Handsome as the night is long, smiling in the sunlight of a day he'll love always, John Riggins took his helmet off at midfield and with a flourish of gallantry did a deep bow, his arm across his waist, bowing first to the folks on the south side of RFK Stadium and then spinning to say thanks to those on the north, the 54,000 or so screaming meemies who loved it as much as Riggins did.

Paint a picture of the moment.

Get the blotch of mud on his cheek. Leave the grass stains on the white of his jersey. Remember that his pants were ripped, a pad peeking out on his thigh, and when you're done with the picture, hang it somewhere important, like in the White House or, better, in Pig Alley where the hallowed Hogs hang out.

Hang it high and shine a light on No. 44 as he raises a hand to wave his thanks in return near the end of the 21-7 victory over the Minnesota Vikings that put the Redskins into the National Football Conference championship game.

Riggins ran with the ball 37 times yesterday. No Redskin ever carried so often. He gained 185 yards, most of it in the gritty little-bitty chunks that caused some RFK customers to blow diesel-truck horns in appreciation. No Redskin ever ran so far in a playoff game. John Riggins never ran so far as a pro. He made the Redskins' first touchdown possible and scored the second on a two-yard run of brutal beauty. When it got to be 21-7, Riggins carried the ball 20 more times to stash away the victory.

Not bad for an old man of 33, a veritable antique in a business where running backs age years in hours. In Riggins' 11th season, he's never been better. The joy is he knows it. He knew it 10 days ago when he went to Coach Joe Gibbs.

It was an extraordinary thing Riggins did then. Whatever anyone ever said of Riggins--he wore a Mohawk haircut with the Jets, he sat out a year arguing money with the Redskins, he heard a different drum--they never said he didn't love the moment of combat.

So right before the first playoff game, after resting a thigh two games, Riggins went to Gibbs' locker room at Redskin Park. "He came right to me," Gibbs said, "and he just said, 'I'm really getting down the road, I don't have many of these left. I've been out two weeks and I'm ready. Give me the ball.' "

And with a minute to play yesterday, Gibbs, who knew he had seen something special, sent in a substitute so that Riggins could come off to the standing ovation he earned. Olivier as Hamlet never earned a bow on stage any more than Riggins earned his this day, and as time ticked away Riggins walked the sidelines, holding his helmet, trading hand slaps with people as happy as he was.

With a hundred reporters wanting to talk to him, Riggins yet stayed in character. Olivier probably didn't do interviews on his motivation as Hamlet. Riggins playing Riggins, a fascinating role, picked up his hiking boots, sent a man to get his saddlebags and clothes (an army surplus-like camouflage outfit) and beat it out of the stadium, saying nothing to the press.

He walked through the parking lot, 15 minutes after his bows, and a woman ran to him. She took off her shoe. Riggins autographed it. Fans who think of Riggins as an 18-wheeler irresistible force draped a banner over his car: "Run on Diesel Power, High Octane."

Riggins stashed his saddlebags in the car trunk (no briefcase for a man who once rode his motorcycle from Kansas to Washington) and then took a beer from his hometown buddies waiting to tell him, as one did, "Best game ever, John. High school, college, pro, anywhere. Best."

Riggins sipped at the beer, threw back a swig of tequila and said to his buddy, "Hey," before driving away.

Riggins won't talk to reporters because, and this is a guess because he has never explained it, he didn't like what the newspapers said during his contract squabble with the Redskins two years ago. Two requests yesterday--"Can we talk about the bows, John?"--received only a stare as answer.

So much to ask him. Instead, ask around about him. Ask Doug Martin, the Vikings' defensive end.

"A Sherman tank," Martin said.

George Starke, the Redskins' veteran tackle: "John is a living representation of an old Hank Williams Jr. song. Hard-drinkin', hard-fightin', ornery. That's what makes him a good runner."

Jeff Bostic, Redskin center: "John's on the downside of his career now, and I'm sure he can see that Super Bowl ring at the end of the tunnel."

That "downside" could be argued, for at 33 Riggins is more valuable to these Redskins than any team he's worked for. And, to be crass about it, it's come at a nice time for him.

He will be a free agent when this season ends, able to sell himself to the highest bidder, even the new United States Football League. Someone asked Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard if he intended to submit the necessary offer by Feb. 1.

"We'll probably hand-deliver it," Beathard said, noting that the Super Bowl is Jan. 30.

A while ago, Pig Alley got in here. Pig Alley is the row of lockers at Redskin Park which is home to the Hogs, those dainty bruisers of the offensive line who, on seeing Riggins' body, made him the only nonlineman elevated to Hogdom. "The guy weighs 260, and he runs like that," said Starke, who exaggerated maybe 30 pounds but had the proper tone of wonder at the way Riggins carries the ball.

This is the way: He starts, well, not slowly but he isn't the butterfly a Walter Payton is. Running inside, he is content to slug straight ahead, never needing the egotistic dance of an O.J. When the Hogs get him a notch, he then with his third or fourth step is ready to run over people, or, given encouragement, run around them.

What to make of Riggins? Here's something from "North Dallas Forty," the football novel by Pete Gent. The words are from Phil Elliott, a veteran for whom the game, not the sideshow, is life.

"That's what I love about sports, man. There is a basic reality when it is just me and the job to be done, the game and all its skills. And the reward wasn't what other people thought or how much they paid me, but how I felt at the moment I was exhibiting my special skill. How I felt about me. That's what's true. That's what I loved. All the rest is a matter of opinion."

Hank Williams could sing it, John Riggins is it.