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Archive for Saturday, June 16, 1990

T REPLACE RIGGINS

June 16, 1990

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Whatever happened to . . . ?

``Can it be 4 years now since John Riggins bowed low to the crowd and exited stage door left?'' So asks Christine Brennan of the Washington Post. She adds, ``Four and a half years and . . . what? George Rogers, Timmy Smith, Jamie Morris, Gerland Riggs, Earnest Byner, James Wilder. Can it be 4 years, and still no replacement for John Riggins?''

Brennan's article comes from Lawrence's Barbara Lauter, my official Riggo-tracker who also doubles as vice president, division of communications, for the American Society of Internal Medicine in Washington.

John Riggins of Centralia was the Washington Redskins' football workhorse, their clown, and their heart and soul. He now lives in northern Virginia, having departed around 1983 from the rural spread he formerly inhabited just northwest of Lawrence. Just about anytime anyone sees this elusive species anymore, he's either going or coming from fishing or hunting.

COLUMNIST Brennan was lucky enough to reach John by phone to see if he had anything to say about the Redskins. Replied Riggo: ``Nice try. You know I'm not going to answer that. Wing it. Goodbye.''

When the former Kansas star wants to be, he's as good a quote as you'll find on this Big Blue Marble.

Riggins, now 41, left the Skins after the 1985 season (he said he was fired by coach Joe Gibbs). He'd been phased out of the offense. Comments Brennan:

`` . . . soon, like all teams replacing legends, the Redskins realized how wonderful Riggins had been. He played injured. On second thought, was he ever injured? He had physical problems, but he never seemed to be hurt. He checked himself into the hospital, sat in traction for a couple of days, checked himself out Friday or Saturday and carried the football 30 times on Sunday. He'd lie on his back on the bench between series, gasping for air, then would shuffle back onto the field and score.

``He had things to say to Supreme Court justices (`Loosen up, Sandy, baby,' he told Sandra Day O'Connor). He didn't care what people thought of him. He was a throwback. He earned his living in the mud. . . . he should have played in the '50s.''

SAYS COACH GIBBS: ``He had a tremendous desire not to just be a starter, he wanted to do something great. He had talent, he was smart and he had tremendous endurance. Give most guys the ball 30 to 35 times a game and they get broken up. They won't hold up. That's why it's so hard to find somebody to do what he did.

`` . . . John was an exceptional football player, just like Joe Theismann was exceptional. How many times do you get to coach people who are exceptional like that?''

Flair, charisma, panache, respect from teammates and colleagues.

Listen to Calvin Hill, the big Yalie back who later played with the Dallas Cowboys but was with Washington in 1976 and 1977, Riggo's first two years with the team.

``The aura of John, the Hogs, the Hogettes, the team was winning, the camera was on him when he had his big games. . . . They won't replace John because a lot of John was just John.''

``IF HE WAS not 100 percent, he'd still be in there,'' ex-kicker Mark Moseley said. ``You knew the offensive line would hold their blocks one-hundredth of a second longer because John needed it. He brought everyone up a notch.''

Said the admiring Theismann, who handed off and threw to Riggo for nine years: ``I had the best seat in the house to see the bodies strewn behind him. No one combined the speed, the power, the strength of John Riggins. He not only could absorb punishment, but he was one of the few who could dish it out. Defensive players' heads snapped like those dollars you see in cars.''

SOME PEOPLE regard the controversial Riggins as a big, strong, unpolished dummy who happened to be blessed with bigger bones, stronger muscles and quicker reflexe than most Sherman tanks. The Good Lord also gave him a lot of intellect, and he could converse on a lot of topics.

When he off-seasoned around Lawrence during his pro years, you might see him one day with a full head of hair and wearing a three-piece suit, then the next day catch him in the checkout line at Dillon's with a mohawk hairdo, bare-chested except for a leather vest, and wearing cutoff jeans with no shoes.

Riggo appeared with his mother on one of those televised NFL United Way promos, and it's still the best one ever made.

The biggest grin I got from Riggo in the past 10 years was when I sneaked up behind him at the supermarket and asked: ``Didn't you used to be Larry Csonka? Could I have your autograph, Larry?''

Class clown? He could be, and a good one. Pro hall of famer? He will be, or should be, even if he tends to be a little flip with uptight Supreme Court jurists.

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