David Van Biema
November 21, 1983 12:00 PM

Last year the Washington Redskins won the NFL championship, and the reason, simply put, was running back John Riggins. Running like an enraged rhino, he carried the team through the play-offs and, in Super Bowl XVII, the game plan was as follows: Riggins left, Riggins right, Riggins into the guts of the Miami Dolphins’ defense. This 6’2″, 235-pound battering ram pounded out a record 166 yards, scored the winning touchdown and took home the Super Bowl MVP award.

With an 8-2 record as of last week, the Redskins are play-off-bound once again. And if they are to be repeat Super Bowl champs, Riggins is the key. As quarterback Joe Theismann says, “If we are a bicycle, then John is a wheel. Take him away and you have a very bumpy ride.”

Question: Has all this responsibility mellowed a man who once showed up for a game with his toenails painted green? Answer: A decade ago he dressed like a character out of A Clockwork Orange; last winter he unexpectedly arrived at a play-off party in tails. As coach at a recent alumni-varsity game at the University of Kansas, Riggins decreed a bed check—anybody found in bed before midnight would be heavily fined.

Yes, still crazy after all these years; and still, at 34, one of the greatest backs the game has ever seen. After 12 years in the pros—the average back lasts less than five—Riggins is fifth on the all-time rushing list. Barring injury, he is headed for his fourth 1,000-yard rushing season. “He certainly borders on greatness,” says O.J. Simpson, who is No. 3 on the all-time rushing list.

Riggins is still also right up there on the all-time flake list. As he himself once said, “I don’t know if I’m ahead or behind, but I know I’m not even.” That much was clear when he came to the New York Jets as a first-round draft pick out of Kansas in 1971. Even in that group of furiously free spirits—Joe Na-math was then the quarterback—Riggins managed to stand out. His preferred mode of dress was leather pants, suspenders, little or no shirt, a derby and combat boots. Then came the Mohawk, the green toenails, the Jimi Hendrix Afro and the completely shaved head. Raised in tiny (pop. 500) Centralia, Kans. (his father was a railroad depot operator, his mother a secretary), Riggins once explained that his penchant for acting the oddball came from a deep-seated craving for laughs. “I like to have fun,” he said, “and nothing is more fun than going against the grain.”

Dress-code violations aside, what truly astonished the football establishment was Riggins’ bitterly realistic attitude toward the game. He seemed troubled by the fact that football destroys bodies—and that once your body is finished, you’re finished. “They use you until your can of gasoline is gone,” he complained, “and then they throw you on the junk heap.” The supermacho types were even more horrified when he later declared, “It’s a game. That’s kind of a poor excuse to have a crooked leg.”

So Riggins refused to practice when he was hurt. (A reporter once described him as an “enigma wrapped in a bandage.”) He squabbled over money with Jet management. In 1976 as a free agent he went to the Redskins, who offered him $1.5 million over five years. He played well, gaining more than 1,000 yards in both 1978 and 1979. In 1980 he wanted to renegotiate his contract. When Washington refused, Riggins sat out the year. The Redskins went 6-10 that season.

In 1981 he returned, announcing, “I’m bored, I’m broke and I’m back.” Neither the fans nor the sports press were willing to kiss and make up, so Riggins retaliated by refusing to talk to reporters. Although he lifted the embargo after last season’s play-offs, he is still cautious about granting interviews. The fact that his college major was journalism and that he appears on a weekly football show on TV doesn’t seem to trouble him.

Last year, the strike-torn ’82 season, was when John Riggins finally put it all together. Nicknamed “Diesel” for his relentless, trucklike running style, he was formally adopted by the equally hardworking “Hogs”—the Washington Redskins’ offensive line. The fans too warmed up to Riggins, tooting air horns each time Diesel carried the ball. Before the play-offs Riggins reportedly marched into the office of coach Joe Gibbs and announced, “I want the ball. Give me the ball. I want it.” Meaning, he didn’t want to run the ball his customary 15 to 20 times per game. He wanted it 30 or 35 times. “John became a man possessed,” remembers Joe Theismann. “All of a sudden he started running over people and around people and away from people.”

Soon after his call-for-the-ball he returned to the fans’ good graces. Following a grueling 185-yard effort in the play-offs Riggins doffed his helmet and bowed to wildly cheering fans on both sides of RFK Stadium. “I think the fans have finally forgiven me for sitting out 1980,” he told a reporter. “When you get 54,000 people telling you they love you, it’s hard not to like them too.”

Riggins lives in Fairfax, Va. with his wife, Mary Lou, and their children, Krafton, 8, Portia, 4, and Emil, 11 months. Friends attribute his unusual behavior to an intense need for privacy. According to Mary Lou, her husband is not your average, ill-tempered sports sphinx. “He’s a riot,” she has said. “He has an incredible, original wit.” That wit came into play after his heroic Super Bowl performance last January when President Reagan called to congratulate the team. “At least for tonight,” John said later, “Ron’s President—and I’m King.” And, as they say in Washington, long live the king.

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