Late last month, John Riggins forced the Washington Redskins to make a choice.

He had been arrested, charged with being drunk in public. Six months earlier, he had said to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, "Loosen up, Sandy baby," and had taken a 45-minute nap during a speech by Vice President George Bush. Witnesses said he had been drinking wine that night.

Already uncomfortable with the O'Connor-Bush episode, the Redskins' hierarchy shuddered at the news of the arrest. Even Riggins' staunchest supporters within the organization began to wonder about him.

Was he worth it? Could the potential of one more 1,000-yard season make up for the anxiety he caused? Had Riggins finally gone too far?

The Redskins' options were simple: Give up on Riggins, a 36-year-old free agent with hip and back problems last season who had asked for a reported $1.5 million to play this season.

Or fight hard to keep him.

If this choice was running through the minds of thousands of people -- among them fans, irate letter writers and even Redskins players -- it was most clearly defined in the thoughts of three men: Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke; General Manager Bobby Beathard, and Coach Joe Gibbs.

They spoke by telephone and met in stark dormitory rooms at the team's Carlisle, Pa., training camp, or the owner's posh Middleburg, Va., estate.

Unanimously, although certainly not without some trepidation, they came to a decision:

Keep him.

Pushing hardest, sources said, was Gibbs.

"A few things happened in John's case this offseason that I don't think anyone wanted to have happen," Gibbs said last week in Carlisle.

"Anything that happens out in the public affects the Redskins and the team. We are very conscious of that. We want it to be positive, but we know at times it won't be. The players know it's my position to handle that, to make sure nobody on the team embarrasses the Redskins organization.

"He knows what is expected of him and knows we will deal with it. Anything that happens that reflects back on the team will be dealt with. It's up to me to decide what discipline takes place. I think John understands that. It falls back on John and me, and we understand each other."

During his month-long contract negotiations, which are expected to end Monday in a one-year deal worth slightly less than $1 million, Riggins has dealt directly with Cooke. He is one of only three Redskins -- Joe Theismann and Dave Butz are the others -- who do so.

"I like the fellow," Cooke said. "I'm just sorry he's accused of doing certain things, some of which are true, such as the exhibition at the dinner last winter, and some of which we are not at all sure are true, such as the charge of public drunkenness."

Added Beathard: "I've been with other teams, like Miami with Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick. They were characters. They also were the heart of the team. The same thing here with Riggins."

Friends and acquaintances say Riggins is "larger than life," a legend in a safari suit, always performing for a crowd, always entertaining himself.

One of his attorneys said Riggins' recent brushes with negative publicity have not hurt his image, or his endorsements. Others wonder if the O'Connor-Bush episode perhaps even has helped.

But the fact remains that in 1985, John Riggins has gained no yardage and perhaps has lost some valuable ground. Following the incident at the Washington Press Club's Salute to Congress dinner Jan. 30, sources said the Redskins were upset about Riggins' behavior off the field and were concerned about him and his image.

His arrest July 25 in Reston (Riggins strongly maintains his innocence) added to the team's fears.

Riggins could not be reached for comment for this story, but his wife did agree to be quoted.

When asked if her husband's reputation has been tarnished in the last 6 1/2 months, Mary Lou Riggins said: "I don't think so. If anything, I think people would be concerned about him.

"I personally think it's important to set a good example. I don't like to see people go to extremes. I like moderation."

She added that she does not believe her husband has a drinking problem.

Reporters at the Dickinson College football field in Carlisle asked Cooke one day if the Redskins were concerned about Riggins.

"I'm not a doctor, nor a psychiatrist, nor one of those instant analysts of the mental state of other people," Cooke said. "John says he has no problems, and if John says so, it must be so."

The subject obviously has come up for discussion between Cooke and Riggins, although Cooke will not talk about their meetings.

At least two people -- one Redskins official and one person who knows Riggins -- expressed hope that the arrest might bring the issue out in the open. "We need to discuss it, find out if there is a problem," the team official said.

Although Gibbs will not say what type of action he may take, all indications are something will be done. Perhaps it will come in the form of a fine. Perhaps the Redskins will require a more thorough medical examination of Riggins.

Certainly, the Redskins know they will be watched. About 50 letters have come to the team office about Riggins, and, according to a team source, "not one has been positive."

One came from the Northern Virginia chapter of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Riggins and Stuart Miller, one of his best friends, were stopped by Fairfax County police while riding in Miller's BMW at 1:50 a.m. July 25. Miller was charged with driving while intoxicated, although Jerry Phillips, the attorney for Riggins and Miller, said Miller passed a Breathalyzer test. Miller's trial date is Sept. 17. Riggins' is Oct. 24.

Cooke has said Riggins is "innocent until proven guilty."

But, he added, "If he is guilty, I find it deplorable and I regret it as I'm sure he does, too."

While the Redskins privately wonder about the fallout of the Riggins Affair as they maintain a very firm facade, those who know the running back well say most of what has happened recently is nothing new.

After all, this is the man who showed up at the New York Jets training camp in 1973 with a Mohawk haircut; the man who sat out the 1980 season in a contract dispute; and the man who arrived at Cooke's Super Bowl party in 1983 in top hat and tails.

"He enjoys life the way he plays football -- hard," said Miller, who has known Riggins for seven years.

"He can get along with a truck driver at a truck stop and two days later sit between Ronald Reagan and Sen. (Paul) Laxalt (R-Nev.) and pull it off."

Not long after the Washington Press Club dinner, Riggins was invited by Laxalt, a friend of his, to a private party. He sat between Reagan and Laxalt, and, Miller said, he had a wonderful time.

"Very few people participate in all the worlds he does," Miller said.

His participation, some say, is a matter of interpretation, or misinterpretation.

"He is so animated and his voice can be so loud in a social setting in a bar or restaurant that people look at him and say, 'There's John Riggins and he looks like he has been drinking again,' " said Doug Woloshin, the attorney who represents him in his negotiations with Cooke and also works on his endorsements.

"He is as forthright an individual as I have ever met. In some cases, that may be a problem for him."

Steve Murphy, an assistant manager at Clyde's in Tyson's Corner, said Riggins is an "infrequent visitor," although he was there the night of his arrest.

"People react to a celebrity," Murphy said. "He's got a very big voice. People love to be around him."

A year and a half ago, shortly after the Redskins' Super Bowl loss to the Los Angeles Raiders, Riggins walked into Clyde's with Miller and told the bartender he wanted nine bottles of Dom Perignon.

After telling the bartender to pour a glass for everyone in the bar, Riggins stood up and said, "I'm sorry about the Super Bowl, but I have a promise for you. We'll give you a performance you'll be proud of next year."

Miller, recalling the story now, said Riggins' impromptu apology cost about $900.

"He's as free-wheeling a guy as you'll run into," said Cooke. "I like that. Fellows made from molds are not as much fun and are not often doers."

Phillips, who has known Riggins for about two years, said Riggins has "an acute sense of surrounding," of doing the appropriate thing at the right time. If his antics at the Jan. 30 dinner don't appear to fall into that category, his action afterward probably does. His friends say he sent flowers to O'Connor's office, with a note of apology attached.

Phillips said Riggins is so "controlled" on the field that it is natural his personality will show off it.

"He is never out of control when he plays," Phillips said. "He never spikes the ball or makes a scene. He leads his football field life as a pro. His lifestyle (off the field), he chooses to lead the way he wants to."

Among at least some of his teammates, almost anything Riggins does has come to be expected.

When offensive guard Russ Grimm was asked what the team's reaction was to Riggins' arrest, he said, "There was a little snicker and a little smile and then we went on with our business."

Defensive end Dexter Manley put it even more succinctly: "John's going to be John. He's different."

Gibbs fosters a supportive, family atmosphere among the Redskins, and Riggins seems to thrive within it. He just may be the Redskins' prodigal son, welcomed every year, come what may.

But Gibbs also has very strict rules.

"If somebody breaks a law, it's just as if it's our family," Gibbs said. "If my own son did something, he would know he'd have to pay the price. We set down guidelines and we follow them."

Perhaps it is the ultimate compliment to Riggins' talent that the Redskins have decided they want him back. They prefer to look at him as a football player; he is far less complicated that way.

"I just want him to come back and have that one more great year," Beathard said. "What a great way to go out."