It was the night before Christmas and John Riggins was on his way home from practice when he felt The Surge. He knew it right away. He has felt The Surge before. You remember what happened then: Super Bowl XVII. Washington 27, Miami 17.


It started in his toes and crept up his legs and into his aching back until it filled up the whole of him, which is quite a load.

"I said, 'I got to pull over,' " he says. "I tried to ride it down, work it off. There was no way. It was overwhelming. It kept coming back, again and again and again. I was sitting in my car. I kept bristling, bristling. Thinking about how bad and tough I'm really going to be, which is very easy to do. But when you get out there on Sunday afternoon, if you can get the bristles, that's what counts."

He is sitting in a bar in Georgetown, a running back decked out like a red, white and blue Paul Bunyan, trying to describe the feeling or, perhaps, create it. The words flow out of him and the champagne flows into him and one replenishes the other. Hot damn, the man knows how to have a good time! He flirts and cusses and offends and charms. He laughs so long and so loud that you sometimes forget he's laughing mostly at himself. The effect is dazzlingly Rabelaisian -- with a Kansas twang.

You know what they say: Some people come to play on Sunday. Others play all week long. Riggins plays the role of the Aging Football Player with a vengeance. Only he knows when the curtain goes up and when it will finally come down. And darling, he's going to enjoy this run as long and as hard as he can.

And The Surge?

"Aw, it's nothing," he says, tucking his thumbs under his red suspenders. "It just makes your skin roll up on the back of your neck and the hair stand right straight on end. It's exaltation, I guess. It's knowing what's at hand and what could be. That's what makes a surge come on a person, a high. Some people do it without drugs.

"I'll tell you what. It's the most purest, naturalest force there is. That's exactly what jumped on my butt and I had it again going to the park this morning. I would liken it to the president picking up that red phone."

The red phone? Strange talk from a man who never took himself or football very seriously.

"Well, hell, yeah, I'm a common man," he says, knocking back his Moe t et Chandon White Star. "You know I'm a very common man. The point is that it's the equivalent to being in the highest office of the land. It's time. It's time. We're going to war. Owooga! Owooga! Dive! Dive! That's exactly how it comes on. You know, when it all hits the fan, the big guy, he grabs the red phone and says, 'Punch the rockets in. We're locked in.' "

For the Washington Redskins, the playoffs begin tomorrow against the Chicago Bears. John Riggins is ready.

"My season is just beginning, darling. It really is. I played in games I shouldn't have played in, but there was nobody else. And we got where we are. This is what I've lived for. It's the reason I played feeling like I was. I hated what I was doing because I felt miserable every week for three months. But now it's all come to a frutition, or fruition, whichever it is. But you know what I'm saying."

Just give him the ball.

"They don't call you Mr. January for fun," he says. "That's the critical point right there. Oh, no -- we're playing December 30! It's not January. But it's so close I'm going to try to round it off. I'm Mr. January, baby. Did I say my name was Mr. December 30? Nooo. I'm Mr. January. Santa's got December all locked up."

It was two years ago when he first felt The Surge. "It happened that one time and it was so fresh and clean," he says. "Now it's happening again. Last time, I said, you're a 33-year-old man, you've played many years. You're in an ideal situation. You're finally in the playoffs. I owed to myself to tell them, 'Give me the ball and it's history.' "

He went to Joe Bugel, the assistant head coach for offense, and gave him the word. "He said, 'Don't tell me. The big guy's in there. Go tell him,' " Riggins says.

He went to Joe Gibbs, the coach, and said, " 'Hey Joe, looky here. You've been wanting to rest me. Listen. Trust me. I'm strong. I'll tell you when I'm dying. I'm just saying, "Give me the football, baby." '

"I did the right thing. History will show it. I asked for that one little chance we get occasionally. We wait a lifetime for it. A hell of a lot of people don't even get that chance and a hell of a lot more don't ask for it. I at least asked for it. I'm most proud of that. I grabbed the bull by the horns and said, 'Let's roll.' "

Now Riggins is 35, the oldest running back in football, and he has passed the word again: Give me the ball. He has carried 2,741 times in the last 13 years. That's a load. He holds the NFL record for the most touchdowns in a season (24), most rushing touchdowns in a season (24), most consecutive games rushing for a touchdown (13) and most consecutive 100-yard playoff games (6).

And twice this year he checked himself into Sibley Hospital, put himself in traction, trying to ease the shooting pain in his back, his legs. Each time he checked out just in time for Sunday: to help the Redskins beat the Cowboys one week and the Cardinals the next. They used to say he wouldn't play hurt.

"It's been formidable," he says when asked about the pain. "That's the reason I don't want to talk about it. I'm scared of looking like some jerk saying I'm out there dying for the team."

There were nights when it was hard to get up to go to the bathroom. Tough stuff for a man who always swore the game would never get the better of him. He always said he would walk away, not limp. "Let me describe it this way," he says. "My pain didn't happen on Sunday. I rolled into and through it. My pain started Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. It was miserable. I'll be honest."

He has had all the tests, except the one that would tell him if there is a disk problem, and asked all the questions. The numbers -- 13 years, 10,675 yards -- speak for themselves. "I laugh it off and say it's old age. I honestly don't believe there's anything wrong with my back. There ain't a thing wrong with me that I know of. Face it, we all kid ourselves. Maybe there is something wrong."

His two-year contract expires at the end of this year. He will reportedly receive $2.6 million in annuities and deferred payments from the Redskins once he retires. Money is not the issue. But then, it never was. Everyone asks about next year. He parries the questions because they miss the point. He is fully committed to the here and now.

He has said he doesn't want to play another season if it is going to be like this. He won't know anything for sure until the off-season, until he's had time to rest. He promises to be predictably unpredictable. Maybe he'll get a retread. Either way, he doesn't figure to be the sledgehammer any more.

"I think John has great timing," Joe Gibbs says. "If there's anything he has it's great timing. He'll pick the right time to say that's it."

"What if he was your son?" Gibbs is asked. "Then what would you say?"

"I'd ask him for a loan," he says, smiling. "That's a different side of it. My son for the first time is in full-contact sport. I didn't want him to play until high school. You have all these dreams -- boy, it's going to be great to see your son out there. Then I saw him at quarterback getting taken apart.

"If John was my son, I'd leave it up to him. Yeah, it's a cop-out. I'd probably ask him, 'John, how much more do you want to do?' That's the reason I respect him so much. He doesn't need the money. I don't think he really needs any of this. I think he wants to do something great, and those are the kind of people who normally do something great. Sometimes you forget you're dealing with people's sons."

Riggins' mother, Mildred, thinks the transition will be hard no matter when it comes. "Personally," she says, "I wish it was his last year. I think his body is telling him it's had enough."

He isn't sure. "The guts and the heart are still there, make no mistake about that," he says. "Back then, in 1982, I thought I was in pretty wracked-up shape. But I never cease to amaze myself -- what I can accomplish on short notice."

He had said there was something he wanted to talk about, something it had taken him awhile to figure out. But the conversation hasn't quite gotten around to it yet. Outside on M Street, people are staring through the window, waving, knocking, reaching to him through a pane of glass. "Johnnie! Johnnie!"

"Johnnie?" he says. At 6 feet 2, 240?

A parade of well-wishers, autograph hunters, little boys, young women approach the table, now cluttered with fluted champagne glasses. He has become a hero. He never expected that, especially after sitting out the whole 1980 season. "I'm tired of making people mad," he says. "I just want to make people happy."

"Excuse me," a young woman says. "You're my favorite football player."

"What the hell? I hope so," he replies.

"I knew that face," she says. "I looked over. Oh God!"

He winks and signs. "By the way," he says, "there's a girl at the bar who thinks I'm really repulsive. Will you go straighten her out?"

Arrogant is the word she had used. Different is the word most people use. In a sport that pays homage to conformity, Riggins is an original. He cuts across the grain, laughing all the way.

"He's a unique guy," says Jack Kent Cooke, chairman of the board of the Redskins. "I'm unique. You're unique. Some people are uniquer."

"He's been different since I first saw him in college," says Bobby Beathard, general manager of the Redskins. "I don't know what makes the guy different. I don't ask. I enjoy the way he is. Around here, nobody is threatened by John Riggins. I don't know if he would fit in everywhere. That would have been sad for football. You can OD on all this football stuff 24 hours a day."

Occasionally Riggins' wife, Mary Lou, runs with Beathard, an accomplished marathoner. One time after she won a race, Beathard told her she should take her trophy home and put it on the mantel in place of the Most Valuable Player Award Riggins won for Super Bowl XVII. "She said, 'Oh, that's been outside between the garage and the house getting tarnished since he got it.' "

In 1973 Riggins showed up at the New York Jets training camp with a Mohawk haircut. In 1983 he showed up at Cooke's Super Bowl party in a top hat and tails. On the way to that Super Bowl he graced the best game of his career with a deep, courtly bow in the mud of RFK Stadium. They call him a diesel but he drives a Mercedes. He wears camouflage fatigues and supports the National Rifle Association, and this year he was Santa Claus at the White House.

"One tiny word describes it," Cooke says. "Style. Great style. An unblemished style. A natural style, which is the greatest kind of style. Notice I haven't used the word class. It's the way the man walks, the way he talks, the way he looks, the way he plays. Everything he does denotes it. Fred Astaire had style, too. Class is of a lesser degree."

You see him on the sideline, his elbows scraped, his uniform dirty, sucking on oxygen with a hint of a smile. He is consumed by the role. It's never clear with Riggins just where the performance ends and he begins. "That's part of his mystique," says his brother Frank. "Only he knows and maybe he doesn't even know."

One thing about his style: It is completely his own. That's what he wants to talk about. He leans forward. "I'm sure the public would like to know, because I don't express any type of satisfaction about records, about where is my place in football history. I deserve everything I've got. When I say got, I mean the ridicule. You know, everybody thinking this guy is a load. I deserve all the potshots they've taken at me. Ain't no question in my mind. That's what newspapers are here for -- to undress everybody. I've been undressed. Then they come along and they put the clothes back on you, though not very often on me. Maybe a G-string. I usually dance naked."

He laughs, knowing he has said more than he intended. "I deserve all that. You talk about guys like Walter Payton, Jim Brown, some cat named Simpson, and Franco Harris. I don't belong in their league. I really don't. I belong with Bobby Layne, Sonny Jurgensen, Paul Hornung. And you better put Joe Namath down, too, 'cause I think he'll be offended.

"Those guys tried," Riggins says. "I just fell into it. I played it as a game. Maybe they were trying to express themselves. I was just trying to have fun."