He's free, but not cheap

Sporting strangely conservative threads, free agent Fullback John Riggins jets around the league trying to peddle his services for $1.5 million
June 06, 1976

A traveling salesman last week added a few thousand more air miles to a selling trip that so far has taken him to four states and Washington, D.C. No doors were slammed in his face, nor did he suffer verbal insults. Indeed, buyers met him at each airport, picked up the tab for his first-class air fare and his hotel charges and later wined and dined him at the best restaurants in town. If it was difficult to tell just who was selling whom, however, there was no doubt that John Riggins now knows the territory.

Riggins is the 230-pound fullback who rushed for 1,005 yards last season while it playing out his option with the New York Jets. More important than the team rushing record Riggins completed on Dec. 21, 1975, however, was the free-agent status he achieved on May 1, 1976. Along with the Rozelle Rule moratorium which apparently has ended mandatory player-or-draft choice compensation from a team signing an option player, it sent Riggins into the NFL's open market to sell Riggins, a valuable commodity for any franchise hoping to extend its business year into the Super Bowl.

Strangely, the Jets have not made a heavy sales pitch to Riggins. It has been the unstated policy of the Jets, specifically at contract time, to low rate Riggins' talent ever since he was the club's No. 1 draft choice out of Kansas in 1971. While some teams have questioned his dedication, feeling that he should have played harder, even though the Jets were going nowhere, it is reasonable to assume that Riggins could help power the right dub into a championship season.

"The ideal back," he says, "can catch the football, block, run inside or out—and he doesn't make mistakes. On a scale of 10, I think I qualify up around a nine in all those categories. I don't think there's another back in the league who can say that."

If that sounds like so much hard-sell hype, consider that Riggins, 26, ranked seventh in NFL rushing while playing behind a line whose primary emphasis was pass blocking for Quarterback Joe Namath; and that he caught 30 passes for 363 yards, scored nine touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl team. Riggins also runs the 40 in 4.7 seconds.

Armed with these selling points, Riggins has departed the comforts of his Lawrence, Kans. home and the chores of his 160-acre farm in nearby Centralia (pop. 500) to visit five potential employers: the Rams, Saints, Oilers, Redskins and Vikings. As a courtesy he has promised the Jets that they will have the last sales shot sometime this week, but he expects to return to Shea Stadium next season only as a visitor.

"The Jets have deteriorated over the last three years," he says. "It's like being with an outfit expected to go bankrupt. If you got any smarts, you ought to get out of the damn thing."

For those who remember Riggins only as the iconoclast who sported a Mohawk haircut three years ago, the sight of Riggins the traveling salesman is startling. Neatly groomed and nattily attired in a three-piece suit, he has made his football rounds looking like a suburban banker. From a monetary angle, the new look makes sense.

"If you're asking for a million dollars," he says, adjusting his horn-rims, "you've got to look like a million dollars. I want these people to know I'm a solid citizen type, not the flake some people say I am." Riggins apparently has succeeded beyond his wildest hope.

At dinner last week with George Allen and other Redskin personnel, Riggins was mistaken for his lawyer. "I don't think the guy meant it as a compliment," he says, "but that was the nicest thing anyone ever said about me."

Riggins' session with the Redskins was a perfect example of the aura that has surrounded his job-hunting treks, which might be described as Classified Top Secret Red Carpet. On the same day Riggins arrived at Washington National Airport the Washington Post quoted Allen as saying, "We haven't been in contact with Riggins, and we haven't brought him in. I haven't talked to him and wouldn't know him if he were right here. He has started a bidding war, and we might not be in the running."

Riggins, however, insists he has not played one team against another in his financial discussions. As the best free agent available among the two dozen still looking for work (others include Philadelphia Quarterback Roman Gabriel, Los Angeles Defensive Lineman Fred Dryer, Minnesota Running Back Ed Marinaro and New York Giants Back Ron Johnson) Riggins has put his price tag at $1.5 million for five years, payable at $100,000 a year until 1990.

Riggins also is well aware that the NFL apparently has gone bullish on fullbacks bred in farm country. Larry Csonka, an Ohio farmer, reportedly extracted $1.5 million from the Giants when he signed a four-year contract with them six weeks ago. Other free-agent signees also have received top dollars: Wide Receiver John Gilliam signed with Atlanta for a reported $300,000 over three years; Tight End Jean Fugett earned a six-figure contract from Washington; and Wide Receiver Ahmad Rashad signed a series of reported $75,000 contracts with Seattle.

"I'll probably end up settling for considerably less than Csonka got," Riggins said in a soft-sell appraisal during his flight from Washington to Minneapolis. "I don't know what 'considerably less' will be, but I don't think football can afford to start raising player salaries for free agents because then the other players will become dissatisfied. If some team decides to pay me a tremendous amount of money, people who have played for that team will probably feel the same way I did with the Jets—and I can appreciate those feelings. At the same time, it's an open market, and I guess you should try to grab all the gusto you can—along with a few dollar signs."

Riggins maintains his disillusionment with the Jets is not something new. "For two years I played the game without a heart," he says. The direct cause of Riggins' dejection was tightfisted Weeb Ewbank, the former coach and general manager of the Jets, whose largess apparently extended only to Namath's six-figure salary. Namath, incidentally, will play again this season for $450,000, the amount he earned last year when he ranked 27th among NFL quarterbacks and "led" the league with 28 interceptions. Riggins played for $67,500, which represented a 10% cut from his 1974 salary because he was exercising his option.

"I remember when I first came up," Riggins says, "Weeb told me he didn't want to pay for a pig in a poke. And I understood that. I hadn't proved anything to him as far as professional football was concerned. But I was earnest, and I tried and I produced. Eventually I proved to myself that I can play this game. Once I accomplished that, I thought, 'Well, all things being equal, I'm just as important to this offense as Joe is.' "

Riggins began thinking along those lines after the 1972 season, his second. Despite being sidelined for two games, he rushed for 944 yards on 207 carries, scored eight touchdowns and caught 21 passes for 230 yards. "But after I'd proved myself," Riggins says, "Weeb came back with the hard business stuff and wouldn't acknowledge any of my accomplishments. When it came time to sign the contract, he had the audacity to tell me, 'Well, you didn't get your 1,000 yards.' That really destroyed my attitude. I grew up then and realized that professional football is a business."

In sports banquet talks Riggins tries to impart this business attitude to youngsters. "The thing I try to get across," he says, "is that if you want to be a professional player, that's fine, but it's not the way you think it is when you are a kid. It isn't the Great American Dream. It's business, and you deal with business people when you talk money.

"That turned me off on the game. My whole problem wasn't with football but the people who were managing it. I wasn't smart enough at that point to realize it. I reacted in a poor way, and for that I owe the game an apology because I certainly wasn't the most dedicated player for the two years [1973-74] after Weeb and I had our conflict."

In contrast Riggins had a dynamic season in 1975, and now he has revitalized his career. Not only does he have the opportunity to sign with a Super Bowl contender, something the Jets most assuredly are not, but he also can join a club that will accent rushing, not the Namath-style pass. Indeed, Riggins should help form a power tandem backfield wherever he goes: Riggins and Lawrence McCutcheon in Los Angeles, Riggins and rookie Chuck Muncie at New Orleans, Riggins and Ronnie Coleman in Houston, Riggins and recently signed free agent Calvin Hill in Washington, or Riggins and Chuck Foreman with Minnesota.

"Being a free agent is all right," Riggins says, "but it isn't all that it's cracked up to be in the sense that there are only so many contenders you can go to. It reminds me of the times I've gone quail hunting. Sometimes a covey of quail will go up, and you end up shooting and never getting anything because it's too hard to pick one bird out and shoot at it. That's kind of the situation I'm in right now. There are maybe three or four contenders for my services, and I'm a little dazzled by it all. I don't know exactly where I want to go for sure. But like anything else, you've got to make that decision and not look back. After I visit New York, I should be able to make my decision in a week. It shouldn't take that long, but you've got to make it look like you're giving it some serious thought."

Riggins paused to reflect on his situation. "I used to be intimidated," he said. "Now I do the intimidating."

It comes with the sales territory.