Saying that he didn't want to be in the salary bargain basement if he continued with the Redskins, John Riggins declared last night that he would return to the team only if given a significant future pay raise.
But Riggins, who met secretly with General Manager Bobby Beathard on Tuesday in Kansas City, left the door open to a compromise with the Redskins.
"I'm open to any proposition," he said over the phone from his home in Lawrence, Kan., where he conducted a one-day media interview blitz to negotiate what he thought has been one-sided criticism of his walkout from training camp.
"I'd say it's 50-50 that I'll retire," said Riggins, who earns $300,000 a year. "I just think there is time left. Anything can happen. I'm not setting any limits. A lot depends on what kind of feedback I get."
According to team sources, Riggins is seeking to turn the option year of his contract, which comes up in 1981, into a one-year guaranteed agreement calling for $500,000. Riggins, however, said since he couldn't get a guarantee despite a one-day walkout last season, "what makes anyone think I can get it now?"
But the sources last night reiterated that the guarantee is part of Riggins' demands.
Beathard, who earlier had said he would not talk to Riggins until the fullback returned to training camp, flew secretly to Kansas City for the Tuesday meeting. Both men said last night that the conversation was friendly but accomplished little.
"We talked for about an hour but nothing has changed," Beathard said of the meeting. "We didn't negotiate anything because we are not going to renegotiate his contact. But I felt it would be helpful to sit down and show him we are interested and that we want him back.
"I wanted to see if there was any hope down the road of reaching a compromise. But he wants something and if we don't come up with it, he'll retire. That seems obvious to me."
Riggins, however, seemed reluctant to rule out a compromise. But he also was anxious to explain his side of the disagreement, something he has been reluctant to do "because in matters like this, the team weighs more than the player and they always come out on top with the fans and the media."
Riggins said that it was in his best interests to receive a salary raise. "I've played for nine years and I've taken a lot of chances," he said. "I've seen guys who have played a lot less get hurt very seriously. I'm starting to get to the age where I'm taking a lot of chances.
"I'm fighting uphill on this one. I've played the game so long that I'm starting to get to the age where I'm taking a lot of chances. I've played twice as long as the average back in this league.
"The Redskins are going to get along fine without me. They have a good coach and a good coaching staff.
"I just don't like being in the bargain basement. I have to consider what I have to go through to get paid. There's a high risk factor at this level."
During the interview, Riggins constantly referred to the injury factor. He has been bothered by the risk of injury since early in his career and he has talked openly of retirement the last two seasons so he could leave football before being permanently scarred.
He said tonight that it is vital to him that he be protected, salarywise, in case an injury does cause long-term damage. "I have to feel right about the game mentally before I can play," he said.
Riggins still hasn't lost his sense of humor, despite the tensions of the last 11 days. He said that the Redskins "claim I'm renegotiating. I'm not. I'm really trying to get started in Chicago futures market. I'm trying to sell the Redskins some beef futures."
"But I can see I'm not going to be on the Board of Trade for long. My product isn't selling very good. I guess I have to let it age on the hoof a while longer."
Riggins said he did miss his teammates and all the kibitzing that goes on. "It's like a boys club at camp, you hate to give up your membership. It's the fraternal order of knuckleheads.
"I guess I can be a real sentimental so-and-so about this. Maybe the Redskins should hire someone to try to soften me up. It might work."
Beathard said that he feels just as strongly about the Redskins's position now as he did before meeting with Riggins.
"He has an obiligation to honor his contract," Beathard said. "I wouldn't know how to get around his demands. There has to be give on his part to make things work out. He's aware of the critical position he plays with the team. But he said he didn't want to let emotions interfere. He wants to follow his head, not his heart."
Beathard said the next move was up to Riggins.
"We won't shut it off, but there is only so much we can do," he said.
Riggins, however, did't sound like a man who was going to turn around and return to camp, despite admitting, "I'm impulsive, I guess you can say.
"I'm just sitting here, biding my time," he said. "That's about all you can do. It's enjoyable enough. I told somebody I've even thought of a way to get my contract guaranteed. Just have them cut out paragraph four of the players' contract."
Paragraph four in the standard contract refers to a players' expected cooperation with the media and the need the league and players have for publicity.
"I really didn't want to start talking," said Riggins, who previously had discussed the contract dispute only once, in an interview with The Washington Post on Monday. "I've already talked too much today, I've probably hung myself. I get carried away sometimes. But I feel strongly about what I am doing."
Riggins staged a similar camp walkout in 1973, when he was with the New York Jets. He returned prior to the opening game. This time, he said, he may not be back for the opener, but that didn't mean "I couldn't play in October. I just don't want to lock myself into any timetable."
The feeling here in camp seems to be that Riggins will come back sometime before the season begins and that if the Redskins decide to renegotiate his contract, it will never be announced publicly.
Beathard said he would likely contact Riggins next week. "John wants to know if things are closed or if there is still room to work," he said. "But I really don't know what I'm going to tell him. It just won't do any harm to keep talking."
Beathard said he would likely conprogress on the Jeris White contract front. White also has not reported to camp while holding out for a new contract, reportedly in the $140,000 range "I can see him sitting out the whole year," Beathard said . . . Former Redskin great Larry Brown was a camp visitor today. Coach Jack Pardee has cut 15 minutes off each of the last four practices in order to save the players from too much work in the hot weather.