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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

NY Jets #44 - John Riggins

There are rules for being a fan, but they are mostly held and maintained by people who are loyal to one team and can't fathom changing sides. Contrary to what some people might tell you, it's perfectly acceptable for a fan to love two teams, even three, at once, though he or she will probably lack the sense of tribal kinship intrinsic to the entire experience. I think your likelihood to play the field in sports is directly related to the love of the sport in question. I follow more than one baseball team but only one football team. I'm on a hockey team's bandwagon right now, but that will not last through the playoffs. I don't even recognize basketball as the game that used to be played by Bird and Magic. In football, I wish Andy Reid's grim-faced soap opera in Philadelphia well because I've lived here for eighteen years. But the only football team I could possibly have followed outside of my one and only were the Washington Redskins from 1976 to 1984, and for only one reason: John Riggins.

Perm, handlebar
In a fan's life, a person can become attached to one player for whatever reason; he follows the player's career regardless of where the player plays. Sometimes this attachment arises from some personal sense of belonging stirred in you. For some peculiar reason, you can feel it. The player belongs to you. You aren't about to camp out in front of his home or write letters to his children, but he becomes the embodiment of everything you need to believe about the sport. If he is traded or departs of his own volition, he sticks to your heart such that you can live, spiritually, in two places at once. This is what happened when John Riggins #44 became a free agent.

From 1971 to 1975, he played for the Jets, and if you don't mind, aside from the handlebar snapshot above, John Riggins will here remain a Jet. Drafted out of Kansas, having broken all of Gale Sayers' records, John Riggins was seen as the kind of player who might be able to replace Matt Snell. He did that and more. If anything, he possessed an eccentric streak that was decidedly less cosmopolitan than Namath's. It was a bravado born of the prairie, an odd, middle American anarchism that represented nothing in particular - no politics to speak of (other than posing with a gun in a 1980's magazine ad for the NRA or needling Sandra Day O'Connor), no commercial products - nothing other than a zest for shocking and appalling ordinary people.

Mohawk, beads
In fact, we could write exclusively about the subject of John Riggins' hair. For a long time, it was his primary mode of self-expression. Consider his early 1970's mohawk. This came with a leather vest and Indian beads so as to express Riggins' unhappiness with his contract. In Kay Iselin Gilman's Life Inside the Pressure Cooker: A Year in the Life of the New York Jets about the 1973 season, there is a photograph inside of Weeb Ewbank sitting down for a chat with Riggins and his mohawk, and they so obviously represent two generations separated not so much by time but by the contortions of outer space. Riggins looks like a man abducted from Lawrence, Kansas by hallucinogenic-ingesting aliens just before his college graduation and brought to a radiation farm on a planet located in an anterior galaxy where he was apparently adopted by a contingent of the Sioux nation who themselves were abducted a hundred years before and stayed ageless due to constant light speed travel. Centuries passed, but within a twilight of our own time, Riggins was returned to his home planet in order to shift his shape, play football and practice whatever he managed to glean from his Sioux teachers. He didn't speak their language, which made his whole interstellar experience a little frustrating, but he returned to Earth a new man. In the picture, Weeb Ewbank looks like the chubby, FBI man, obviously near retirement, who has been brought in to debrief the time-space traveler.

Sandy afro, mustache
I've written before on the subject of John Riggins' departure from the Jets. I remember how often Dad spoke about him during the seasons he was on the Jets, as if there was something transformative about him, and when I looked through my next door neighbor's discarded books about modern heroes of the NFL, I noticed that Riggins' appearance changed from year to year. Short crop, mohawk, sandy afro, dark brown bouffant. It was similar to how John Lennon transformed with every Beatles' album cover, from Rubber Soul to Abbey Road. In that era of weird freedom, the greatest artists were shape shifters, constantly displaying on the outside an impetuosity that accompanies the creative mind. So too John Riggins.

But I have to clarify something that I realize now. I mistook my first epiphany of hero worship to be his performance in the 1975 home game against New England. It wasn't. It was the late season away game at Foxboro. I had already watched him run off-tackle, but until late in the season, there was still only one Jet hero worth all the attention, and he wore #12. Everyone else remained a supporting cast member. I see myself clearly sitting on the sofa with Mom and Dad watching the cold game at Foxboro on NBC. I see John Riggins scoring not just once, but twice. The first was a 37 yard run for a touchdown, while the second was a 6 yard touchdown I see being scored in my mind's eye by Riggins, carrying two or three defenders across the line all by himself. That last one was the clincher, not just for the Jets, who would hold onto a 30-28 win, but for me, for my absolute devotion.

The Jets had lost eight games in a row up until that point, two of which I had seen at Shea with Dad. I was no less a fan than when I started out at the beginning of the year, but I had also become aware of the fact that being a Jets fan would demand a great deal of my young, developing soul. This was not a passing thing. This was a life's demanding and spiritless work. Today I think I am able to greet my unreasonabe, irrationally reluctant 16 year-old students each morning because I have been rooting for a losing cause for so long. I'm not sure what it's doing for my circulatory system, but being a Jets fan from a very early age has taught me a patience at the molecular level, albeit with teeth and fists clenched. Alright, the spirit says, here we go again. You know the drill.

So when I watched John Riggins help the Jets to win over the Patriots late in the 1975 season, I felt like I was watching a man single-handedly pull the Jets into the end zone. For at least one more game, and for the last time that season, the Jets would win. By virtue of his sheer will, Riggins would see to it. He was the man. And in my very immature sense of personal mythology that he was also now The Man. I had found my own football hero, perhaps in much the same way that Dad had once found Namath. John Riggins had done it all himself.

The only trouble is that he had also made himself that much more appealing to the free agent market. And having been instructed in the importance of sharing and pitching in at public school, how could a child possibly be expected to understand the real principles of Ayn Rand's self-interest on which his society rested? Well, he would find out.

To be continued...

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