Yes, sad to say, John Riggins is retiring. He decided after drinking his milk (he dunks graham crackers in it) at beddy-bye time Super Bowl night. He'll make movies here in fantasyland. "A leading man role," Riggins said today. "Burt Reynolds will be my backup." Seventeen people rushed to the phones to tip off Rona Barrett, who called Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke for comment. Cooke was speechless.
Had you for a minute until that Cooke bit, right?
Riggins plays with this retirement talk, but nobody's listening. He won't quit. As we'll hear, he's never had more fun playing football--and playing football is what he loves most. The question is, for what team will he play?
Tuesday morning, Riggins became a free agent. He can sell his 18-wheeler body to the highest bidder. Imagine, if you want to feel poorly, what Riggins would look like alongside Tony Dorsett. Riggins can go to any NFL team, with the Redskins getting a No. 1 draft choice in return. The new United States Football League could hire him, too, giving the Redskins nothing.
Cooke, in full command of his forest-leveling voice, says he wants Riggins to stay on the job for the Super Bowl champions. The morning after what he called "the most exciting thing ever to happen to me in sports," Cooke would not say how much money he would pay Riggins in a new deal. He made it clear, though, that he knows Riggins is in a strong bargaining position.
"There could easily be a bidding contest," Cooke said, "based on John's unique performance in the playoffs and Super Bowl. But I will use every power of persuasion, and I have no paucity of persuasive powers, to keep him on the Redskins. My word, John Riggins is as endemic in our organization as the name Redskins."
Berl Bernhard, the owner of Washington's USFL Federals, said today he had no plans to pursue Riggins, largely because he figures the Super Bowl's most valuable player, even at 33, will cost too much.
"I would love to have him," Bernhard said, "but I can't imagine the Redskins ever letting him go. And I can't imagine the Federals being in a position to bid against the 20 NFL teams that would want him."
Bobby Beathard, the Redskins' general manager, said a qualifying offer has been sent to Riggins. That's a league formality, guaranteeing the Redskins a part in the bidding.
"You never know what John will do," Beathard said. "If he wanted to retire, this would be the time to do it. But this group of players are probably having more fun than ever, and John's enjoyed it."
Joe Gibbs, the coach: "My gut feeling is that John has had fun playing. He enjoys it . . . If we lose him, there would be a big hole. We'd have to scramble and fight to fill it. John has enjoyed these last two years, and I think he'll be be back. He'll play somewhere."
With the Redskins?
"He's not the kind of guy who'll jump to another league or another team."
Fact is, though, Riggins walked out on this Redskin team three seasons ago after Cooke refused to renegotiate Riggins' existing contract. Riggins now says he left more because the game wasn't fun than because of the money. He thought money might motivate him, a thought he now says was probably a mistake.
He wants to play for fun--and for money, but he won't play for only one of the two.
How much is Riggins worth? Cooke will offer, judging by past performances, a fair contract with incentive clauses that can raise it to generous. Joe Theismann's new deal calls for $1.4 million over four years, starting just under $300,000 and going up to $450,000.
Even at 33, with more than 2,000 carries (only four men ever rushed so often), Riggins figures to rank with Dan Fouts as the NFL's most attractive free agents this spring.
"I would certainly think so," Beathard said. "I wouldn't say he looks like an old back."
Either a sea of malt, hops and clear mountain water splashed gently against Riggins' brain this afternoon or the fullback was doing a screen test for a role as, say, a Super Bowl hero who danced through a night of celebration and, at dawn's early light, said, "Bartender, let's lift another six-pack for the world's greatest offensive linemen, the Hogs of the Potomac."
It was hard to tell, even for a sportswriter who has been adrift at sea a few times himself. This was about 1 p.m. today when Riggins picked up the car given to the Super Bowl MVP. Instead of his mercenary camouflage outfit, or even his top hat and tails, Riggins came to the ritzy Beverly Wilshire in a siren-red plaid sport coat (Secretariat has several just like it).
Someone asked where he got the coat.
"This guy," Riggins said, tugging at a lapel, "was drunker than I was."
There came assorted one-liners and coy deflections of contract talk ("In 11 hours," he said, "I'm not working for anybody else but me.")
Riggins also said he is fortunate to play behind a great line ("It's a crime no Hog is in the Pro Bowl"). Of a new contract, he said, "It'll negotiate itself." This from a man who, in 1976, toured the U.S. selling his free-agent services.
Bet on this. He'll play again. For the Redskins.
Here's why: "I enjoyed this season more than any season in my life, all the way back to high school."
As for the big parade Wednesday in Washington, Riggins said, "I'm looking forward to it. But I'll have to brush up on my tuba. I kinda forgot how to play it."