About four minutes into the NFL Films interview with John Riggins, the real reasons why my favorite footballer of all time left the New York Jets are explained. He had come to hate the losing team the Jets had become. Most of all, though, he knew he was never going to be granted pay parity with Joe Namath, and with a passing attack (or whatever was left of it) at the core of Namath's game, John Riggins felt entitled to more. I was crestfallen. I didn't get it. I wrote him a letter, begging him to come back. He had been my football hero for such a short time, and now he belonged to some other six year old.
It's absurd to think of Namath getting more money than Riggins when the latter's Hall of Fame career was ahead of him and former's long behind. But times were what they were. Our quarterback would hobble through a final season with the Jets. Even with Riggins, the Jets would still have finished the 1976 season 3-11. They were a terrible team, and I cannot imagine how he would have endured Lou Holtz as Head Coach. Becoming a free agent in an era when the concept was still novel in sports meant that Riggins was merely fulfilling the expectations of his own self-defined unconventionality. Still, for years and years afterward, I kept the poster of him that Mom once got for me while he was still a Jet. In that picture, he is forever playing against the Dolphins at the Orange Bowl in 1972. When I would come back from college or from a visit wherever I was living afterwards, he was still there on my wall, looking for a hole, grasping the ball on either of its sides as if it were a brick. On my wall, he was forever a Jet.
The story is fairly well known. A man recently hired to coach the football team located in our nation's capital had a piece of unfinished business left over from his predecessors. Specifically, he needed to locate a player of some exceptional talent who was once rumored to have been transported by aliens to another dimension or something like that and had recently vanished back home into the anonymity of Kansas. He had refused to play in 1980 for a contract that he felt beneath him. The coach was a racing enthusiast and a Southerner, but hardly the sort of man to believe in such wild stories. Instead, the coach believed in the power of God's salvation. A man was with God or against Him. This strange man existed for some reason, so maybe the coach could make some good of it and trade the player for somebody who fit his model.
When Joe Gibbs found John Riggins outfitted in a camouflage hunting outfit, hitting the sauce, he was appalled:
He had been hunting, him and a buddy. He had a beer can in his hand. It was 10 o'clock in the morning and he's meeting his coach for the first time and I'm thinking [sarcastically], 'This guy really impresses me.' But I went in there, and halfway through the conversation he says, 'You need to get me back there. I'll make you famous.
I thought to myself, 'Oh, my God, he's an egomaniac.' I thought, 'I'll get him back and then I'll trade him. I'm not putting up with a fruitcake.' So I fly back to Washington, and two days later he calls me. He says, 'Joe, I made up my mind, and I'm going to play next season.' I thought it was great. I've got him back, and I'll trade that sucker. But then he says, 'There's only one thing I want in my contract.' I ask what it was. He says, 'A no-trade clause.'
Egomaniac, fruitcake. At first, to Joe Gibbs, John Riggins could be understood no other way. But he would obviously come to know just how famous John Riggins would make him. In Gibbs' offense, the pass and the run balanced beautifully, but John Riggins was special - simply a force of nature. Riggins simply did not fit into the world view of anyone who believes that he exists either in God's mercy or without it. He carried the whole thing himself.
From 1981 on, John Riggins's statistics become the work of an epic storyteller. As I turned into a teenager, my mind's picture of him as a Jet began to blur and fade. The world was now parceling out its realities to where nothing could ever make me completely happy the way a Jets Super Bowl victory once promised. I was forced to take my joys where I could, and following John Riggins throughout his career became one of those diluted pleasures in a confusing world. I knew what Joe Gibbs only half-suspected when he took the fruitcake on his team. John Riggins had the capacity to carry the whole thing across the line. I had seen it with my own eyes, and John would do it with panache in Super Bowl XVI.
The Super Bowl that year was personal for me, and not just because of him. Miami's Dade County had destroyed my 13 year-old's faint hopes for a Super Bowl appearance by not putting down the tarp the night before the 1983 AFC Championship between the Dolphins and the Jets. They played in puddles of water, and the Jets were shut out and kept out of the Super Bowl against Washington. I don't think I hated a team any more than I did the Miami Dolphins, with their nickel and dime quarterbacks Strock and Woodley, their little running backs, their Killer B's. I wanted to see them destroyed, which I really didn't believe could happen.
They weren't, but what happened was even more beautiful than that. Midway through the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, the Redskins were down 17-13 at 4th and 1. The Dolphins called a timeout, knowing that the ball would likely be given to John Riggins. When play resumed, the plan didn't change, but Riggins ran off-tackle, carefully extricating himself from the grasp of Don McNeal, whose efforts to get to the outside fell short with a slip on the turf. Once he was free, Riggins ran for daylight along the sidelines, charging and pumping his body, almost running through the grandstands at the end zone's edge. He had put the Redskins ahead in the game for good and created an image that still stands as one of the singularly important moments in Redskins history, when their team was suddenly no longer an also-ran and runner-up to the likes of Dallas. They were the champions.
John Riggins' breakaway, which I remember watching on TV with as much excitement as if he were still in green and white, is a moment that all fans wait for - the transformative moment when you realize the team you love is now about to enter into immortality. I see it in Flyers' fans right now around Philly; I mean real ones, not fair-weather hockey fans like me, but ones who've been following every game this season and every one before it. As they await Game 1 of the Stanley Cup, they wonder, Is this the year? Riggins' mad scramble on fourth and 1 answered the question. For all the Redskin fans who survived the 35-34 Thanksgiving loss to the Cowboys in 1979, the answer was clear: Yes. This is your year.
Beating Miami that day was like getting the plastic action figure version of that feeling. Though he broke my heart, John Riggins showed me what it might feel like. Now I'm also grateful that the Jets didn't win the Mud Bowl in Miami because my heart wouldn't have been able to bear the sight of John Riggins running off-tackle over Bobby Humphrey on fourth and one. No, thank you.
The story is very well known. My memory tells me it happened right after the Super Bowl, but I may simply be mixing up events where I read that John Riggins showed up somewhere in top hat and tails, which he did often. At a black tie affair attended by the nation's political elite at the Washington Press Club in January 1985, John Riggins drunkenly collapsed during (what he says was) Sam Donaldson's speech (other reports suggest it was then Vice President Bush's). But it was what he said just before entering the land of nod that was true to his nature, even if that nature happened to have been absolutely snackered at the time. Seated next to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, John Riggins offered a bleary-eyed piece of advice to America's first female appointee to the high court, one that may or may not have changed the course of legal history:
"Loosen up, Sandy baby. You're too tight."
He's been asked about it many times. He was asked about his drinking around the same time, the twilight of his career. Did he have a drinking problem? "Only when I'm hanging from the rafters by my knees." That's a drunk's reply. But since finishing his career, after being inducted into the Hall of Fame, Riggins became an actor, however briefly, on soap operas and on stage. He is an eloquent critic of the circus program that is Dan Snyder's Washington Redskins, and he seems rather well put together as a human being right now. We cannot ever really know the extent of what the acid aliens did to his brain, but I am grateful for their work. John Riggins defies the expectations of the No Fun League, with its squads predictably filled with nothing but bland religious zealots and illiterate, borderline sociopaths. John Riggins would have had no fun there.
But I argue his influence is lasting. The question remains: Did Sandy baby actually loosen up? Is it merely a coincidence that Sandra Day O'Connor, nominated by Ronald Reagan, became one of the more reliable moderates on an increasingly strident, conservative court? Could John Riggins have had something to do with it? Are we to credit the influence of peyote-eating extraterrestrials and their Sioux captives? I think it's very, very possible.