Longtime NFL Films producer Dave Douglas was set to begin work on a Barry Sanders project last spring. The Lions running back, of course, is an iconic player, a sublime runner who walked away from the game still healthy, with the NFL rushing record in his sights. A compelling subject, in other words.
Then Douglas heard that his company was on the verge of producing a John Riggins documentary.
“Please,” he said. “I’ll do anything.”
Douglas got the assignment. The result – “John Riggins: A Football Life” – will premier on the NFL Network Wednesday night at 8. And Douglas, who has worked at NFL Films for more than three decades, said he’s never encountered a subject like this one.
“In my 35 seasons here, this has been by far the most enjoyable show I’ve ever worked on,” Douglas told me this week. “It’s not even close. Not even close. It’s not just John’s material and stories. Once you talk to him, and meet him, and have a couple beers with him, you realize how wonderful and real he is.”
The best subjects, Douglas said, require an “incredibly rare” trifecta: spectacular athletic talents, mixed with gripping life stories and the ability to artfully tell them. And Riggins, he said, is “a dream come true.”
In fact, producers were so overflowing with material that dozens of gems didn’t make the 45-minute finished product. Like the story of the judge who described Riggins as “a scamp” in court. Or the tale of Riggins convincing a college pal to blow off studying for finals, helped by a bottle of Jack Daniels. Or former teammate Ron Saul recalling when Riggins went bowling wearing nothing but underwear and socks.
“He’s like Dennis the Menace; he can get away with a lot of stuff that other folks can’t, because they know John’s heart,” said Douglas, an Eagles fan. “They know he’s real. It’s not pre-fabricated, it’s not done for attention. John’s just a scamp, and he admits it. And he’s a wonderful scamp.”
Douglas and his crew talked to a wide array of Riggins observers, from Joe Gibbs and Joe Theismann to Jeff Bostic and John Kent Cooke. They conducted hours of interviews with Riggins over two days in the D.C. area, getting footage of him driving a bulldozer, moving giant rocks, chopping wood, and planting trees. They went with Riggins to his childhood home in Centralia, Kansas, and accompanied him and his brothers on a skeet shooting trip.
They received a trove of home movies and priceless stills from Riggins’s wife Lisa Marie; Douglas called “the MVP of the story” and said “I want to thank her from the bottom of my heart.”
They also dug up memorable clips of Riggins in his heyday: walking away from the Redskins, proclaiming “I’m bored, I’m broke and I’m back” upon his return, asking his teammates to bow down to him at practice, and introducing himself as “Riggins, John, knucklehead” at a formal banquet. They got footage of Riggins at the infamous “loosen up” dinner involving Sandra Day O’Connor, talked to former Virginia Governor Charles Robb (a guest at that dinner), and nearly landed an interview with O’Connor herself.
And the entire experience left Douglas convinced that the NFL was better off for the Riggins experience.
“He’s a renaissance man, he’s an absolute renaissance man,” Douglas told me. “The league could sure use some John Riggins about now. He’s a character with character, and for all his foibles and scars and imperfections, he was a phenomenal player. There are plenty of players today with his ability, but none with his just marvelous irreverence and humility.”
Those things come through very clearly in the film, which covers Riggins’s flaws, his quirks, and above all, his essential charm.
“One minute you’re laughing out loud, almost peeing your pants, and the next moment you almost have a tear in your eye,” Douglas said. “Only John has that evocative ability.”