By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"John is his own man," Gibbs says.
Snyder would not comment for this article. The only public response from the Redskins to Riggins's criticism of the team and its owner came from Vinny Cerrato, the club's executive vice president for football operations. "I think John is just trying to create noise to get himself noticed to create a job or something," Cerrato told ESPN 980.
* * *
It's questionable, however, whether Riggins's incendiary comments will help or hinder him from getting work, especially in a town where Snyder controls a large corner of the sports talk-radio market. "This would not be the obvious route to go," points out Riggins's wife of 13 years, Lisa Marie, who applauds what she terms her husband's refusal to be a cheerleading "hey-boy for the owner."
Riggins has sought a place on one of the network NFL pregame shows, without success, though he was seriously considered at one point as a panelist for Fox's NFL coverage. "Hell yeah, you'd like to work at the highest level," he says.
Asked whether his brazen commentary may hurt or help, he says, "I have no idea, I don't know." But, according to his wife: "He'd be a lot further in life if he used himself better. He's a nonconformist, and as I always say, it doesn't pay well."
It also doesn't help that Riggins is not a good polisher of his Hall of Fame veneer. When Lisa Marie first met Riggins in the late 1980s, he was living in a warehouse and using his trophies as doorstops. She gaped at the scuffed, dented awards. Riggins had unscrewed all the plates with his name on them. When she asked him why, he said, "I don't want people to walk in here and think I'm trying to say, 'Look what I've done.' "
She found his Super Bowl jersey under a pile of clothes. "I think he would have used it to wipe up cat pee," she says. She eventually had the trophies repaired and the jersey refurbished, and placed in a safe deposit box.
"I'm constantly battling with, 'I wish we were mainstream,' " Lisa Marie says. "But I married a cowboy and we live on the high wire. I'm not conservative, but I'm afraid I don't have the fearlessness he does."
Underlying the fearlessness is a defiance that dates to Riggins's playing days, when he rebelled against the edicts of coaches and suspected the rich men for whom he played of using him. It's a tab Snyder is probably paying for.
"It's almost like, 'I worked hard for you, I put heart and soul into you, and now I'm just supposed to just sit on a mantel so you can use me for your bottom line?' " Lisa Marie says.
Other former players might feel an emotional bond to the franchise they served for a decade, but Riggins expresses detachment, likening his experience to that of someone who worked for Boeing or Hewlett-Packard.
"I'm a former employee," he says. "Some people are very attached to where they went to college and that's kind of their emotional thing. I don't know, the NFL, for me, not so much."
He stays in regular touch with only one teammate, guard Ron Saul, who now sells plumbing supplies. They talk once a month or so. "John's not one to get on that wagon," Saul says.
Even in his heyday, Riggins's friendships were confined to his workhorse offensive linemen, and to the lunch-bucket workers who toiled on the periphery, like groundskeepers.
"He hung out with the equipment guys, those were his big buddies," Gibbs remembers.
Some might call that a problem with authority.
"Yeah, there's no question about that," Riggins says. "Hell, I been in 10 years of psychoanalysis. I think I can say that with my own authority."
* * *
The first thing he ever wanted to be was a truck driver. Trucking seemed like the only way to bust out of Seneca, Kan., population 500, and get away from his old man. He grew up in a bare, flat expanse of farm sections, fenced-in 640-acre parcels, with only occasional roads cutting through. "I think all that barbed wire kind of got into my psyche," he says.
Gene Riggins was an ex-Marine and a depot agent who was determined to live out his ambitions through his son. Football, John Riggins says, "wasn't really my choice." He flirted with the idea of being a doctor, taking third place in a state biology contest. But Gene quashed any other ambitions. Gene had a way of going cold when he was displeased, which was pretty much always.
"My dad was a real authoritarian guy, and you didn't dare cross him," Riggins says. "Not that he beat anybody, but he was so unpleasant when you crossed him. I don't think I wanted to run the risk of being ignored and basically having him turn his back on me because I wasn't going along with what he wanted."
He went along. He trained in the dead Kansas winter, running behind snowplows at 6 a.m. He didn't love football, but he did love running. He worked on lengthening his stride by tying a rope to the family truck and holding on to it while his father accelerated, until he became a state champion in the 100-yard dash at Centralia High School.
Riggins was filled with wanderlust; he daydreamed about the old West when herds of buffalo wandered unimpeded by strands of steel wire. He yearned to get out of that fenced-in grid, to go see Alaska and the California redwoods. "It always felt like I was penned in, held back," he says. "Imprisoned."
The New York Jets liberated him in 1971, drafting him in the first round out of the University of Kansas. He arrived in New York a half-resentful hayseed, 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds of bullishness with a tendency to carouse to cover up his insecurities. "Truthfully I was extremely lucky. There ain't many guys with my physical talent ever played, that's just a hard cold fact," he says. "I was a jerk-off, lazy, didn't practice, probably drank too much."
When Jets Coach Weeb Ewbank tried to impress his authority, Riggins bucked. "I think I projected my experience with my father onto whoever that next guy was," Riggins says. "They all had to answer to a higher authority, my dad." A 23-year-old Riggins showed up at training camp with a Mohawk haircut, a fledgling gesture of self-determination that landed him on the front of the sports pages.
Any naivete he had about the NFL quickly turned to hard realism. He was witness to Joe Namath's fur-coat-wearing superstardom, but also to Namath's locker room pain from knees so badly wrecked they often had to be drained by needles at halftime. Four operations drove Namath into retirement by 1977. The league wore out players like they were sets of tires, Riggins decided. "Early on I could see this isn't truth and beauty, pro sports," he says. "I learned at a very, very tender age that it's a business, and I also learned at an early age that it's show business."
Traded to the Redskins, he learned another hard lesson in 1980 when he tried to renegotiate his contract, unsuccessfully. He sat out the entire season. He never forgot the golden rule uttered by the Redskins' hard-bargaining owner, attorney Edward Bennett Williams: "The man with the gold makes the rules." He returned to the team to play for its earnest new coach, Gibbs. "I'm bored, I'm broke, and I'm back," Riggins announced.
Gibbs was the only authority figure who ever understood how to handle Riggins: let him be. He didn't want to be fathered, he didn't want to be ruled, and he didn't want a lot of conversation. Nor did he intend to be scolded for gazing out the window instead of watching film. "He wasn't your run-of-the-mill player from the standpoint of a player-coach relationship," Gibbs said. "He did his own thing, he was his own man. And he was a character, funny. I know people say, 'Joe's a milquetoast, he didn't like that sort of thing.' But actually, I did.' "
What mattered was that No. 44 delivered on the field, with that forward-tilting, demolishing style that earned him the nickname the Diesel. They developed a kind of telegraphic system. Riggins would say to his position coach, Don Breaux, "Tell Joe to load the wagon."
"That meant he was getting ready to carry it," Gibbs says appreciatively.
* * *
The wagon was fully loaded in Super Bowl XVII. Gibbs leaned on him for 38 carries, and he destroyed the Miami Dolphins for 166 yards, including a 43-yard scoring run on fourth and one that decided the game.
Gibbs even gave Riggins latitude on the Five O'Clock Club, a sketchy convocation in an old toolshed at the Redskins' practice facility, where he and his linemen drank beer stashed in coolers. "We always had a tacit understanding: I'll stay out your business and you stay out of mine," Riggins says.
Gibbs ignored it for as long as he could, until TV analyst John Madden mentioned it on air. "We can't have this, John, it's got to stop," Gibbs said. Riggins held up a hand. "I got it covered." Gibbs suspected Riggins merely moved the party down the block, but asked no questions. "When John retired I think Gibbs burned it down," Saul says.
Riggins drank to compensate for all that barbed wire in his psyche. Even as a Super Bowl MVP he was still the trapped Kansas boy. "John's an introvert," Saul says. "He's a little bit shy and you put him in a roomful of people and he's got to get jugged up to be able to take it, and then he acts a little wild." This accounted for his impertinence with O'Connor at the 1985 National Press Club dinner, at a table that included John Glenn and Virginia Governor Charles S. Robb.
"I was well out of my league," Riggins says. "I had enough to drink that I was finally at the station in life where I could sit at that table." Robb, in the seat next to him, got the worst of it as Riggins rambled about deer hunting. "He took the brunt of the evening," Riggins says. "I was pawing him the whole night." O'Connor, he says gratefully, understood and forgave his ranch-hand behavior.
Riggins was a tired, troubled 36-year-old when he retired in 1985, having gained 11,352 yards with 116 touchdowns. Over the next few years, he confronted his problems, and it took a toll. In 1989 he separated from his wife of 15 years, Mary Louise O'Brien, with whom he had four children, and lived in a trailer on the Potomac River. He wandered back to New York, where he took an apartment in Chinatown, and decided to study acting. He reasoned that since football was show business, players were natural entertainers.
In 1996 he remarried, to Lisa Marie, a law student whom he noticed at Clyde's Restaurant in Tysons Corner during a Ford promotion. She supported his therapy, and he helped put her through law school. They stayed in New York, where he did a Sunday NFL pregame show on WCBS and pursued acting. "He didn't want to just reheat 'Riggo.' He felt he had a little something going on intelligence-wise," she says.
A critic for Curtain Up called him "a relaxed performer who emanates some charm." He got roles on "Guiding Light" and "Law & Order Criminal Intent." In 2004, he summoned the courage to appear in an off-Broadway production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," playing Bottom, the weaver whose head turns into an ass.
Riggins eventually realized that it was as "Riggo," a football analyst, that he made his most consistent living. "I've seen and been on a lot of bad teams and played on a couple of good ones, so I feel like I have the ability to know, to discern between the bad and the good," he says. "And that's sort of what I try to do."
By 2006 he was working seven days a week back in Washington, including his appearance as a panelist on "The Redskins Report" with George Michael. But when that show was canceled because of budget constraints in 2008, and his ESPN 980 contract wasn't renewed, the demands on his time ebbed.
This season he appears three times weekly on "The Riggo Report" and does a series of one-hour specials called "Ask Riggo." But it's as a new media voice that he has been at his most audacious. In one YouTube video that commanded more than 160,000 views, he advised Redskins Coach Jim Zorn to coach "ankle biters," and suggested a player who missed a tackle needed a foot "up the rectum."
The opportunity to speak his uncensored mind on the Internet has delighted Riggins. If it enhances his career rather than hampers it, that would be fine. "I'm kind of the oracle, these are my words of wisdom," he says. "Do with them what you want. Or come back for more information. I've got it, it's free for the most part, though I'm trying to monetize it." If it leaves him on the fringes, that's fine too. "I've been right more often than I've been wrong about all these things," he says, shrugging. "But then again maybe I'm sitting in the north pole all by myself freezing to death."
His life is good. "I can't be happier." His wife is studying for the Virginia bar, and they are building a house in Cabin John, where they are raising two young daughters, Hannah, now 13, and Coco, 5.
He's in good shape, and his brain isn't scrambled eggs, which is a relief given the beating he took as a player. He prides himself on protecting his independent voice, and his relative good health. "I'm a survivor, not a competitor," he says. "Competing is childish. Kids compete. It's about surviving." He and Lisa Marie continue to debate whether he'd be smarter to tame his mouth. But Riggins maintains he's content with himself as is. "I try not to be a guy I wouldn't like," he says.