Two thousand times is a lot of times to do anything, even brush your teeth, let alone risk body and soul by running toward angry giants in armor. Only four men have carried the ball 2,000 times in the NFL. They are Franco Harris, O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown and Walter Payton. Come Sunday at RFK Stadium, a fifth man will join that distinguished company.
"He's a latent marine," Joe Theismann said.
"He's a phenomenon," Don Breaux said.
"He is," Joe Gibbs said, chuckling, "unusual."
John Riggins, they're talking about. Now 33 years old, in his 11th season, John Riggins is stronger and more important to his team than ever. "Most people my age are dead," Casey Stengel said on his 82nd birthday, and most runners Riggins' age are football dead. Simpson limped off at 32, Brown burned out at 29 and Payton, 28, is headed for the E on his fuel gauge.
Not Riggins. This season he has carried the ball 69 percent of the time on Redskins running plays. He has carried 137 times for 439 yards; next comes Joe Washington with 13 carries for 52 yards. So dependable is Riggins in short-yardage situations that in 19 third-down carries, he has made the first down 12 times.
"You never know how far John is going to go," Theismann said, "because he comes out of pile after pile after pile. He's so strong in his legs. He'll give you a shoulder and those legs, and you're talking about tackling a mass. The thing about John is that he gets better as the game goes on. You want to know what he means to this team?"
The 2,000-carry statistic speaks to endurance. Riggins is 6 feet 2 and 240 pounds. He worked with weights this offseason for the first time, after the Redskins' weight coach, Dan Riley, convinced him strength prevented injury. Of Riggins' 137 carries, 40 have come in the fourth quarter when most old folks are resting up for tomorrow's picnic.
The 2,000 carries also says here is a runner whose ability for a decade has demanded that we run him 2,000 times. His first pro coach, Charley Winner, said Riggins "could be the greatest fullback ever." George Allen gave Riggins a $1.83 million contract after the 1975 season. With 25 yards this Sunday, Riggins will become only the eighth man to gain 8,000 yards. He needs 107 to pass Larry Csonka for seventh place.
Remember this of the 2,000 carries: it was never done by Motley and Nagurski, Thorpe, Sayers and Taylor, Matson and Van Buren -- all in the Hall of Fame.
Look, too, at the four winged creatures who have dared the devil 2,000 times. Look at Franco leaning in and retreating, peeking for a hole. Here comes O.J. high-steppin' to daylight, Payton teasing mortals who would touch a wraith, Brown being divinely guided to safe harbor. Look at these four, and consider the fifth man in their company.
"Those guys missed people," Theismann said, meaning those guys didn't do what Riggins does, which is seek and destroy linebackers.
"He makes so many yards after the initial contact," said Don Breaux, the Redskins' offensive backfield coach. "And he does that because he initiates the hit. We just need to give him room to get rolling, keep the defense off him a second. He's constantly falling forward for another yard."
"Just look at the way he's built," said Joe Gibbs, the coach, noting that Riggins' dimensions are those of a tractor-trailer truck. "He's a contact guy, a surge-type runner. That game in St. Louis Sunday, guys were bouncing off him. He hit some guys and they were going backwards."
Even in this air age when Dan Fouts passes for eight miles, games are won by teams with the strongest quick people. That's why Gibbs likes Riggins. Along with the young offensive line nicknamed the Hogs, Gibbs has the strong man runner to control the ball late in a game. The linemen, for whom Riggins is 12 for 19 on third and short, have made Riggins an honorary Hog.
"We end practice with the Riggo drill," Gibbs said. They hand the ball to Riggins four straight times for the kind of plays that Bronko Nagurski used to run. Straight ahead. Stop when you hit a wall. "All our guys think it's important. It's vintage Redskins."
Besides, when it comes to chemistry that makes teams happy, Riggins is good to have around. He once came to a Jets' practice in overalls and a derby. He once cut his hair in a Mohawk. He once wore a goatee. He smokes cigars and drinks beer by the ocean. Name it, Riggins has done it once or twice.
Here we have a fellow who put on camouflage fatigues when the players' strike began and announced he was a spy. He rides a motorcycle from Kansas to Washington. He sat out the 1980 season when the Redskins refused to guarantee a $500,000 option-year salary. Everything he wears looks like it came from the Army surplus store.
"We have Mark May in a three-piece banker's suit, George Starke in a Bahamian Ocean wardrobe and Riggins is Early Mercenary," Theismann said. "He's a fun-loving guy, but he plays as hard as anybody. He's all business on the field."
Business is good these days. Larry Merchant once called Riggins "an enigma wrapped in a bandage." That's because he wouldn't play with cartilage rattling around in his knee. "When your tank is empty, they get rid of you," Riggins said. He took care of himself at no cost to his teammates, and now, coming up on 2,000 carries, Riggins is the guts of a good team's offense.
Sing for the quarterbacks and wide receivers. Oink for the Hogs. On the radio play-by-play of Redskins' games now, this is what they're doing for John Riggins: they're sounding a truck horn when he carries the ball. Move over, somebody, a big rig is coming through.