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A traveling salesman last week added a few thousand more air miles to a selling trip that so far has taken him to four states and Washington, D.C. No doors were slammed in his face, nor did he suffer verbal insults. Indeed, buyers met him at each airport, picked up the tab for his first-class air fare and his hotel charges and later wined and dined him at the best restaurants in town. If it was difficult to tell just who was selling whom, however, there was no doubt that John Riggins now knows the territory.
Riggins is the 230-pound fullback who rushed for 1,005 yards last season while it playing out his option with the New York Jets. More important than the team rushing record Riggins completed on Dec. 21, 1975, however, was the free-agent status he achieved on May 1, 1976. Along with the Rozelle Rule moratorium which apparently has ended mandatory player-or-draft choice compensation from a team signing an option player, it sent Riggins into the NFL's open market to sell Riggins, a valuable commodity for any franchise hoping to extend its business year into the Super Bowl.
Strangely, the Jets have not made a heavy sales pitch to Riggins. It has been the unstated policy of the Jets, specifically at contract time, to low rate Riggins' talent ever since he was the club's No. 1 draft choice out of Kansas in 1971. While some teams have questioned his dedication, feeling that he should have played harder, even though the Jets were going nowhere, it is reasonable to assume that Riggins could help power the right dub into a championship season.
"The ideal back," he says, "can catch the football, block, run inside or out—and he doesn't make mistakes. On a scale of 10, I think I qualify up around a nine in all those categories. I don't think there's another back in the league who can say that."
If that sounds like so much hard-sell hype, consider that Riggins, 26, ranked seventh in NFL rushing while playing behind a line whose primary emphasis was pass blocking for Quarterback Joe Namath; and that he caught 30 passes for 363 yards, scored nine touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl team. Riggins also runs the 40 in 4.7 seconds.
Armed with these selling points, Riggins has departed the comforts of his Lawrence, Kans. home and the chores of his 160-acre farm in nearby Centralia (pop. 500) to visit five potential employers: the Rams, Saints, Oilers, Redskins and Vikings. As a courtesy he has promised the Jets that they will have the last sales shot sometime this week, but he expects to return to Shea Stadium next season only as a visitor.
"The Jets have deteriorated over the last three years," he says. "It's like being with an outfit expected to go bankrupt. If you got any smarts, you ought to get out of the damn thing."
For those who remember Riggins only as the iconoclast who sported a Mohawk haircut three years ago, the sight of Riggins the traveling salesman is startling. Neatly groomed and nattily attired in a three-piece suit, he has made his football rounds looking like a suburban banker. From a monetary angle, the new look makes sense.
"If you're asking for a million dollars," he says, adjusting his horn-rims, "you've got to look like a million dollars. I want these people to know I'm a solid citizen type, not the flake some people say I am." Riggins apparently has succeeded beyond his wildest hope.
At dinner last week with George Allen and other Redskin personnel, Riggins was mistaken for his lawyer. "I don't think the guy meant it as a compliment," he says, "but that was the nicest thing anyone ever said about me."