Monday night, Oct. 18, 1982. The NFL Players Association strike was four weeks old and looked as though it would never end. America was learning it could live without pro football, guards and tackles were becoming acquainted with the insurance business, and the Washington Redskins' 33-year-old fullback, John Riggins, who hadn't worn pads for a month, who hadn't even worked out more than once or twice, had just played two games in two days.
They had been billed as the NFLPA All-Star Games, and they were the union's attempt to show the world it could play football all by itself. On Sunday in Washington, Riggins had turned in a full afternoon's work for the NFC team. He then had caught the red-eye to Los Angeles that night and suited up for Game No. 2, in the L.A. Coliseum. Now it was late, and as the car carrying Riggins back to his hotel crept through the deserted streets and the glaze of sleeplessness settled over his brain, he was suddenly aware that the very small and very crazy person sitting next to him in the backseat was digging him in the ribs with his elbow.
"Shot for shot, waddya say?" Louie Giammona, the 5'9" halfback and special teams wacko then with the Eagles, was saying to Riggins. Giammona was one of the four others who had played in both ends of the twin bill, but he was just getting warmed up.
"What?" Riggins said.
August 31, 1983
"I'll trade you shot for shot, first you hit me, then I hit you, waddya say?"
"This," said Riggins, "isn't the way to win my friendship."
"O.K., then you hit me, hit me!" Giammona said, bouncing up and down in the seat. "I don't mind. I love it."
"Well, Louie, I'll tell you what we'll do," Riggins said, brushing away the weariness for a moment. "When we get up to the hotel room, we'll tape your ankles together and hang you from the ceiling upside down. Then we'll take turns using you for a heavy bag—if that's what you really want."
The two guys in the front seat guffawed, Giammona calmed down, and Riggins once again turned his attention to the darkened streets. Thirty-three years old, 10½ NFL seasons behind him, and here he was, gliding through the streets of Los Angeles on a trip from nowhere to nowhere. Was this really what he'd been destined for—an up-and-down career, never really focused, a reputation built more on his wry and cryptic comments off the field than his play on it?
The answer, of course, was no. In the wake of the strike the Redskins won their division, and Riggins suddenly became the dominant running back in NFL playoff history. He can be a hard-eyed realist. He has always demanded full pay for services rendered—he sat out the entire 1980 season in a contract dispute—and he has always had a fine sense of the limitations and vulnerability of the human body, particularly his own. And in his triumphant finish last season, he showed the full depth of his sense of reality in a way the football community could best appreciate. With the playoffs approaching, he went to the Redkins' offensive coordinator, Joe Bugel, and told him that he wanted the ball. Bugel pointed Riggins toward the office of Head Coach Joe Gibbs. "Don't tell me, tell him," Bugel said.
"I want the ball," Riggins told Gibbs.
"The ball, give me the ball, I want it."
The result was a fistful of records and a Super Bowl ring and MVP trophy. For Riggins it was a dramatic turn of events because when the strike began he wasn't even sure if he wanted to go back and play football again. Then the NFLPA games came up, and the zany in him was aroused.
"Two games in two days, I liked the idea of it," he says. "A doubleheader, a barnstorming tour, yeah! After I'd played on Sunday in Washington, though, I was tired and really wasn't too keen on the L.A. game. But I saw some guys who said they'd play in it and then they backed out, and I didn't want to be one of them.
"They gave me the L.A. game plan just a few hours before the kickoff. I expected to sort of split time with the other fullback, Mike Guman of the Rams. At halftime I said to him, 'Hey, Iron Mike—they do call you Iron Mike, don't they?—you might have to take the second half.' You could say I put in a brief appearance in the second half."
Riggins tells the story with obvious relish. He's sitting at the breakfast table at his home in Lawrence, Kans. staring out at a spread that includes a barn with seven stalls for horses he has never bought, a stretch of pastureland meant for corn and alfalfa he has never planted, and row upon row of neatly baled hay for cattle he has long since sold.
The tale of the NFLPA strike games is Riggins' kind of story: bizarre, incongruous, sort of the flip side to the standard NFL saga of promise and fulfillment. Most of the humor is directed at himself, which is one of Riggins' most captivating traits as a storyteller. There's an unmistakable strain of honesty in this, another Riggins trademark: "They backed out, and I didn't want to be one of them." The message is clear, and it's the same message Riggins has been delivering since he was old enough to put on a helmet: This is my way, and until you can show me a better way, please leave me alone.
"Stubborn, hard-headed, always was since I was a little kid," he says. "Look at those buildings out there. One of them's got 25 rolls of barbed wire in it that I've never used. The back scratcher for the cows, the feed pump, all those steel posts...I got a lot of that stuff eight or nine years ago, back when I was actually pretending I was a farmer."
He gets up and pours himself a cup of coffee. All of a sudden the kitchen seems too small. There's a room-filling quality about Riggins as he strides around in a red warmup suit.
"When John is gone," says his wife, Mary Lou, "everything is just, well, empty. But as soon as he's back everyone knows it. How can I put it He's...robust. There's this feeling of clang, clang, all over the house. You always know where he is. Things that seemed empty are suddenly full."
People who have never seen Riggins up close often seemed surprised by his size when they meet him. "Didn't know he was that big," they seem to be saying. He stands 6'2", but it's his thickness that's remarkable. There's a blocky, indestructible look to his body. It's not contoured along gymnasium lines—the exaggerated, pumped-up look of the weightlifter; it has more of the appearance of muscle carefully and slowly amassed by years of hard labor.
Still, every now and then his weight will come under scrutiny. "I've never had a weight problem," Riggins says, "but for some reason my weight always seems to concern people. I played as low as 225 to 230 in 1981, when I came back from the year's layoff. In my rookie season with the Jets I weighed 244 before the last game and felt fine. I've had the same seven to eight percent body fat at 228 as I did at 238, and during the playoffs and Super Bowl I probably played as heavy as I ever have, 245 to 250."
And it was at that weight that he went on his postseason record rampage, carrying the ball 136 times for 610 yards in the four games, for an average of 34 carries and 152.5 yards a game, including his Super Bowl records of 38 for 166. On his 30th Super Bowl carry, a game-clinching 43-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, he was pulling away from a Dolphin safetyman as he scored.
"One year, I think it was 79, the Redskins had a weight incentive thing for me," Riggins says. "Something like 235. Kind of insulting, isn't it? The whole point is, if I ain't any good they're going to fire me anyway, whether I do it their way or my way, so why not let me do it my way and take my chances?"
Riggins' way was often different from their way, regardless of whom the "their" referred to. Authority was out there to be respected; every small-town kid learned that, and Centralia, Kans. (pop. 500) qualified as a small town. But what if authority was a horse's ass? Well, you try it their way for a while, and then you've got to take your own road.
Riggins learned that lesson early, as a seventh-grader competing in a junior track meet in Bern, Kans. "I was getting ready to long-jump, and I thought the pit looked a little too short," he says. "I told the official, 'Look, the back of the pit's too close. Let me use the high school pit.' The guy said, 'Nah, nah, you'll have no problem.' So I jumped and I went 19'4", which was well beyond the pit, and broke my ankle, actually separated the cartilage. I never long-jumped again. That official sure was backpedaling after I wrecked my ankle."
A suspicion began to take hold, a suspicion that a mere badge or title didn't give anyone extra IQ points. But it was tough for a 12-year-old kid from an isolated rural community to throw down the gauntlet and say, "That's it. I'm turning rebel. It's me against them."
"You have to understand what it means growing up in a little town like Centralia," Riggins says. "My father had some land, but we weren't farmers. He worked as a telegraph operator and depot agent for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, just as his father had before him. My mother was a secretary for a state social service agency. Being a town kid, you don't get an education like a farm kid does. He learns how to fix a tractor, learns an appreciation for nature; he gets along. From the time that he's five or six years old he knows what makes corn grow. A city kid is different, too. He knows what it's like to be around people, he gets exposure. But a small-town kid has none of that. In a way he's at a loss, unless he's the kind of kid who wears a black leather jacket and is always tinkering around with a car—but then that's all he knows."
Riggins points to a picture in an old scrapbook of three little kids in baseball uniforms: six-year-old Franklin Eugene Jr., known then as Junior, pitching; four-year-old John catching; two-year-old Billy at bat. The Riggins boys preparing to take over the sporting world.
"That was the focus from the very beginning—sports," John says. "My dad had been a fullback at Wichita State in the '30s. Sports were always very big in our family. And I was always very dependent on my dad. I don't know whether it was more fear or respect—he could be very strict—but out there in Kansas there was nothing else to relate to.
"I remember going to a basketball game in Manhattan, Kansas with my family when I was nine or so, the Midwest Regional Finals with Cincinnati and The Big O. I got up from my seat and went to look at something, and when I came back they were gone. I thought it was the end of the line; tears were rolling down my cheeks. I thought I'd been abandoned. I was scared. Finally I went to one of the guards and they paged my dad and he came and got me. It was in the middle of Manhattan, Kansas, but it could have been Manhattan, New York."
In the pages of the family scrapbooks Riggins emerges as a model youngster: practically all A's in grade school, a perfect record of no latenesses, proficient on the tuba and string bass, and honorable mention as a seventh-grader in the state mathematics contest. In the 1960 election issue of the Centralia grade school newspaper, John, then a sixth-grader, offered a firm endorsement of John F. Kennedy for President: "...If you want to sit still and not build our defenses, if you think our country is strong enough, I suggest you vote for Mr. Nixon. On the other hand, if you think our country is weak and needs to build up our defenses, vote for Mr. Kennedy."
After school John and Junior earned a dollar an hour baling and stacking hay for some local farmers, Glenn and Bob Jenkins. "Of all the kids who ever stacked hay for me, the Riggins boys were the only ones who ever did it exactly right," Bob Jenkins says.
John was bigger than the other boys, he was a better athlete, and he was smarter. Things came easy for him. And there was a puckish side to his nature. "I liked to have fun," he says, "and I found that nothing was more fun than going against the grain."
His mother, Mildred, says, "In Sunday school they said he was a disruptive influence at times, yet when they called on him he'd always come up with the answer."
"Don't forget," Riggins says, "about Kansas' history. The Younger Brothers and Quantrill's Raiders. Meade, Kansas was the Dalton Gang's hideout, and there are still a lot of flourishing Jesse James fan clubs in the state. You could say that Kansas has a rich tradition of outlaws." Into this turbulent tradition stepped Riggins, first as a baseball and basketball player, then as a track athlete and finally as a footballer. "Why did I go out for athletics?" he says. "Well, in Centralia there were three types of kids: the big fat sissies, the guys with the ducktail haircuts and black leather jackets, and the athletes. My hair was too curly for a ducktail, so I had to go with sports. If I'd had straight hair I might be in prison today."
There was only one problem with John's athletic career—Junior got there first. At a county track meet, John won the 50-yard dash but finished second to Junior in the open 100. And whenever John started coming into his own at a particular level of competition, Junior would already have moved on to the next plateau. Page after page in the Riggins family scrapbook repeats the story.
"I guess it was a first-child syndrome, but Dad seemed to have pinned all his hopes on Frank," says Billy. "He spent most of his time with Frank, not so much with John and even less with me. At one time it kind of bothered me, but it's all water under the bridge now."
So John became a clown. He had fun. "I look back on those days," he says, "and I think of the real me as a kind of jerk. Kick the basketball around, run around the court trying to pull a guy's pants down, throw the ball at a guy's head and yell 'Catch!' as it hits him in the nose, hang around in the back of the huddle and chitchat, cause distractions, get my share of belly laughs—I'm still that way.
"Maybe at first I was intimidated by coaches, but even when I was a kid and they'd tell me no, I'd still go ahead and do what I wanted. You might say I was a wise guy, a smart aleck. I remember once we were getting ready to go to the basketball playoffs, and my buddy, Dan Bloom, and I were goofing off in the back of the room, and the coach said, 'Bloom and Riggins, we're not taking you to the playoffs Friday,' and I turned to Dan and said in a Tweety Bird voice, 'Ooh, he don't want to win vewwy bad, do he?'
"It's funny, I always felt that I belonged and that the team needed me, but at the same time I had a sneaking suspicion that the coaches secretly would have been happier just firing me and hoping I'd get lost somewhere."
In his sophomore year at Centralia High, John was a 185-pound halfback. Frank, a senior that season, was the Panthers' all-state quarterback. John, his weight up to 205, took over at quarterback as a junior; eventually Billy too played quarterback for Centralia. "The offense changed to accommodate me," John says. "I was close to the biggest guy on the team, and we'd run from a T or a single wing or a shotgun, with me taking the snap and always having the option to run on passing plays." He was named second-team all-state.
Clearly, he was starting to catch up to Frank. John won the state Class B 100-yard championship as a junior, tying Frank's best time of 9.9. The next year John won the title in 9.8. "John weighed 219 pounds when he ran that race as a senior," his father says. "After he got 25 yards out he just ate those kids alive."
"I'll never forget it," Billy says. "He ran in the middle lane, and when he came busting through there he looked like a Clydesdale horse. All those high school coaches standing around, their eyes just popped. I think it was a big turning point in John's life, breaking Frank's record. It was probably the first time he thought he just might be a better athlete than Frank, even after the great senior year that John had had in football."
That senior year, which is still discussed in almost religious tones around Centralia, was summarized by one sentence in The Kansas City Star in November of 1966: "John Riggins, 215-pound brother of Kansas varsity footballer Junior Riggins, is rated the top high school player in the nation."
John ran for 1,456 yards in nine games, averaging a little more than 12 carries per game and 13.2 yards a carry. If the games had been closer he might have had numbers no one ever would have matched, but unbeaten Centralia outscored its opponents 457 to 24, and Riggins' work usually was over by halftime. He scored 197 points for the season, threw for 433 yards and averaged 61 yards per punt return and 48 yards per kickoff return; on defense he backed up the line and led the Panthers with 78 tackles. He could run a 4.6 40. In his final game, against the Horton Chargers, Centralia Coach Lennie Mohlman decided to showcase John for the college scouts. The result was 403 yards rushing, 64 passing and 37 points scored.
"The closest thing to a crucial game he had was against Frankfort, a town 15 miles away," his father says. "It was undefeated, too, and there was probably the biggest crowd in the history of either town at that game—something like 900 people. Usually there were about 200 in the stands, but this time they ringed the field, three deep. John gained 220 yards on 16 carries and scored four TDs. He just tore 'em apart.
"After a while no one would punt or kick off to him. He'd just start up the middle and break outside and there was no one fast enough to catch him."
"There were times," Mohlman says, "when he just went straight down the center of the field. He didn't have to cut or zigzag or anything. The guys on the other team just fell back away from him. Too many of them had already been hurt trying to stop him."
The legend grew. Michigan State Coach Duffy Daugherty supposedly called John three times in one day. John says it was only once. The telegrams that arrived were turned over to his coach or his father. He knew where he wanted to go—to Kansas, to play in the same backfield with Junior—but he flew out to the University of Colorado anyway to take a look.
"I'd never been west of Salina, Kansas," Riggins says, "and I looked at the mountains in awe. I saw a Colorado game and then met a whole bunch of alumni—doctors and lawyers and businessmen. That evening Bobby Anderson—he was a quarterback on the team and the younger brother of Dick Anderson, who played for the Dolphins—took me out. He and his date, Tom Harmon's daughter, Kelly, were driving me to pick up my date, and he asked me, 'What do you want to do? A movie O.K.?' and I said, 'Yeah, fine.'
"Then Bobby asked me, 'Have you seen Doctor Zhivago?' and I said, 'Well, I might have met him this afternoon, but I don't remember him.' I could see him and Kelly looking at each other: 'Gee-zus, where did this guy come from?' "
At Kansas he majored in journalism, getting one scoop when he copped a look at a police accident report and came up with an identity that was being withheld. "Got me a C in journalism that semester," he says. In 1968, his first season on the varsity, he gained 866 yards rushing and was named Big Eight Soph of the Year. Frank was his blocker now, splitting the job with a little tailback named Don Shanklin. The Jayhawks went 9-1 but lost to Penn State in the Orange Bowl. Then the bottom fell out. Kansas was 1-9 in Riggins' junior year and 5-6 the next. He had the consolation of making one All-America team as a senior and leading the Big Eight in rushing (1,131 yards) that year.
Around campus he was something of a curiosity. He fought in the Kansas City Golden Gloves one year and made it through two bouts, his loss in the second ending in leaden-armed fatigue—"Just standing there, my arms at my sides, everyone booing." In another escapade, Frank remembers John somehow commandeering a Rolls-Royce, complete with chauffeur, and piling 10 kids in it for a spin. And his attire was as outlandish as his behavior. "He'd dress in overalls and carry a lunch pail and wear these little bitty wire-rim granny glasses that had originally been his grandmother's," says John Wooden, who runs a college hangout in Lawrence called The Wheel. "One night he pulled up on a motorcycle, with this girl riding in back who was almost as big as he is. There must have been 440 pounds on that motorcycle. The tires were flat to the ground. Everyone came out of the restaurant to look at them."
"I remember meeting John at one of those preseason All-America things in Chicago," says Steve Tannen, then an All-America cornerback at Florida. "You know what they're like; you're dealing with a lot of egos, everyone trying to strut his stuff. Very few guys stuck out, but Riggins did. John and Mike Phipps of Purdue and I sort of hung around together. John was an individualist, but the thing that really separated him from the rest of the guys was that most of them had the IQ of an after-dinner mint."
With the pro scouts it was a toss-up whether Riggins or Ohio State's John Brockington would be the first runner picked. There was one negative about Riggins: He was different. "The scouts were around all the time," Riggins says. "They all wanted to give me the same tests, running tests, spatial tests, four, five, 10 times. I'd say, 'Hey, I've got better things to do, man.' So they wrote down in their little books: 'Bad Attitude.' And you know-something, they were right."
Nonetheless, the New York Jets, with the sixth pick in the draft, had no trouble deciding to make Riggins the first running back chosen. Coach Weeb Ewbank had seen his share of eccentrics. At the time, Ewbank's Jets were a team in transition. The veterans who had won the Super Bowl in '69—guys like Larry Grantham, Don Maynard and Pete Lammons—were showing their age. A new breed was arriving.
"We were the flower people," says Tannen, the Jets' No. 1 draft choice the year before Riggins arrived and a film and TV actor these days. "Me in '70, Riggins and Phil Wise and Chris Farasopoulos in '71. Before that it was a club of good 'ol boys, heavy drinkers, three-piece suits, big, sturdy cars."
"My image of pro football from the guys I played with as a rookie," Riggins says, "was that you needed a hangover on Sunday to play in the NFL."
Riggins came into his first pro training camp frightened. "I was always scared of the next level," he says. "Scared whether I could make the next cut. When I was about to go to Kansas from Centralia, I could just hear people saying under their breath, 'Well, he was pretty good in the little pond, but wait till he gets to the university, they'll straighten him out.' By the time I was a senior at Kansas I was pretty confident, but when I got drafted, the old fear came back. I remember a writer telling me, 'You're a Number One draft choice, they're not going to cut you. They never cut their Number One.' And I said, 'Yeah, but I don't want to be the first.' That's probably why I came chugging into camp in an old '63 Chevy, so I could leave town inconspicuously."
Jet Fullback Matt Snell had gone down with a preseason injury, so the job was Riggins' from Day 1. As a rookie he became the first player to lead the Jets in both rushing (769 yards) and pass receiving (36 catches). He blocked, he ran hard, he showed a natural instinct for pass catching. Against San Diego he made what New York Backfield Coach Ken Meyer called "the most amazing play I've ever seen." Riggins was swinging out for a screen pass, with 240-pound Linebacker Jeff Staggs lying in wait and 260-pound Tackle Andy Rice closing from the blind side. Riggins one-handed the slightly overthrown ball, stiff-armed Staggs in the same motion, rode with Rice's tackle and dragged both of the defenders for two yards. "A two-yard gain, who will ever know about it?" Meyer said. "And yet it's one of the greatest feats of coordination I've ever seen on a football field."
"People talk about the younger generation, the long hair and funny clothes," said Grantham, then a 32-year-old right linebacker, and an original 1960 New York Titan, staring at Riggins' blossoming sandy Afro. "I don't ¬£are what this kid looks like. He can play football with anybody."
Riggins came back in 1972 ready to take a shot at Snell's single-season Jet rushing record of 948 yards. He played hurt—he had a series of minor injuries. He didn't complain. The Jets got the maximum mileage out of his aching 23-year-old body. Midway through November Ewbank brought New York into Miami with a 6-3 record and some very real playoff hopes. Riggins played with a charley horse and damaged feet. With a minute and a half left in the game, the Jets, trailing by four points, had the ball deep in their own territory. Joe Namath called three swing passes to Riggins and a draw by Riggins. Net gain: 18 yards. End of game. Dolphin Safetyman Dick Anderson was laughing as he made the last tackle.
Four days later, in a Thanksgiving game in Detroit, Riggins, despite his sore leg, carried the ball 18 times in the first half. He wound up with 105 yards on 24 carries but limped off the field in the fourth quarter. The next week, against New Orleans, his right knee started locking. It had been chipped. He knew something was wrong but was told to tough it out. Two days later he was operated on for removal of a bone chip. His season was over with two games left. He fell four yards short of Snell's record, and New York missed the playoffs. "If only Riggins had stayed healthy all year," everyone said. The Jet players voted him their MVP anyway.
During the off-season Riggins took a long look at his career up to that point. He'd done it their way and it hadn't worked. Now he felt like an old man. He began to have serious thoughts about the game and about human durability. The Jets sent him a $1,000 bonus. He sent it back.
He was sharing a Greenwich Village apartment with Farasopoulos, the curly-haired little safetyman from Brigham Young. A bar, an old Wurlitzer jukebox, a barber chair and a couch without legs were the furnishings. The life-style was fast. Friends who visited from Kansas couldn't understand the way he was living.
"I didn't know who I was or where I was half the time," Riggins says. "I'd wake up asking myself, 'Why the hell am I doing this?' Everyone who had long hair in those days was either a hippie or a war protester. I didn't see myself that way. So I shaved my head and grew a Mohawk. I was staking out my own territory, letting everyone around me know I was making my own decisions."
In '73 Riggins told Ewbank he wanted more money, a lot more. He had originally been given a two-year contract for $22,000 the first year and $25,000 the second, plus a $40,000 signing bonus. Namath was making $250,000. Riggins wanted $150,000. "The beating I had been taking was unnatural," he says. "I couldn't walk for two days after every game. And I was only 23. When all the glory is gone and you've got that little crook in your walk, then you'll ask yourself, was it worth it? Anyone who can't see that is stupid. I may be from a small town, but I'm not a hick."
"I've always felt that players go to pot quicker when they're overpaid than when they're underpaid," Ewbank said. So Riggins held out. It was a bad time for the Riggins boys. Frank had been released after four years as an outfielder in the California Angels' organization and in football had tried out unsuccessfully for both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Chiefs. Billy was thinking of quitting the University of Kansas football team. One day, John and Billy drove a pickup down to the Blue River near Kansas' Tuttle Creek State Park and camped out.
"We fished, we hung ropes up and swung from them, we ran," says Billy. "We talked about everything. John said, 'If you go back and play you'll be a blocker. You'll wear high-top shoes and a donut around your neck. You might have a chance to play pro football some day, bomb squad, for a minimal amount of money. You might last a year or two.' It was straight from the shoulder, pow! But in a strange way, it got me to go back and play. At the same time there was a lot of pressure on John from our folks to return to the Jets. I think that pressure is what eventually got him back there."
Four days before the Jets' Monday-night season opener against Green Bay, Riggins signed a two-year contract for $60,000 and $70,000. "Damnedest sight you ever saw," Ewbank said. "He signed the contract sitting at the desk in my office. He had that Mohawk haircut, and he was stripped to the waist and wearing leather pants and a derby hat with a feather in it. It must have been what the sale of Manhattan Island looked like."
The Jets were practicing at Rikers Island prison in New York City. "Hey, Riggins!" one of the inmates shouted as the Jets got off their bus. "Don't go near the fort!"
That year and the next two with the Jets were spent in the Twilight Zone. New York went 4-10, 7-7 and 3-11. Wackos and loonies came and went. On a flight back from Miami, after a 31-3 loss in '73, Riggins held a tape cassette next to the loudspeaker mike, and as Bette Midler's Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy blared through the plane the whole place erupted in a frenzy of dancing. "I held the tape deck," Riggins says, "but they were the ones who were doing the dancing."
"What killed me," Tannen says, "was watching Mike Adamle [another former Jet] interviewing [Redskin owner] Jack Kent Cooke on TV after the Super Bowl and asking him if Riggins is as crazy now as he was then. Crazy? When Mike was with the Jets he used to take off his clothes on the flights back from games and sit there in his underwear. 'Why, Mike?' I'd ask him. 'More comfortable,' he'd say."
Charley Winner replaced Ewbank in '74. He was fired the next season, four days after a fight broke out on the Jet bench during a game in Baltimore. That was Riggins' final season in New York and it ended with a Jet rushing record of 1,005 yards, a second team MVP award and a Pro Bowl appearance. He'd played out his option that year for $63,000. He knew he'd had it with the Jets.
"You could say it was like a marriage that didn't work out," he says. "A lot of promise in the beginning, and then things completely collapsed. What happened to me at the Jets was that I learned to become a loser. I think I envisioned myself then as one of those souls who wander through the NFL without a cause to believe in, not really a member of a team, just a member of the NFL searching for a playoff. A soldier of fortune, a mercenary fighter—that would be the logical extension of it. Except that in the soldier-of-fortune league sometimes the players don't leave the stadium after the game."
Riggins said the Jets made him one offer for the 1976 season—$100,000. He let it be known that he thought he was worth what Namath was making, and at $450,000 a year Namath was the highest-paid player in the NFL, although in 1975 he'd ranked 27th among its quarterbacks and led the league in interceptions. A recent court decision had created a short-lived situation that allowed Riggins and 23 other players complete free agency, and he shopped himself around. He had one price for the Jets and a lower one for the rest of the league.
"The Jet General Manager, Al Ward, talked to me one time," Riggins said. "He said, 'What do you eventually want to do in life?' I said, 'Oh, I might like to be a sportswriter someday.' "
On June 10, 1976 Riggins signed a five-year, $1.5 million contract with the Redskins. The Jets had gotten nothing for him. "Maybe it was bitterness on their part, but a lot of rumors followed me from New York," he says. "Rumors that I was overweight, that I wouldn't practice injured. Maybe if I had I wouldn't be around today. Rumors that I didn't like to practice—well, I've never made a secret of that. Rumors that I was on drugs. You name it."
The Washington running game was halfback-oriented. Riggins was positioned as the up back in the I formation, blocking for Mike Thomas. "George Allen's idea of offense was, don't lose the game with it and the defense will win for you," Riggins says. "Actually, it was a joke, my being there, a waste of my time and their money. But you get in a situation like that—a new club that's a winner, a big contract—and you don't want to appear to be a rabble-rouser. You do what you're told.
"On the 19-straight play—the Jets called it 19-straight, the Redskins called it 38 M Bob—a halfback lead play with me carrying, I'd always had an optional read off what the tackle does. It's a play we even ran in high school, and I'd always had my greatest success delaying and then breaking it off the tackle's block. But the Redskins' system was for me to head immediately for the guard, and then flatten out behind the line of scrimmage looking for a hole. It wouldn't work. By then it was too late to break it outside; the pursuit would catch up.
"It's a feeling that you're out of your old routine, you're in a different tank of water. The structure of the terrain is different. I talked to Joe Namath about it, after he'd gone to the Rams. Joe had a habit of always patting the ball before he threw it, and occasionally a coach who was working with him for the first time would tell him not to do it. Little things like that, things you've been doing all your life, can make a difference. Joe and I agreed on one thing: When most conscientious people change jobs, they try to do it the employer's way, especially when they're getting decent pay.
"Anyway, toward the end of my first season, I started going back to doing that play my old way, starting slower to let the play develop, breaking it wider, and I had success. The next year some of the assistant coaches wanted me to go back to their approach, I said, 'Look at the films, you'll see it worked better my way.' They said, 'O.K., but don't tell George.' Everyone was so afraid of George."
In the off-season, Riggins had asked Allen to trade him. Allen told him to take it easy, things would work out. The 1977 season ended for Riggins after five games and a severely sprained right knee. Jack Pardee took over as Redskin coach in '78, and Riggins' 1,014 yards earned him recognition as Comeback Player of the Year. In '79 he rushed for 1,153 yards. In the season finale he made the longest run of his career, a 66-yarder in the fourth quarter against Dallas, but a stirring comeback by the Cowboys knocked the Skins out of the playoffs.
"I was tired and disillusioned," Riggins says. "Jack called me a couple of times in the off-season to say things like, 'Do you have a mandatory weight program? You've got to learn to make better decisions in upfield situations. You're not getting off the ball quick enough.' If he had said just once, 'Gee, you had a good year....' What's wrong with a little common courtesy, rather than, 'Here are the films, work on 'em.' All of a sudden Weeb was looking better and better to me. He used to say, 'These are my running backs, don't mess with 'em.' "
Riggins had a year remaining on his contract, and he told the Redskins that the following year he wanted his salary to be increased to $500,000, guaranteed. He describes it as "negotiating my option year a year early." The Skins called it "renegotiation." At any rate, it led to his quitting football for the 1980 season.
"It's hard to grasp," he says, "but I was tired and weary. I'd had it. So why not pull your horns in? Why risk a broken neck? What was easy for everyone to understand was that here was Mr. Greedo asking for more money. Wants more, can't have it, must get out. I think now that what I was really doing was looking for an excuse to get out. If they'd said, 'O.K., you win, here's the money you want,' I think I'd have said, 'Oooh, wait a second....' "
In 1980 Riggins hung around and painted the house in Lawrence and hunted and fished and wondered why his deferred contract payments weren't coming in. Then he took another look at the contract.
"I'd misread it," he said. "I thought the deferred payments started in January 1981. Actually they didn't start until 1983. The beautiful part was that I'd done the contract myself. I thought I was Clarence Darrow or somebody. I figured, 'Oh hell, I don't need a lawyer. I can read a contract.' So that whole year I was making nothing. Let's face it, I had a definite cash-flow problem."
In 1981 he was in camp, ready to try it again, this time for the Redskins' new coach, Joe Gibbs, his sixth NFL boss. "I'm bored, I'm broke and I'm back," was Riggins' statement upon his return. He was also granting no interviews, a moratorium that was to last until the Tuesday before last January's NFL championship game.
"That surprised me," brother Billy says. "John used to talk about how much fun he'd always had being interviewed and reading the stuff the next day. In fact, the last time I talked to him he said he'd really like to be a sportswriter when he retired."
Riggins says, "I figured it this way: If I was going to catch heat in the papers, which I had been doing, I wasn't going to throw any fuel on the fire. Sometimes when you're sitting in the locker room after a tough game, trying to organize your thoughts, you can be baited into saying something that you don't want to say. Then it becomes like a fission thing. When the first atom explodes, the whole thing goes. You're going to say things that will cause trouble, but then again the other side of it is that as a reader, those are the things I like to read."
Gibbs had visited Riggins in Lawrence in the off-season to sound him out. "I didn't know what to expect," Gibbs says. "He told me he might come back. He saw me looking at the beer in his hand. He said, 'Look, I know what you're thinking, but don't worry, if I come back I won't be in good shape, I'll be in great shape.' "
Riggins pushed himself in camp. When the squad was finished practicing, he would stay out and run quarter miles. Getting his timing down took a while. He and the Redskins started slowly. The first game the Skins won, after five losses, was the first time Riggins broke loose, for 126 yards. It was also the game in which the Skins switched to a one-back offense, Riggins alternating with little Joe Washington.
It turned into a weird year for Riggins. He set a Redskin record with 13 touchdowns rushing, but nine of them were for two yards or less. "I was the DH," he says. "I'd go in for short-yardage situations, third and one, third and two. It was an end-of-career type of thing. Scoring all those touchdowns was my juice, though; they were what kept me going. When I was in high school and college a one-yard touchdown run didn't mean all that much to me. But in the big leagues it's really tough to get."
The '82 season shaped up as more of the same, except that three things happened—Washington and Halfback Wilbur Jackson got hurt, Redskin Quarterback Joe Theismann had his best year, and the Washington offensive line, the Hogs, became the most deadly group of run blockers in the game. And so with the playoffs coming up, Riggins asked for the ball.
"I looked back on my career and it seemed to have followed a pattern," he says. "Every time I was told exactly what I was supposed to be doing and what the order of things should be—the coach is the Dl, you're the recruit who has to march in step)—it blew up in my face. The other way, when I tried to do things my way, it seemed to work out better. When I first went to Washington I was supposed to be a big, tough guy coming from New York, but I was actually a little mouse down there. I was trying to make everyone happy instead of doing it my way."
It was the same old story of the wrong long-jump pit back in Bern. It was the culmination of a career that had been held back by doubt and frustration, by all those years of being Junior's younger brother and then finding another Junior on the Jets, this one named Namath. But now everything was in place. Riggins had never had this kind of firepower to run behind. His legs felt strong, healthy. Maybe all those days of missing practice had prolonged his career, who knows? All he knew was that he wanted the ball.
The playoffs and Super Bowl followed a similar pattern: Theismann set teams up with the pass, and when the defensive linemen got tired from pass rushing, Riggins and the Hogs pounded them into submission. The Washington fans loved it. They brought air horns to the games and tooted as Riggins rumbled through the line like a truck. JOHN RIGGINS RUNS ON DIESEL FUEL read a big sign in the end zone at RFK Stadium during the conference championship game.
"I think a lot of coaches didn't understand that John thrives on responsibility," Billy says. "He's so big and strong, he can wear people down."
"To have watched him play in high school," says Frank, "and then to watch him in last year's playoffs, well it brought back memories. He finally had the guts to tell them he wanted the ball. Sometimes it pays to buck city hall."
"Before the Super Bowl I had this terrible feeling," says Mary Lou Riggins, " 'What if he should flunk out now?' He didn't feel anything like that. He was loving every minute of it. That's why he dressed up in white tie and tails for the party Mr. Cooke gave the Friday before the game. It was as if everything John ever did in his whole career was geared to this."
The Super Bowl came down to a fourth-and-one play for Washington from the Dolphins' 43 with the Skins trailing 17-13 in the fourth quarter. Riggins swept the left side; Cornerback Don McNeal grabbed his jersey and Riggins shook him off.
"When I saw John get the ball," Mary Lou says, "I said, 'Dear God, put wings on his feet.' "
Forty-three yards later Riggins was crossing the goal line for the winning score, pulling away from Dolphin Safetyman Glenn Blackwood. He would carry the ball eight more times that afternoon to help pound the final nails deeper into the Dolphins' coffin.
Since that day his life has been a continuous afterglow. There was a nibble from the USFL followed by a contract personally negotiated by Cooke that Cooke says "will last till the end of his career." It has been estimated at $3 million for four years, which would carry Riggins through his 37th year on the planet and his 15th in the NFL. After that, who knows?
Gibbs says that this season he'll probably use Washington in long-yardage or passing situations and Riggins for regular-or short-yardage plays, but he adds, "I'm not stupid. I saw what John accomplished in the Super Bowl. He's going to play a lot. Someone's going to have to take the job away from him."
The Hogs are young and they can only get better. During the off-season Riggins presented each of them with a .460 Mark V Weatherby Magnum rifle and one shell. "That's the biggest, toughest gun there is," he says. "They can fire it once and then put it over the fireplace."
This summer the Rigginses moved to the Washington area on a permanent basis, having purchased a home in a northern Virginia suburb. "As much as he says he loves country living," Billy says, "he still likes the excitement of the East Coast."
"I don't know what he wants to do when he's finished with football," Mary Lou says. "I know he wouldn't be happy just piddling around a farm. An entertainer maybe...certainly not a nine-to-five job...maybe an actor."
"Well, I've done a lot of pretending," Riggins says, "but never any acting."