgery. River spent her first month in the NICU.
Before the birth, however, Riley and Goodard were posed with a difficult decision.
“Usually when people have [gastroschisis], you know beforehand it’s gonna happen, and some of the doctors here give you the option to abort the mission,” Riley said. “We didn’t.”
She’s fine now, home with her parents, whose difficult challenge these days is getting her sleep trained. Riley has drawn inspiration from the resiliency that River has shown in her two months of life.
“Honestly, one of the best things we could have done was fight through it and kept going.” Riley said. “I mean, she’s been through more stuff in her life than I feel like I have already. … She’s home. She’s beautiful. She’s everything I imagined.”
This is a new stage of fatherhood for Riley, who already had two sons.
He lit up as he explained what it was like to become a girl dad.
“I got two boys, and I just had my little girl, and she honestly changed my world,” he said. “I feel like home. I feel complete. My sons are everything to me. It’s a blessing. That’s all I ever wanted was boys, and it all changed when I had my little girl. She just does something different for me.
“It’s a blessing to have someone that I care for again more than myself.”
River’s birth isn’t Riley’s only motivation. He’s committed to making the Dolphins’ front office look wise for re-signing him this offseason, committing to pay the six-year veteran a one-year deal that could be worth $3 million if he plays every game in 2022.
As the team went on its seven-game win streak last season, Riley became a more prominent figure, a key piece in the linebacker rotation. One of his most significant performances his came in the team’s Nov. 28 win over the Carolina Panthers, when he blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown.
As a journeyman, the former LSU standout taken in the third round by the Atlanta Falcons knows how difficult it is to earn and keep an organization’s trust.
At the end of last season, Miami’s decision-makers told Riley they hoped to bring him back. When coach Brian Flores was fired, however, Riley wasn’t sure if that stance would change.
“[The decision to bring me back] was really important for me,” said Riley, who spent last year laying roots in Miami. “I’ve been in this league long enough to know that sometimes people say things that they don’t really mean, and I didn’t want that to happen. They wanted to have me back, and I appreciate [general manager] Chris Grier and everybody making that happen, all the coaches and staff.
“I’m showing him how much I appreciate him everyday by coming out here, being a pro every single day from the moment I step in to the moment I leave, building a standard.”
During Thursday’s minicamp practice, Riley was leading the first team defense part of the time, , and during the first 11-on-11 series he delivered three impactful tackles.
One of the players who has witnessed Riley’s fire and professionalism up close is offensive lineman Connor Williams, a newcomer to the Dolphins, who is amazed by Riley’s motor.
“The biggest thing is energy. The man is full of energy,” Williams said. “He’s a great engine, a great motivation, and he comes out every day and works.”
With a fresh contract in hand and enough motivation to fuel a truck, Riley is excited about the next phase of his career and beyond.
Moving forward he hopes to stay true to himself and show his children that he lives his life and plays the game he loves the only way he knows how, to the fullest.
“When [River] gets older, she’s going to appreciate the fact that I’m her father, and I feel like that’s what I want to do is be a great father to my kids,” Riley said. “Every time I go out there and step on the field, that’s my edge as well, knowing that my kids one day are going to watch me play. They’re gonna say, ‘That’s my dad.’
“I want to show them the way that I play is I give effort, energy and I left it all out there.”