Fullbacks are supposed to create turmoil. They are supposed to cause headaches and disrupt carefully conceived plans. The best in the history of the Redskins, John Riggins, did all of that once again late yesterday -- and without a football tucked under his arm. Insisting his career should not end, he nonetheless announced that it had.
A journalism major at Kansas, Riggins scooped the Redskins on a story they dearly would have preferred to manage in tone and time. Then the only trained newshound ever to win most valuable player honors in a Super Bowl provided reaction, his own, and biting commentary, that his dismissal was a pretty dumb idea.
Give him an A for news judgment.
Give him an A for being thorough.
Give him an F for unbiased opinion.
Don't crowd the column-writin' racket, kid.
But do walk away from football while that's possible, as you vowed you would way back with the Jets. It was important for you to leave the game healthy, you said. Of course, that was long ago and circumstances have changed. If nobody still wore floppy-eared helmets and played both ways in the early '70s, neither did anyone make $850,000 for 16 weeks of work.
So if Riggins wants to plow between the center and guard somewhere else, who can blame him? As Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard says, no one retires any more. Not with so much money available.
In truth, Riggins seems to be leaving the way almost all exceptional athletes do. Kicking and screaming. Grabbing for the door jambs. The Redskins gave him about six dozen retirement hints last season, and he evidently said: "What exit?"
The last Redskin to stir such a fuss was Sonny Jurgensen after the 1974 season, when George Allen told him the same unpleasant reality Joe Gibbs apparently related to Riggins yesterday. This is appropriate, for Redskins watchers interested in pantheons might argue awhile about Jurgensen and Riggins.
Specifically, they might debate which deserves to rank as the second-best Redskin of all time. Behind Sammy Baugh.
Baugh was the franchise. He arrived with the Redskins, in 1937, and provided their most sustained glory. Also, he starred on offense, starred on defense and set a bunch of punting records.
He's No. 1.
In 10 years in Washington, Riggins challenges Jurgensen in the hearts of Washingtonians. He was the Jurgensen of his football generation, unusual on the field and a hell raiser off it. Jurgensen was more stylish; Riggins won a championship.
Put me down for a cop-out. Make 'em 2 and 2a.
You'd want Jurgensen throwing on third-and-long. You'd want Riggo a foot from the end zone.
Larry Brown remains the toughest Redskin I probably ever will see; Riggins ran a whole lot farther, though surely behind a better line. Only three other players -- Walter Payton, Jim Brown and Franco Harris -- have gained more career yardage than Riggins.
More than any other, the fullback position defines the collision sport. Any team that emphasizes the fullback is saying to the opposition: "Nothing fancy today; we're comin' up the gut. Tighten your chin straps and let's see who's toughest."
The Redskins did that on the way to and through Super Bowl XVII.
What was it guard Russ Grimm had said not long before kickoff against the Dolphins?
"We're gonna give the ball to Riggins, and blow 'em out."
Which they did.
Baugh's magic lingers only in the mind. Even Jurgensen's grace is difficult to get hold of. Riggins' capstone is as close as the videotape gizmo in the rec room. Yet "70 chip" for a touchdown on fourth-and-a-foot from the Dolphins' 43 is not the scene Riggins remembers most affectionately.
Doffing his helmet and bowing twice to the RFK Stadium crowd after gaining 185 yards in 37 carries in a playoff victory against the Vikings "was more golden," he said, adding: "Because 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."
What he gave us each week was a little bit of Nagurski and a little bit of Nijinsky. His bosses might find less flattering analogies.
"I look back on my career and it seems to have followed a pattern," Riggins said. "Every time I was told exactly what I was supposed to be doing and what the order of things should be -- the coach is the drill instructor , you're the recruit who has to march in step -- it blew up in my face. The other way, when I tried to do things my way, it seemed to work out better . . .
"It's funny. I always felt that I belonged and that the team needed me, but at the same time I had a sneaking suspicion that the coaches secretly would have been happier just firing me and hoping I'd get lost somewhere."
Even in retirement, there is one more run for Riggins: toward the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It'll take five years to get there, but he'll need absolutely no blocking to march through the front door.