When Redskins fans think of John Riggins, two colors come to mind: burgundy and gold.
Riggins is synonymous with the Redskins. He literally carried the team during its dominance in the early years of Joe Gibbs’ first coaching era in Washington, when the “Diesel” rumbled behind the “Hogs” and punished defenders with his bruising body.
He pulled off the greatest play in team history, his 43-yard touchdown run on fourth down in Super Bowl XVII that gave the Redskins the lead for good in their 27-17 win over Miami. He’s also the team’s all-time leading rusher with 7,472 yards.
But Riggins is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame not only as a Redskin, but also as a member of the New York Jets.
After the Jets drafted him in the first round out of Kansas in 1971, he played his first five seasons wearing green and white. The 6-2, 235-pound back, a rare combination of size, speed and power, led the Jets in rushing and receiving as a rookie.
Injuries slowed his progress in the coming years. But in 1975, he logged 1,005 rushing yards, caught 30 passes for 363 and made the Pro Bowl for the first and only time in his career.
He also showed the same carefree personality that later endeared him to so many Redskins fans. In New York, where unorthodox is often the norm, he displayed eye-catching hairstyles, one year sporting an afro and the next a Mohawk with an arrow down the middle of his scalp.
“Initially, you knew he was a character just by the way he carried himself,” said Hall of Fame Jets quarterback Joe Namath, a free spirit in his own right. “I remember John from his Mohawk days and his motorcycle. He painted his toenails before a game. I thought that was cute. Green, of course. He was eccentric, but as a teammate he was sensational. I never played a game with him when he wasn’t prepared.”
But Riggins was disgruntled with the pass-oriented Jets, and they were a bit dissatisfied with him.
After the 1975 season, he became a free agent at a perfect time. The courts had overturned a rule that established “fair and equitable” compensation when a team lost a free agent to another team, so franchises became more inclined to sign free agents who’d completed their contract-option seasons because no compensation was required. The arrangement, nearly identical to unrestricted free agency that exists today, lasted for one season, 1976.
With the Redskins, Vikings, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers as his top destinations, Riggins seized the opportunity. In `76, he signed a 15-year, $1.5 million contract with the Redskins, an extraordinary deal at that time in the NFL.
Redskins coach George Allen, who had zapped his team of high draft picks by trading so many for veteran players over the years, improvised by turning to the free agent market. In addition to Riggins, he signed high-priced free agents in Cowboys tight end Jean Fugett, running back Calvin Hill, a one-time Cowboys star who played in 1975 in the World Football League, and Falcons quarterback Pat Sullivan, the 1971 Heisman Trophy winner.
“For a couple of years (in New York), I played the game without a heart,” Riggins said at his introductory news conference. “It being a professional game, it seemed like I could do it that way. I was wrong, and I apologized to the team for it.”
Riggins became part of a dream backfield that included Hill, former NFL MVP and two-time 1,000-yard rusher Larry Brown, and Mike Thomas, who was named NFL Rookie of the Year in 1975 after rushing for 919 yards.
However, Washington’s running game was halfback-oriented, and Riggins was used as a blocking back in the I-formation, gaining 775 yards overall in his first two seasons as a Redskin. He played in five games in 1977 due to a sprained knee.
Jack Pardee’s entrance as Redskins coach in 1978 rejuvenated Riggins’ career, and he posted 1,000-yard seasons in `78, when he was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year, and in `79.
Following the latter season, he tried to negotiate for more money with a year left on his contract. But the Redskins balked, and he retired just before the 1980 campaign.
Riggins returned in 1981 to the tune of his unforgettable remark, “I’m bored, I’m broke and I’m back.” He spent his last five seasons in D.C. to cap a 14-year career. Upon retirement, he stood in the top five in all-time NFL rushing yards (11,352), carries (2,916) and touchdowns (104).
Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. He also hosts “Redskins Legacy,” which airs on Sundays from 9:30-10 a.m. on Sports Talk 570: Powered by ESPN. His web site is www.redskinshistorian.com and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.