Riggins lands soap gig
KU legend steering multifaceted career to daytime TV
New York ? No one ever told John Riggins he had one life to live.
Riggins, a former Kansas University football standout, has been a professional athlete, farmer and broadcaster. This week he’s back on the set of “Guiding Light,” continuing the role of Mitch Hendon that he started in May.
The Hall of Fame running back doesn’t see his budding acting career as a giant leap from the gridiron.
“I’ve been in entertainment all my life,” said Riggins, who played for KU from 1968 to ’70 and then in the NFL with the New York Jets and Washington Redskins. “Football is a product, and it entertains people. It really wasn’t that much of a stretch.
“It would have been more of a stretch for me to go to work for some insurance company or some bank or do something like that. To me that would have been further away from what I spent 15 years doing. Everything is under the same umbrella. They just have different names.”
Riggins’ acting career began at Centralia High when a teacher cast Riggins as the lead role in his junior play. Talent probably wasn’t the deciding factor.
“I knew the reason he put me as lead is, it kept me on stage the whole time, so he knew where I was,” said Riggins, whose reputation for mischief continued through his NFL career.
The acting bug didn’t bite again for years. Riggins majored in jour-
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nalism at KU, but didn’t know what to do when his NFL career ended in 1985.
“I like what I’m doing now,” he said Monday at the “Guiding Light” studio in Manhattan. “I’m excited about every new day because there’s so many possibilities. I think I’ve found the essence of what I want to do — entertain people.
“And I’d rather entertain them this way than the way I did years ago because I’m not as tired at the end of the day. I guess I can be tired, but at least I don’t need people to help me out of a chair — as a rule — although that could change in the next few years.”
At 53, Riggins still looks the part of leading man, even if he’s not yet cast as one. He likely will have the attention of “Guiding Light” fans when the episodes taped this week air July 17-18 and 21-22. His character is a suspect in the murder of his unfaithful wife, Ramona.
“I’ve never been particularly serious about anything,” said Riggins, whose off-the-field antics often generated as much publicity as his All-Pro statistics. “Mitch Hendon is as serious as a heart attack, so it’s kind of fun to be that serious. He’s the ultimate authority figure. If you don’t see it his way, he might stick a knife in your ribs.”
Riggins isn’t quite as tough as his character. He admitted he had a low tolerance for rookies and their mistakes when he was a veteran football player, but now he is the rookie.
“I don’t want to be the guy that messes it up,” Riggins said.
At least on TV an actor gets more than one take.
Riggins’ career as a professional actor started in 1992 when he appeared in “Illegal Motion” in a Maryland theater. Though he was intrigued by the experience, his acting career didn’t take off.
“I originally came to New York in 1994 to study acting,” Riggins said. “I did that for a couple of years. I got remarried in 1996 and had another child. Broadcasting was what was paying the bills, and it still is. I just got away from acting.”
Days of his life
Riggins has little time for dramatics during football season.
He takes the train every Thursday to Washington, D.C., during the fall, where he has a weekly radio gig and 30-minute TV show about the Redskins with panelists Sonny Jurgenson, Michael Wilbon and George Michael. Riggins takes the train home, arriving around 2 a.m. in New York.
Riggins works as a radio color analyst and sideline reporter for Westwood One and did eight Arena League games for NBC last season.
This year Riggins will be a panelist on another weekly TV show, an hour-long gabfest on the YES Network catering to fans of New York’s Jets and Giants.
“As far as broadcasting goes,” he said, “I’ve got a full dance card.”
That means his acting career will be on the back burner, at least for a few months.
All his children
Riggins, who once sported Afro and Mohawk hairstyles, is enjoying marriage and fatherhood for the second time.
He and wife Lisa-Marie have a 6-year-old daughter, Hannah.
“With Hannah I’ve been around so much more,” said Riggins, who has four children ranging in age from 17 to 28 from his first marriage. “I’ve been a bigger part of her life than I was with the other four children. It makes you feel badly that you weren’t there more for the first four, and it makes you appreciate them that much more. It changes your perspective somewhat.
“I think it has more to do with aging and maturity than with what occupation you’re in. No matter how busy somebody gets, you have to make time for your family.”
At an age when many former football players are enduring the pain of hip- or knee-replacement surgery, Riggins is seeking more baby-sitting.
“My wife is wanting to have another child, so it’s perfect for me. It means Anthony Quinn has nothing on me,” Riggins quipped, referring to the Oscar-winning actor who fathered 13 children.
Riggins was a workhorse running back blessed with speed and power, and the 6-foot-2, 240-pounder was still carrying the ball more than 300 times per season near the end of his career.
Riggins still weighs the same as when his career ended nearly two decades ago, though he admits he’s “more soft” than he used to be.
“My legs are in good shape,” Riggins said. “You have to be lucky in that game, and I think I was fortunate. I think everybody has the instinct to survive, and I think mine might have been as keen as anybody’s. … Some people said I was a candyass, but guess what? I’m still here, and I can do a jig if I want to and I’m damn near 75 years old.”
As his world turns
Riggins’s acting career is in its infancy. He appeared in “Gillette” this spring at the Storm Theater off Broadway, and that role led to his job on “Guiding Light.”
With football season nearing, Riggins will have less time for acting; his storyline likely will be wrapped up this summer.
“Originally it was supposed to be four episodes,” he said. “Now it’s turned into nine, so we’ll see what happens. This is a soap opera. Anything is possible — and then some.
“I’ve loved this absolutely. I don’t know which I enjoy more. I certainly enjoy being Mitch, but I certainly enjoy being here as an actor. I read these scripts, and I get goose bumps. I think that’s a good thing.”
Riggins already has his eye on a part for next offseason. He’d like to return to the Storm Theater in the spring if it goes ahead with plans for a production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
“There may be a part in it for me,” he said, “so I’ve got a whole lot of homework to do.”