New York — Editor's Note: John Riggins, a high school sensation in Centralia, came to Kansas University in 1967 when freshmen were ineligible to play football. However, as a sophomore, Riggins was the starting fullback on KU's 1968 Orange Bowl team and currently ranks fourth on KU's all-time career rushing chart with 2,659 yards. He was inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.
John Riggins lumbers across West 46th Street's evening rush hour with the same resolve he showed when sports writers called him "Diesel" and fans roared as he pounded defensive linemen who got in his way.
To his right is the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. To his left, the warm lights and crowd inside O'Lunney's Times Square Pub. Riggins heads for an unmarked door in between, into a world where he's less sure of himself than at any time since the New York Jets picked him as their No. 1 draft choice in 1971.
The entrance leads up three flights of dingy wooden stairs to the Storm Theater, the unheralded stage where the one-time raucous Kansas University and Washington Redskins fullback has been rehearsing for his off-Broadway debut today.
Time out: For the half-dozen or so of you who don't know who Riggins is, he is a gridiron legend, beloved by teammates and fans. His finest moment, the famous go-ahead 43-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XVII in 1983, is a defining moment of professional football. His four consecutive playoff games with more than 100 yards rushing set an NFL record. In 1992, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But acting? In an honest-to-Stanislavsky play off-Broadway? In a production written by a respected playwright owning a Tony and Obie?
Riggins hooked the lead role on the first reading. When he walks into the Storm with director Peter Dobbins, the waiting cast comes immediately to life. They begin the three-hour run-through.
Scene 1 of "Gillette," William Hauptman's working-class-dream play: Riggins, as good old boy Mickey Hollister, strides into a bar with his sidekick, a would-be country-western singer fleeing his job at Montgomery Ward.
The first line Hollister drawls are words Riggins has uttered all his adult life.
"Whaddya have?" the bartender asks.
Riggins: "Ice cold beer."
At 52, Riggins looks fit as a first-stringer. He has maintained his playing weight, 240 pounds and looks as if he could suit up tomorrow.
The Super Bowl MVP who once climbed out of traction for a bad back on a Saturday to run for more than 100 yards on Sunday says he's working harder on acting now than he ever worked on football.
"I'm serious about this," Riggins says.
Riggins has always courted the spotlight. He opened his third of five seasons with the Jets with a splash, showing up at training camp in an outlandish Mohawk.
Throughout his nine seasons with the Redskins, who signed him in 1976, he stayed in the news with flamboyant episodes and outbursts of showmanship.
However, after drinking at the Washington Press Club's 1985 "Salute to Congress" Dinner, Riggins caused a minor uproar by advising Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor: "Loosen up, Sandy baby. You're too tight!"
The next day, he sent apologies and flowers to O'Connor and all the women at his table. Today, he dismisses the behavior as "quite boorish," especially the part where he conked out under the table afterward.
Divorced in '91
When Riggins retired at 36 after the 1985 season, he had no career plan. He lived off his final $825,000 contract "without jumping into something right away."
Riggins and his wife of 15 years, Mary Lou, divorced in '91, their four children staying with her. He spent that tumultuous time living in a Airstream alongside the Potomac River on his rural property near Leesburg, Va.
"I was like a lot of athletes who have been in the spotlight. That is what you know and that is where you gravitate," he says.
So he started thinking about acting, too. "It wasn't an innate need, it wasn't a calling. ... It's the entertainment field."
In 1992, he was asked to audition for the lead in "Illegal Motion," a play about a college football coach being staged in a suburban Washington theater. Critics panned the production but loved Riggins, called him the play's MVP. Sandra Day O'Connor even presented him with a dozen roses during a curtain call.
But broadcast gigs kept derailing the fledgling acting career. WTEM sports radio signed Riggins in '93 for the twice-weekly, hour-long chats he still does.
A year later, he moved to New York to study acting with Bill Esper, head of Rutgers University's Professional Actor Training Programs, while commuting to Washington each Saturday in-season for WRC-TV's "Redskins Report."
He married his second wife in 1996; they live with their daughter, now 5, on the edge of the garment and theater districts near 39th Street.
Last November, when Riggins joined ESPN Radio's Sunday NFL coverage, his acting career seemed like a fleeting dream.
Enter Peter Dobbins, who had met Riggins in a 1994 acting class. That summer, Dobbins staged a tiny production of "Gillette," with Riggins in the supporting role of rough-edged Booger McCoy. Dobbins went on to direct off-Broadway plays but always dreamed of directing the New York debut of "Gillette," with Riggins in the cast.
When Dobbins called him in November, Riggins knew it was the break he'd been looking for except he didn't want to be Booger McCoy. He wanted to be the leading man.
He read for the part. Dobbins was amazed.
"John was made for this role," he says. "That role needs a star personality in it, somebody with a lot of charisma."
After the play's four-week run at the Storm Theater, Dobbins hopes to move it to a larger venue, then maybe bring it to Washington.
"I truly think John can be as good as he wants to be," Dobbins says. "In a couple of years, it'll be, 'Did John Riggins do something besides act?' "