In 1981 he was in camp, ready to try it again, this time for the Redskins' new coach, Joe Gibbs, his sixth NFL boss. "I'm bored, I'm broke and I'm back," was Riggins' statement upon his return. He was also granting no interviews, a moratorium that was to last until the Tuesday before last January's NFL championship game.
"That surprised me," brother Billy says. "John used to talk about how much fun he'd always had being interviewed and reading the stuff the next day. In fact, the last time I talked to him he said he'd really like to be a sportswriter when he retired."
Riggins says, "I figured it this way: If I was going to catch heat in the papers, which I had been doing, I wasn't going to throw any fuel on the fire. Sometimes when you're sitting in the locker room after a tough game, trying to organize your thoughts, you can be baited into saying something that you don't want to say. Then it becomes like a fission thing. When the first atom explodes, the whole thing goes. You're going to say things that will cause trouble, but then again the other side of it is that as a reader, those are the things I like to read."
Gibbs had visited Riggins in Lawrence in the off-season to sound him out. "I didn't know what to expect," Gibbs says. "He told me he might come back. He saw me looking at the beer in his hand. He said, 'Look, I know what you're thinking, but don't worry, if I come back I won't be in good shape, I'll be in great shape.' "
Riggins pushed himself in camp. When the squad was finished practicing, he would stay out and run quarter miles. Getting his timing down took a while. He and the Redskins started slowly. The first game the Skins won, after five losses, was the first time Riggins broke loose, for 126 yards. It was also the game in which the Skins switched to a one-back offense, Riggins alternating with little Joe Washington.
It turned into a weird year for Riggins. He set a Redskin record with 13 touchdowns rushing, but nine of them were for two yards or less. "I was the DH," he says. "I'd go in for short-yardage situations, third and one, third and two. It was an end-of-career type of thing. Scoring all those touchdowns was my juice, though; they were what kept me going. When I was in high school and college a one-yard touchdown run didn't mean all that much to me. But in the big leagues it's really tough to get."
The '82 season shaped up as more of the same, except that three things happened—Washington and Halfback Wilbur Jackson got hurt, Redskin Quarterback Joe Theismann had his best year, and the Washington offensive line, the Hogs, became the most deadly group of run blockers in the game. And so with the playoffs coming up, Riggins asked for the ball.
"I looked back on my career and it seemed to have followed a pattern," he says. "Every time I was told exactly what I was supposed to be doing and what the order of things should be—the coach is the Dl, you're the recruit who has to march in step)—it blew up in my face. The other way, when I tried to do things my way, it seemed to work out better. When I first went to Washington I was supposed to be a big, tough guy coming from New York, but I was actually a little mouse down there. I was trying to make everyone happy instead of doing it my way."
It was the same old story of the wrong long-jump pit back in Bern. It was the culmination of a career that had been held back by doubt and frustration, by all those years of being Junior's younger brother and then finding another Junior on the Jets, this one named Namath. But now everything was in place. Riggins had never had this kind of firepower to run behind. His legs felt strong, healthy. Maybe all those days of missing practice had prolonged his career, who knows? All he knew was that he wanted the ball.
The playoffs and Super Bowl followed a similar pattern: Theismann set teams up with the pass, and when the defensive linemen got tired from pass rushing, Riggins and the Hogs pounded them into submission. The Washington fans loved it. They brought air horns to the games and tooted as Riggins rumbled through the line like a truck. JOHN RIGGINS RUNS ON DIESEL FUEL read a big sign in the end zone at RFK Stadium during the conference championship game.