This article incorrectly said the New York Jets traded John Riggins to the Washington Redskins. Riggins, who joined the Redskins in 1976, was signed as a free agent.
Diesel fumes: Riggins has plenty of unvarnished opinions about his former team, the Redskins
Thursday, November 12, 2009
John Riggins refuses to be one of those ex-NFL greats for whom retirement is a matter of infinite glory, all slack gut and sentiment. At 60, he's got a chest of hard-packed muscle, and the outlook of a subversive. He doesn't have wrinkles so much as slashes, deep cuts worn into his face by cynicism and amusement, which make his gap-toothed smile look more like a wince. The smile is followed by an acid-washed sound that turns out to be laughter, at his own expense.
Most guys of his age and stature are wallowing in bygone days, or wearing suits in TV booths. They aren't going viral with YouTube videos, in which they crouch in underground forest locations and issue irreverent heretical manifestos against their old Super Bowl team, the Washington Redskins. Or building Twitter followers with verbal attacks as brutally targeted as chucked grenades.
To his listeners Riggins is a truth teller, a voice-of-the-revolution and, as he puts it, "a little bit of a radical." To critics he's just an opportunist out to build the audience for his WTOP radio show, "The Riggo Report." He pleads guilty to all charges -- and he has no intention of hitting mute.
"I certainly can be diplomatic if I want to, but the chances are that I probably don't really want to, 'cause it takes too much energy," he says. "For me it does. I'm not that intelligent. Otherwise I'll get caught in my own BS. I try not to do that."
It would be satisfying to report that Riggins made that declaration from his renegade dirt fort, wearing camo and clenching a knife in his teeth. Actually, he was in a Bethesda wine bar ordering an arugula salad. It's about the time Riggins forks up his salad that you realize how much he enjoys cutting against the grain. In the course of a conversation he references Robert Frost, Che Guevara and Crazy Horse. He comes across as scathing, literate -- he's an accomplished actor who performed Shakespeare on stage in New York to decent reviews -- and an equal mix of self-serving and self-mocking. Only rarely does he regret what he says.
"Well let's face it, that dinner with Sandra Day O'Connor could have gone a lot better," he says, referring to the liquid occasion in 1985 when he told the Supreme Court justice to "loosen up, Sandy baby."
He certainly doesn't regret anything he's said about the 2-6 Redskins, or their owner, Daniel Snyder. It's an awkward fact that Riggins, arguably the most beloved player in the history of the franchise, a Hall of Fame running back who from 1976 to 1985 hauled the team on his back to its greatest victories, has become the harshest critic in town. He accuses Snyder, the billionaire entrepreneur, of possessing "more ego than intellect" and ruining the team with meddling. He suggests: "It won't be long before the logo is a profile of the owner. . . . I mean, that's where this is going. He's branding himself. I kind of like that, actually. At least it would be truth in advertising."
Last week, Riggins controversially described Snyder as "a bad guy" with a "dark heart," on Showtime's "Inside the NFL," a statement that provoked a talk radio firestorm and a chorus of disapproval from loyal Redskins. Riggins's former quarterback, Joe Theismann, told WTOP that Riggins "crossed the line and stepped beyond the boundaries of decency."
Truth in advertising compels Riggins to admit he may have an ax to grind. In 2008, Snyder bought the station on which Riggins had a popular talk show, WTEM, and merged it to form ESPN 980. Riggins's contract was not renewed. Theismann, who now works for the station, suggests Riggins is conducting a "vendetta."
Riggins denies the charge. He contends he developed his opinion of the owner before his show was canceled, based on a handful of social meetings. "This is someone who thinks they're better than you," he says. "Why would you like someone like that? You wouldn't. I don't." He adds: "I don't owe anybody explanations. You ain't heard me tell any lies."
The situation has put fans and friends squarely in the middle -- particularly former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who has strong attachments to Riggins and Snyder alike. "Both relationships are very important to me," Gibbs says. "Both have given me a lot."
Riggins gave Gibbs every ounce of effort on the field, including an MVP performance in Super Bowl XVII in 1983. Snyder gave him a second tenure as Redskins coach from 2004 to '08, during which time Gibbs says he saw numerous instances of Snyder's goodness of heart. Gibbs refuses to impugn either man, or to guess at Riggins's motive, except to suggest Riggins has always tended toward dissent.