TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa Bay Buccaneers superfan Jackie Riles, known as the franchise’s iconic “Pillow Lady,” died at the age of 82, the team announced Saturday.
Her death was due to natural causes, the team said.
Since the Bucs’ inception in 1976, Riles knitted more than 4,000 custom pillows for players, coaches, team staff members and media members, which earned her the nickname from former head coach John McKay, Pro Football Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon and Richard “Batman” Wood.
Before every home game, she’d wait with her husband, John, and later her son, Pat, outside the team entrance at Tampa Stadium and Raymond James Stadium, often with cookies, cupcakes and candy. Sporting her signature red crochet hat with “Bucs” on it and often equipped with signage, she had strong opinions about the team and wasn’t afraid to let them be known.
On Saturdays before away games, she’d do the same at the facility, waving as the team bus left the parking lot and headed to the airport.
Her contributions were recognized in 2002, when she was selected to the Visa Hall of Fans, the only exhibit in professional sports recognizing fans. Riles recalled Selmon telling her, “Jackie, I’m in the Hall of Fame. I’m the original. Now the ‘Original Buc Lady’ is in the Hall of Fame too,” something that gave her great joy.
For Riles’ 75th birthday in 2012, the Bucs honored her during a special pregame ceremony. Bucs co-chairman Bryan Glazer presented her with her own custom No. 75 jersey, moving her to tears. The team threw her a party in her very own suite.
“She’s a very special lady for me and the entire organization,” Bucs COO Brian Ford said in 2016. “We think the world of her family and try to support her as best as we can.”
Riles’ devotion to the team didn’t stop at games. When Selmon died unexpectedly in 2011, she presented his widow, Claybra, with a special orange and white pillow with red trim. It read “We love you.”
Not even a bout with cancer in 2013, or nerve damage in her hand, could keep her from making pillows or making cards. When Riles lost her ability to walk and was confined to a wheelchair, she faithfully traveled by bus to attend games.
When John died in 2016, she made sure he was buried in Buccaneer beads. Several Buccaneers attended the service, just as they stepped in to help when her wheelchair fell apart. When she was in the hospital undergoing cancer treatment, they sent roses.
Former team captain Gerald McCoy said in 2016, “She brings a smile to you, when you feel like you need one. Sometimes, you just have one of those down days, and you see her and she just brightens your day because she’s just full of energy, her and her son. They’re just great people.”
Ronde Barber, who played 16 seasons for the Buccaneers and is a member of the team’s Ring of Honor, tweeted on Saturday night: “Heartfelt condolences to Jackie’s family. Her spirit will never be forgotten by those of us who were fortunate enough to share in her joy of our Teams. You will be missed.”