This is no scam John Riggins is running. He is running the football like a pro who is proud he is so good.

Dear readers cursed with long memories know I huffed and puffed two months ago. Get rid of Riggins (I said) because he deserted last year and likely returned only to win the $300,000 the Redskins wouldn't pay him.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds (Emerson said). So to the question -- "Get rid of him?" -- the answer now is, "You're dumb as a rock if you dump Rigger. I was wrong."

Far from being an ostracized deserter slinking back into camp, Riggins moves easily among the Redskins, as even a cursory look at the sidelines Friday night revealed. This is a smiling team. And Riggins had a fine time with his buddies. Slapping hands with Coy Bacon. Kibitzing with Joe Washington. Laughing into the sky with George Starke.

Most of the 44,662 customers at RFK Stadium greeted the first announcement of Riggins' name with rising applause. "Welcome Back, John," a bedsheet banner said. As he trotted to the locker room at halftime, Riggins waved to a friendly face in the crowd.

Here is Don Quixote in cleats, a hero home from a year's war with the dread windmills of his mind.

Abbie Hoffman said of Jimmy Piersall, "He showed them it was a game, so they locked him up." The bosses are at a loss with football players they can't control. So when Riggins didn't want to play last season unless the Redskins changed his contract, the bosses locked him up in his windmill.

Lawyers yet are figuring out who owes whom what. The arbitrator's decision is expected in mid-October, when the Redskins will be halfway through the season.

This much we do know: Riggins wants to play.

The baseball writer, Roger Angell, once said it is unnecessary, even counterproductive, to ask Fred Lynn about a great catch. Angell said the play is Fred Lynn, not the words. Riggins isn't talking to the press, so we have no words, but his work shows he is the same John Riggins who two seasons ago gained 1,153 yards.

The evidence, even to a huffer and puffer, is convincing. The coach, the general manager, the quarterback, the veterans in the offensive line, his running mates in the backfield -- all of them say Riggins is a classy pro who makes the Redskins better by act and manner.

They say he is working like a kid hungry for a dollar. Rigger has played hurt, they say. He runs, he blocks, he catches passes. No prima donna, they say of Ol' Riggo, calling him just one of the guys. He is, they say, quiet and undemonstrative, with none of the team-splitting sharp edges of the preening and strutting star his decade of good work might have made him.

Riggins ran six times for 29 yards against the Vikings, his longest a 13-yarder up the middle against a defense that was spread, as they all will be, by the multiple outside threats of the Joe Gibbs offense.

Cautious witnesses will remember this was only a preseason game against a team traditionally built to be strong in November, not mid-August. Yet the prospect of Riggins in this offense -- a quick 230-pound fullback striking the middle of a spread-thin defense -- is exhilarating. What's more, he can get outside, either on the run or to catch a pass.

If you're writing about John Riggins these days, you drop by his locker to see if he has changed his mind about not talking. A maverick lives there.

A faded denim shirt has a ragged hole in the elbow. His threadbare jeans have the wrinkles of a thousand days. He must have picked up the cracking boots at a cowboy's Goodwill store. His six-year deal with the Redskins is worth $1.83 million, but he wears a 50-cent baseball cap with an NFLPA emblem on it.

"John, I've been hard on you, but I'm coming around. Can we talk some football?"

Riggins stood in the shadows of his locker. "No," he said kindly. He snagged his hand in the hole of his shirt.

"The way you looked on the sidelines tonight, it looked like the game was fun for you."

Pulling on the boots, Riggins said, "I've got nothing to say."

"I'll try you another time."


The next thing you do, then, is look up Ron Saul, the veteran offensive guard who is one of football's scrap-iron bulldogs. He is Riggins' best friend here, Sancho Panza to his Quixote, kind of press secretary to the mum maverick. Saul has his own problems. His left knee hurts a lot and he is to have debris scraped out of it Monday. He will talk for an hour about his buddy.

"John's a great team player, always has been," Saul said. "It's a shame something couldn't be worked out last year. Just having him around helps a team. He's as important to the Redskins as Franco is to Pittsburgh and Campbell is to Houston."

"Important in what way?"

"You need the big, studly running back. And he's it. When it's third and three, the defense starts quivering. Ol' Riggo takes it to 'em."

"Is there any bitterness over last year?"

"A few guys," Saul said. "But they were very selfish about it. They felt John let them down personally, as to what they could get done, not what the team could do. But there's no bitterness now. They know John did what he had to do because he believed in it. They know what kind of great team guy he is. And they also see him working his butt off. If he wasn't serious about playing, he'd be jerking around."

Bobby Beathard, the general manager: "John has fit in fine so far. He's working awfully hard. After practice one day last week, he did 10 quarter-miles. You can't do that unless you're in great shape. You never know what John is thinking, but I like the way he's working."

Joe Theismann, the quarterback: "John hasn't missed a step. The shape he's in, the speed and quickness, you'd think he'd never been gone. I love his high degree of competitiveness. If you're looking for something that says John isn't fitting in, you won't find it. He is fitting in the way he's always fit in. John is a low-key, hard-working, great fullback who has a way of, shall we say, making life unique."

George Starke, offensive tackle: "Rigger was loose on the sidelines, laughing, because he loves the game. If you put in 10 years the way he has, you have to have loved it. This is a hard game."

Joe Washington, running back: "John is a very personable guy who does things in the right manner. About last year, he knows this is a business and he has to look to his self-interest. I respect that. We respect that. You can't help but admire him."

Joe Gibbs, the coach: "I'm very much happy with John. He has a very professional attitude. A no-nonsense guy. Tell him what you want, level with him, and he responds. All those 440s, all that extra running, practicing with a sore back -- it's almost like he's got a goal out there, like he's a kid just trying to make the team. He's got that quiet inner drive. I have been very impressed."

It took Riggins maybe one minute to dress after Friday night's game. He left the locker room about 10:45. Two hours later, when the sportswriters finished their work and walked outside RFK, there, sitting in the trunk of a Cadillac, drinking beer and talking to some fans, was John Riggins.

He looked like a guy having a nice time.