John Riggins breaks molds the way he breaks tackles. A straight-arm right at the heart of convention. It is the source of his mystery and his charm.
He is slouching in a bar in Georgetown, pondering "the depths and breadths of my craziness." He remembers another day in another bar during his self-imposed exile from the Washington Redskins three years ago.
"I'm out on my feet," he says. "I'm getting ready to leave. There's this bouncer standing there. I look back at my friend like this, 'Watch this.' I throw a haymaker for no reason. This guy grabs me, throws me out the door. He's polishing the curb with my shirt. The bad part was, I'm still in it.
"The point is, something flashed or snapped. It was like being in a pile of linebackers and defensive ends. To this day, I wonder why I did it. I'm sure it was from being out of the game that long. We were talking about the violence, I probably like a little bit of that."
A fan, not intimidated by the reverie, interrupts the conversation; his son saw Riggins rush for 185 yards against Minnesota on a January afternoon and finish his performance with a courtly, deeply felt bow. "A class act," the boy told his father.
The father wants Riggins to know.
The sun streams through the window, bringing the first heat of the season. Three months have passed since Riggins led the Redskins to the Super Bowl. Three and a half months since Joe Gibbs brought him off the field in the final seconds of the Minnesota game when he bowed, and he knew, once and for all, that the town forgave him for sitting out the 1980 season.
"It brought it out of me," he said. "That moment was more golden to me than the 43-yard (Super Bowl) touchdown. 'Cause I like people. When you get 54,000 people telling you they just love you, it's kind of hard not to like them, too. I couldn't think of anything else to do. I thought I'd bring a little theater to the sport.
"The exhilaration you get from that much mass acceptance. When you get down to it, that's what I play the game for. I saw Herschel Walker make some statement he'd play the game even if there wasn't anybody in the stands. Well, Herschel, I wouldn't even bother showing up. I couldn't relate to that at all. Then football has no point."
Football is a game often played by men who are as insecure as they are large. Scared of getting hurt, scared of being cut, they accept the regimen and the regimentation. Not Riggins. He flourishes within a system he disdains, cutting across the grain, laughing all the way.
His timing has improved with age. Showing up at the owner's party during Super Bowl week in top hat and tails; bowing deeply on the sideline, with a gallantry seldom seen in the mud; running left for 43 yards for a touchdown on fourth down, and a Super Bowl championship.
Riggins knows how to seize the moment. "I hope I don't sound like a braggart--kick me in the shins if I do--but I must have that," he said in his first extensive interview since the Super Bowl. "In the last three or four months, I've realized that is one of my strong points. My job is based on timing, when you get right down to it. I have to know when a hole is going to close and when I think I can get through it. It would be logical."
Logic is not what's expected of him. "I get bored easily," he said. "The reason I create situations is so I can stay interested. My attention span is not as long as it should be.
"Being conventional is basically being boring, too. It's a routine. That translates into boredom. Some things I plan. Like the idea of the top hat and tails. I didn't know there was a party until 1 o'clock that afternoon. The idea hit me."
He found a tailor who had adjustable pants. "I have no idea what size they were and I'm not sure I want to know. The guy said, 'I can fix that,' and starts letting 'em out. I guess I should have said he took them in a little bit, but I have to be honest. I liked it a lot. I didn't realize how well-received it would be. That's the type of thing that's the root of me."
The root of him--"rut" in Kansas--has always been something of a mystery, something he has kept to himself. He won't quite look you in the eye unless you demand it. Maybe, he says, it's so he can concentrate on what he's thinking. Or perhaps, it's because he's trying to be honest. There are no cherry trees in Kansas, and the truth is harder to confront when it's looking you in the eye. The truth is: he's not sure how much he wants people to know him.
"As strange as I am--and I don't know what the opposite of strange is--I think as far as you go in one direction, you've got to be able to go as far in the other direction . . . As wild as I'm reported to be, I probably can be just as conservative. So if people think I'm really a weirdo, I can be really straight at times, too."
When the season ended, he had gained 610 yards and scored four touchdowns in the playoffs and was the MVP in the Super Bowl with a record 166 yards rushing. Then he became a free agent. He could have signed a $1 million-a-year contract with the Michigan Panthers of the U.S. Football League. Or he could have retired: going out at the top and on his own terms. "The thought goes through my mind," he said. "It will be tough. But I've already made that decision. I will play."
In March, he agreed to a multiyear contract that guarantees him $1.5 million for the next two years. Loyalty? "Yeah, that's probably the word I want to use," he said, "but I'm not sure it belongs in my vocabulary, according to my reputation."
A smile. "The situation is too ideal," he said. "There are a lot of people I really like here. I would hope to retire here. I'll probably end up living here.
"I'm from a little town in Kansas, 500 people, Centralia. Back when I was growing up, you'd go down the street and know everybody, and they said, 'Hey, Big John, how ya doing?' It's ironic. Here I am, 33 years old, living in the Nation's Capital and it's like walking down the street in Centralia. How do you figure that?"
Sure, it's nice to have the Hogs around as blockers and drinking buddies: "Backup quarterbacks and offensive linemen. That tells you a lot about a man."
But mostly Riggins stayed "because of the area and the people. It's the type thing you can never recapture. I think the people for the most part have forgiven me for sitting out the one year."
And management? He smiles. "I think when I retire, they'll look at each other, Jack (Kent Cooke) and Bobby (Beathard)--it has a real Kennedy air to it--and they'll say, 'Well, he wasn't such a bad guy after all.' And the other one will say, 'Yeah, but it's nice to have him gone, isn't it?' "
It must be strange to love football and hate football and be so good at it all at once. "I wouldn't play just for money because there's more to it than that," he said. "I wouldn't play just for love because there's some other guy across the country playing for $50 million."
Early on, he learned the cruelty of the game, the mercenary nature of his profession. "It's kind of screwy," he said. "Guys are scared to leave the game and they're scared to stay in it."
It was his second year in the league, 1972, playing for the New York Jets. "I got ran out of bounds on one play and I got back up to go back to the huddle and all of a sudden my knee locked on me," he said. "It scared the hell out of me. I felt down on my knee and it felt like there was a chip in it. I pressed on it and it went away. There was no pain, no swelling."
He says the knee kept locking. "I was really upset," he said. "I was 23. I had always had that feeling of invulnerability. I can't get hurt. I knew there was something seriously wrong with my knee.
"I realized the only person that can take care of me was me and I had to accept that responsibility. From that point on, I became very suspicious."
It was then that he began to worry how he'd walk when he was 40 years old. He says he didn't want a catch in his gait like Gale Sayers has. "It certainly was not attractive to me," he said.
And it was hard to justify. "I could be a coal miner or a farmer and have only four fingers," he said. "That's life. But to do it on a football field seems kind of silly. It's a game. To me, that's sort of a poor excuse for having a crooked leg."
He thought then about retiring. He had gained 944 yards in 1972. Weeb Ewbank, the Jets' coach, sent him a bonus check for $1,000. "He said if had been 1,000 yards, it would have been a lot more," Riggins said.
He learned about irony. "I really saw the game for what it was and I didn't like a lot of what I saw," he said.
He wondered if he was playing because his father wanted him to, if it was time to start taking life seriously. "I never did cross that bridge, as you can see," he said.
He became a Redskin in June 1976 and a blocking back for George Allen. They went to the playoffs and lost to Minnesota.
In 1977, he was hurt. In 1978, he was the comeback player of the year. On the last day of the 1979 season, the Redskins lost to the Cowboys, 35-34. After Riggins' 66-yard touchdown run had given Washington a 34-21 lead, Roger Staubach rallied Dallas with a little more than three minutes left.
"After the Dallas game, football became more business to me than anything," he said. "It was like falling in love and all of a sudden, they burn your butt and take off with somebody else."
He went home, and stayed home through the 1980 season. He wanted to renegotiate the final year of his contract. Trade him, people said. The Redskins put him on the "left-camp/retired" list.
One fine spring day in 1981, he returned, saying, "I'm bored, I'm broke and I'm back." And that was all. He quit talking to the press. "If I could take a year out of football, I could take a year off from talking to the press," he said.
Last Jan. 19, he spoke. On Super Bowl Sunday, he ran. There were 10 minutes left in the game when he took the ball and ran left toward the end zone. The Dolphins' Don McNeal grabbed his jersey, "seemed like he had a hold of me forever."
He hasn't seen the game film. It all comes from memory. "I kept wondering where the guy was coming from and where I was going to be when he got there," Riggins said. "I figured I had to get tackled. To quote Satchel Paige, I didn't want to look back, I knew someone was gaining on me."
Excitement reigned everywhere but within him. "I was scared to think we'd won before we actually won," he said.
He remembered a game a long time ago, when he was a bat boy in Kansas and his team had a three- or four-run lead and he started racking the bats. They ordered him to put them back out. And he remembered the Dallas game from 1979. "Maybe Dallas took too much out of me," he said. "I can't stop and smell the roses . . . though I do."
When it was finally real, he told the world, "At least for tonight, Ron is president and I'm the king."
He stayed out all night, riding around in a limousine, partying, which is pretty much what he's been doing ever since. Typically, he stayed away from the banquet circuit and has lined up only one endorsement, Winchester rifles. When he thinks about the coming season, he thinks about getting his yards per carry over 4.0; looking at the chart and seeing 3.1 is embarrassing. He knows it will be difficult to match the mythology of last season, but the expectations don't worry him, they will keep it from being boring. Meanwhile:
"Partying? Yes. Comedown? No. Trophies? Forget it . . . I'm a tool of the public. They haven't come down. I can't come down till they do."
He has learned it's not so tough to be a hero. "I like it so much, they'll have to start a new degree: hero-ology," he said. "I'm going to major in hero."
Once, he would have distrusted the attention. "I've always tried to maintain a fairly level head, even as much as I tip it from time to time to one side or the other," he said. "To give an autograph is not conducive to a level head. But it makes so many people feel so good. It's like giving them a pill. It's fairly harmless."
He didn't want to go down the road believing all the things people say about athletes: "I'm invincible, a superstar, good-looking, everybody loves me."
But a diesel, loud, foul-smelling, is not exactly the way he sees himself, either. "Then again, there may be a lot of truth in it," he said.
He prefers to think of himself as a 1953 Cadillac, "back when Detroit was putting steel in cars."
Solid, classy, runs forever.
The sun hangs lower in the sky. His drawl, drenched in beer, grows deeper, thicker, more self-deprecating. "I don't think I have the contempt for the game I once had," he said, smiling. "I cooled off with the war protesters."
George Starke, the veteran tackle, once said, "John is a living representation of an old Hank Williams Jr. song. 'Hard drinkin', hard fightin', ornery.' "
"Fightin'? No," Riggins said. "I'm not a fighter."
He picks his own music. "Alice Cooper, 'Welcome to My Nightmare,' is as befitting a song as any: 'I hope I didn't scare you/that's just the way I am.' "