Publish date:

This Johnny's On The Spot

John Riggins, a 13-year NFLer, now has to prove himself anew

For 17 days John Riggins had stayed away from training camp in a contract dispute. Now, having just signed a one-year deal worth $825,000, the Washington Redskins' bulldozer of a ballcarrier naturally was itching to play. But first, press conference, anyone?

Riggins strutted into the Dickinson College student union cafeteria in Carlisle, Pa. dressed in khaki safari garb and his high-top sneakers. "I've been a baaaaddddd boy," the 36-year-old Riggins proclaimed. He cocked his curly head to the left, put his chin in his hand and settled into a childlike pout. The reporters were silent, and Riggins said, "What? We're not going to talk about it? My little incident? Or incidents!" A puckish grin came over his face.

He was referring to his July 25 arrest in Reston, Va. on a drunk-in-public charge (he maintains his innocence) and to his behavior at the Washington Press Club's Salute to Congress black-tie dinner Jan. 30, at which he told Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, "Loosen up, Sandy baby. You're too tight," and then took a 45-minute nap on the floor during a speech by Vice-President George Bush.

Did Riggins think he had a drinking problem, somebody finally asked. "Only when I'm hanging from the rafters by my knees," he said.

The conference lasted for half an hour, during which the questions that hang over Riggins's preparations for his 14th season remained essentially unanswered. Will the bruised and battered body that has carried him to 10,675 career rushing yards, fifth on the NFL's alltime list, and a 1,239-yard season in '84—despite Riggins being kept out of 2¾ games with chronic bursitis in the hips—be able to withstand one more year? Where does big, quick, 26-year-young George Rogers, obtained in a trade with New Orleans April 26, fit in? And does Riggins have a drinking problem?

The next afternoon, after finishing his second workout, Riggins drove to Boiling Springs, Pa., a tiny town (pop. 1,521) five miles east of the training camp. Fully clothed, he plopped himself into Yellow Breeches Creek and let the cool water rush chest-high over his weary body.

Afterward, back in camp, his sopping wet clothes still clinging to him, Riggins spoke of the sometimes harsh light that has lately shone on him. "I run into trouble because I'm not self-conscious," he said. "It's hard to think of myself as Big John Riggins. I still think of myself as Bobby John Riggins from Centralia, Kansas. I go ahead and do something I want to do, then all of a sudden, I realize somebody's watching me.

"Sometimes I feel like people live vicariously through me. Like the black-tie affair. Well, I wish somebody else had done it. But I was perfect for the part. I've been embarrassed and humiliated by the boners I've pulled. I was embarrassed by what I said [to O'Connor]. You'd have to be dead not to be.

"I still can't figure out how it happened. I guess it happened because I was drinking wine and hadn't eaten. Wine can sneak right up on you, and, bam!"

Friends say Riggins sent flowers and notes of apology to O'Connor and the other women seated at the table, including his wife, Mary Lou. Could it be that Riggins is a softy at heart?

"There's really not all that much macho in me," he said. "I say I'm macho, then I swallow hard and go out into the world and get beaten up. I've got feelings. I just don't feel the responsibility or the obligation to open my guts to the point everyone would like me to. I wouldn't like having the image of being Jack Armstrong; I'm too human for that. But I don't like being Peck's Bad Boy, either."

Riggins addressed the question of whether he had a drinking problem more forcefully than he had the day before. "Bull——!" he said. In fact, Riggins has promised Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and coach Joe Gibbs that there won't be any more public embarrassments to the team.

At one point Riggins linked his drinking habits to the pain that dogged him last season. "There were times when I shouldn't have been on the field," he said. "In the mornings, it would take me five minutes to get myself into the bathroom. Then I'd get in the car and go to Redskin Park. And I'd sit there for 20 minutes, trying to get out of the car."

About mid-November he wasn't practicing, just playing in games. Even then it would take more than a quarter for him to feel comfortable. Twice he checked himself into a hospital to be put in traction. Riggins said there were times he drank some beer to relieve the pain.

"The pain was a day-today, constant-type deal," he said. "I suppose there was a little tendency instead of taking pain pills to have a couple more beers."

Riggins admits the biggest challenge lies ahead. "George Rogers brings another pair of pretty legs to this team," he said of his new teammate, who rushed for 4,267 yards in four seasons with the New Orleans Saints. Riggins laughed. "Seriously, I'm a little old and a little tired. In a sense, I'm fighting for my job."

Some members of the Redskins' front office, as well as some assistant coaches, believe Rogers should be starting. Gibbs disagrees.

"I'm loyal to John," Gibbs said. "People have been calling it blind loyalty, but they haven't been there. He laid down his guts for us. The guys know he'll be there. He gives everybody confidence."

Gibbs insists he'll be able to bench Riggins if he's unproductive. And if Gibbs doesn't, Riggins says, "I'll take myself out."

Surprisingly, Rogers, who split time last season with Earl Campbell—and later demanded to be traded—doesn't mind taking a backseat to Riggins. "I feel rejuvenated," Rogers said after coming off the practice field one day last week. "I was very unhappy last year."

Rogers pulled his jersey and shoulder pads over his head. Riggins was on the adjacent field, running 100-yard sprints. He looked remarkably fresh. "John works so hard," Rogers said. "People don't realize that. I admire him. But he is my competition." When Riggins said he was fighting for his job, he may not have realized how much of a fight he's in.



Can Riggins stand the heat? He took plenty of it over his varied off-season escapades.



Rogers and Riggins are teammates, mutual admirers and competitors for the same backfield job.