Iconoclastic Backs Leading Parallel Lives

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By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The television was on, and the story made John Riggins stop and give his undivided attention to the news coming out of South Florida. Ricky Williams, the Miami Dolphins' running back, had reported to training camp and ended his holdout after one year. "I'm looking at it, thinking, 'There I was 25 years ago,' " Riggins said late Monday night.

Yes, it's been exactly 25 years since Riggins left the Redskins' training camp and sat out for a year, just as Williams has done. And while there are differences -- Riggins felt he was going to retire at 30; Williams wanted to travel the world and smoke marijuana -- there are some obvious similarities that do not escape Riggins.

In the year Riggins was away, the Redskins fired Jack Pardee and hired Joe Gibbs to coach the team.

In the year Williams was away, the Dolphins fired Dave Wannstedt and hired Nick Saban to coach the team.

"And," Riggins said, "I was a little bit pensive, not unlike Ricky Williams. I understand, I think, some of what he was sensing. Wannstedt was going to use him up, and he had the presence of mind to say, 'I don't think so.' They weren't going anywhere last year, and perhaps he sensed that, too. Look, Ricky's got his problems -- don't we all? But when I watched him [Monday], he was thoughtful. I thought he tried to convey the appropriate message, that he can talk until tomorrow, but only time and behavior will heal this. I like that he said he had no big message. I do applaud Ricky Williams. . . . Do not confuse Ricky Williams and Terrell Owens. I'm not impressed with T.O. and what he's doing."

It's a natural segue, Ricky to T.O. While Williams is back and trying to make amends to teammates, T.O. has been threatening to leave, then threatening to come to camp even though his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, has been saying "we haven't decided yet." Who would I rather have in camp? Williams, even though he quit on his team last year and some of his teammates couldn't possibly trust him. For starters, Williams is going to run behind rookie Ronnie Brown, who is capable of earning 1,300 yards and reducing Williams to trade fodder (after he comes back following his four-game suspension as demanded by the NFL drug policy). The Dolphins are not dependent on Williams. T.O., on the other hand, is antagonizing his quarterback, Donovan McNabb, and being disruptive. And, to say the least, he's one of the team's principal players.

But something else bothers Riggins more than any of that. "T.O.," Riggins said, "flip-flops every other weekend. At some point, you ought to stand for something. Once you take a stand in something like this, you ought to maintain it. He doesn't seem to stand for anything. And remember, I've backed T.O. every inch of the way until now. When a guy risks his career to play like he did [in the Super Bowl on a badly injured ankle], you've got to say, 'That's a different cat, right there. He's the horse of a different color.' "

Riggins knows I've ripped T.O. for being a bad teammate for two years, first in San Francisco, where he was unnecessarily critical of Jeff Garcia, and lately for acting like a bum toward McNabb. All McNabb did was bring T.O. into his home in Arizona and try to include him in all ways important to the team -- only to have T.O. submarine him and say nasty stuff to the media. T.O., in my mind, is a selfish teammate.

Still, Riggins has a point when he says, "You have to admit, though, T.O. infused something into that team when he got there, and infused something into Donovan McNabb."

I've never met anyone smarter than John Riggins when it comes to assessing who is worth the trouble and who isn't and how to best handle professional athletes and the natural disagreements that arise. Riggins, after his one-year holdout, was welcomed back by his teammates, in large part because they'd seen him go straight from a hospital bed onto the field, and because he's as candid as they come. There was no resentment anybody can remember, certainly none that festered.

Williams, it seems, is being tolerated by his teammates. There's no sense he's going to disrupt anything. But T.O.? Goodness knows what he'll do next. So I asked Riggins how he thought this T.O. matter could best be handled. "I think T.O. likes somebody to hold his hand," Riggins said. "It might have taken nothing more than for [Eagles Coach] Andy Reid and [team president] Joe Banner to go hold his hand. The Eagles could have called everybody in, sat T.O. down and told him, 'T.O., we will never forget what you did for us last year, especially putting your career on the line like that to play in the Super Bowl coming back from such a severe injury.' And for that matter, they could have worked out a little deal the rest of us would never have known about. But the Eagles were immutable on the matter . . . totally intractable."

Riggins laughed and recalled his own episode 25 years ago with Edward Bennett Williams, the man who ran the Redskins then. Riggins was trying to get a better deal on his upcoming option year, not the 1980 season he ultimately missed. Riggins goes so far as to say he was too emotional at the time, that he got a little too antagonistic and "vengeful" in dealing with the Redskins.

"I'd been crushed at the Battle of Dallas," he said of the infamous 1979 loss in Big D that kept the Redskins out of the playoffs. With the disappointment of that season escalating matters, Riggins grew tired of the NFL in general, tired of the Redskins specifically . . . at least in the moment. He didn't have an agent (and jokes now it's the reason he sent his wife, Lisa Marie, to law school). One of many memorable things that came out of trying to negotiate with Edward Bennett Williams "on his turf" was something Williams said.

"He said he believed in the golden rule," Riggins said. "The man with the gold makes all the rules." Even today, NFL teams retain the lion's share of the power.

Williams and T.O., in 25 years, will probably have gained perspective, too, and be able to laugh as Riggins does now.

For now, they are two of the top stories as training camps open. Williams says he isn't entirely certain why he's back. Being 28 and in position to earn $15 million or more the next three or four seasons ought to have something to do with that. Anybody who says Williams is only back for the money is silly. Of course, he's back for the money. No one would endure that punishment for anything less than all he could get. And if he hadn't returned, he faced a court order to repay the Dolphins $8.6 million for breach of contract.

Riggins, you can tell, is rooting for Williams. After all, the Redskins wanted to trade Riggins when he got back -- and he ended up as a Super Bowl MVP and went to the Hall of Fame. Maybe Williams will reclaim his spot and lead the Dolphins to something glorious. "I don't know what it is that T.O. believes in," Riggins said, "but I take my hat off to Ricky Williams. I want to believe Ricky. I really do."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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