When John Riggins is involved, there almost always is "more to the story." Two noteworthy adventures involved Sandra Day O'Connor, the brilliant retired U.S. Supreme Court justice with a sense of humor to cope with the inimitable Riggo.
John, former Kansas University, New York Jet and Washington Redskin running back, will join the KU Ring of Honor on Oct. 13, something he fully deserves as one of only three Jayhawks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Ever an unpredictable free spirit with a penchant for "the good life," Riggins has produced enough great stories to fill a huge book. KU's Don Fambrough went to recruit him during a Centralia High football game. At the half he found Riggo, football suit and all, playing in the marching band : "and probably selling programs," Don says. "He was a great athlete who could excel at anything he focused on."
Maybe you've heard about the night Riggins, an actor and radio and television personality in the Washington area, was attending some kind of awards event and was seated at the same table as Justice O'Connor. A well oiled Riggins at one point complained about the low ceiling only to discover he'd drunk himself under the table. Joshing around with O'Connor, he advised: "You've got to loosen up, Sandy Baby!"
Naturally the event created hordes of stories and headlines. Riggo is intelligent as all get-out, charming, gracious, somebody who can mix nimbly in any caliber of crowd when he's not too sauced. He felt miserable about the O'Connor affair and not only sent her a letter of apology but a huge bouquet as well. They had lunch and chuckled. "Sandy" grew up on a working ranch in Arizona and knows gross as well as gentility, both of which the versatile Riggins can accommodate.
Retired as a football star, Riggins went into acting and landed a key role in a dramatic production. Opening night, a surprise bouquet arrived at his dressing room, and who was in the front row applauding and smiling but Sandy Baby?
Riggins has a thing about flowers. Washington declined to pay him at least the $350,000 he figured he was worth for the 1980 season so he sat it out, saying "They're gonna need me." His contract prevented him from playing in KU's Varsity-Alumni game in the spring of '81, but as an "assistant coach" he managed to steal the spotlight.
At halftime, a convertible long enough it should have had hinges eased onto the KU track at the southwest corner, and in drove Riggins, well lubricated and equipped for a happening. He pulled up below the east stands and got out toting a huge bouquet of yellow long-stemmed roses.
He went up into the bleachers and gave a rose, as long as they lasted, to every female, then returned to his convert for six-packs of his "breakfast of champions" to hand out to the males.
Big Rig thanked the crowd for "coming out to see me (the cheers were deafening), and now if I may, I'll join the boys on the bench and help with the coaching." A movie script couldn't do it better.
When Riggins went to camp that fall he had a salary package of well over $500,000, with bonus stipulations. He sparked the Redskins to a 1983 Super Bowl title, as MVP, and had reached the seven-figure pay level when he retired at age 36 after the '85 season.
None of the other 14 in KU's Ring of Honor can top the Riggins legacy of entertainment plus football greatness.