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"When John is gone," says his wife, Mary Lou, "everything is just, well, empty. But as soon as he's back everyone knows it. How can I put it He's...robust. There's this feeling of clang, clang, all over the house. You always know where he is. Things that seemed empty are suddenly full."
People who have never seen Riggins up close often seemed surprised by his size when they meet him. "Didn't know he was that big," they seem to be saying. He stands 6'2", but it's his thickness that's remarkable. There's a blocky, indestructible look to his body. It's not contoured along gymnasium lines—the exaggerated, pumped-up look of the weightlifter; it has more of the appearance of muscle carefully and slowly amassed by years of hard labor.
Still, every now and then his weight will come under scrutiny. "I've never had a weight problem," Riggins says, "but for some reason my weight always seems to concern people. I played as low as 225 to 230 in 1981, when I came back from the year's layoff. In my rookie season with the Jets I weighed 244 before the last game and felt fine. I've had the same seven to eight percent body fat at 228 as I did at 238, and during the playoffs and Super Bowl I probably played as heavy as I ever have, 245 to 250."
And it was at that weight that he went on his postseason record rampage, carrying the ball 136 times for 610 yards in the four games, for an average of 34 carries and 152.5 yards a game, including his Super Bowl records of 38 for 166. On his 30th Super Bowl carry, a game-clinching 43-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, he was pulling away from a Dolphin safetyman as he scored.
"One year, I think it was 79, the Redskins had a weight incentive thing for me," Riggins says. "Something like 235. Kind of insulting, isn't it? The whole point is, if I ain't any good they're going to fire me anyway, whether I do it their way or my way, so why not let me do it my way and take my chances?"
Riggins' way was often different from their way, regardless of whom the "their" referred to. Authority was out there to be respected; every small-town kid learned that, and Centralia, Kans. (pop. 500) qualified as a small town. But what if authority was a horse's ass? Well, you try it their way for a while, and then you've got to take your own road.
Riggins learned that lesson early, as a seventh-grader competing in a junior track meet in Bern, Kans. "I was getting ready to long-jump, and I thought the pit looked a little too short," he says. "I told the official, 'Look, the back of the pit's too close. Let me use the high school pit.' The guy said, 'Nah, nah, you'll have no problem.' So I jumped and I went 19'4", which was well beyond the pit, and broke my ankle, actually separated the cartilage. I never long-jumped again. That official sure was backpedaling after I wrecked my ankle."
A suspicion began to take hold, a suspicion that a mere badge or title didn't give anyone extra IQ points. But it was tough for a 12-year-old kid from an isolated rural community to throw down the gauntlet and say, "That's it. I'm turning rebel. It's me against them."
"You have to understand what it means growing up in a little town like Centralia," Riggins says. "My father had some land, but we weren't farmers. He worked as a telegraph operator and depot agent for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, just as his father had before him. My mother was a secretary for a state social service agency. Being a town kid, you don't get an education like a farm kid does. He learns how to fix a tractor, learns an appreciation for nature; he gets along. From the time that he's five or six years old he knows what makes corn grow. A city kid is different, too. He knows what it's like to be around people, he gets exposure. But a small-town kid has none of that. In a way he's at a loss, unless he's the kind of kid who wears a black leather jacket and is always tinkering around with a car—but then that's all he knows."
Riggins points to a picture in an old scrapbook of three little kids in baseball uniforms: six-year-old Franklin Eugene Jr., known then as Junior, pitching; four-year-old John catching; two-year-old Billy at bat. The Riggins boys preparing to take over the sporting world.