It seemed as though every time John Riggins struggled back to the bench -- holding some part of his creaking 35-year-old body as if he were a weekend hacker after a third set of tennis -- he'd struggle right back to the huddle, run for five more, six more, four more yards.

At the end of the first quarter, with a seven-yard run, Riggins had compiled more than 10,000 rushing yards, which only four other men in the history of the National Football League have done.

"They don't give medals for fifth place," Riggins said after rushing 32 times for 165 yards to put his career total at 10,141.

Maybe not, but teammates and opponents do give praise. And if Riggins isn't very impressed with the milestone, others are.

Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann shook his head and said with a bit of friendly mischief, "John is getting better and better and better, and he's practicing less and less and less; he doesn't even show up for Saturday night meetings anymore.

"No, seriously, one of the greatest injustices in pro football the last two years is John Riggins being left out of the Pro Bowl," Theismann said. "He's incredible. He's more important to this team than anybody."

Playing down his accomplishments, Riggins said, "There was a lot of daylight, which I was fortunate to find."

He didn't always have that much daylight, but often made his own. After 32 carries he said, smiling, "It seemed more like 3,200. And it didn't seem like 165 yards. But I guess we had a couple of long ones."

Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs marveled that Riggins, after a 13-year career, is still running, and doing it so well.

"Obviously, he's driven," Gibbs said. "Why else would a guy like that still be running, still be making yards?"

Center Jeff Bostic said, "I don't think it means a whole lot to John right now; maybe it will later when he's finished playing. But it certainly is an accomplishment."

Defensive tackle Dave Butz mentioned that some of the Dallas players had hinted this week that Riggins might be overrated. "Ron Springs (the Cowboys' fullback) had said, 'Give me the Hogs and I'll get big yards, too,' " Butz said. "But John works for every yard he gets."

Redskins tight end Rick Walker noted, "John didn't get all 10,000 of those yards with the Hogs."

Indeed, Riggins gained 3,880 yards in five seasons with the New York Jets and has 6,261 yards with the Redskins.

Against the Cowboys, the only thing he didn't do was score a touchdown, which he had done in the eight previous games.

"Before it's all over, Riggo'll get the credit he deserves," Walker said. "People always talk about 'all those people in front of him.' He runs people over. When you're talking fullbacks, John Riggins is the top of the line right now. I know times I've missed a block and I get up thinking my man's got him for a loss, and Riggo winds up with a plus three. He's definitely not a delicate runner. He carries the mail."

Riggins said all the things a great player is supposed to say like, "The guys up front did a very good job.

"And I'm not talking about just the five interior linemen," Riggins went on. "But the tight ends are very important to our blocking scheme. They (all) just seemed to control the Dallas defensive line."

Riggins was asked if he could tell early in the game that he was going well enough to finish with his fourth-best game ever.

"No," he said. "I got jammed up the first couple of plays. And when I don't make yards on the first couple of carries, it usually turns out to be a long afternoon."

It was perhaps fitting, then, that a historic afternoon for a nonconformist didn't conform to expectations.

"It's hard to explain John," said Gibbs. "I've been around him a lot as a coach. And I still don't have a handle on him."

Few people do. The Cowboys certainly didn't have a handle yesterday. And as Riggins starts his second 10,000 yards, nobody is likely to find one.