"Maybe at first I was intimidated by coaches, but even when I was a kid and they'd tell me no, I'd still go ahead and do what I wanted. You might say I was a wise guy, a smart aleck. I remember once we were getting ready to go to the basketball playoffs, and my buddy, Dan Bloom, and I were goofing off in the back of the room, and the coach said, 'Bloom and Riggins, we're not taking you to the playoffs Friday,' and I turned to Dan and said in a Tweety Bird voice, 'Ooh, he don't want to win vewwy bad, do he?'
"It's funny, I always felt that I belonged and that the team needed me, but at the same time I had a sneaking suspicion that the coaches secretly would have been happier just firing me and hoping I'd get lost somewhere."
In his sophomore year at Centralia High, John was a 185-pound halfback. Frank, a senior that season, was the Panthers' all-state quarterback. John, his weight up to 205, took over at quarterback as a junior; eventually Billy too played quarterback for Centralia. "The offense changed to accommodate me," John says. "I was close to the biggest guy on the team, and we'd run from a T or a single wing or a shotgun, with me taking the snap and always having the option to run on passing plays." He was named second-team all-state.
Clearly, he was starting to catch up to Frank. John won the state Class B 100-yard championship as a junior, tying Frank's best time of 9.9. The next year John won the title in 9.8. "John weighed 219 pounds when he ran that race as a senior," his father says. "After he got 25 yards out he just ate those kids alive."
"I'll never forget it," Billy says. "He ran in the middle lane, and when he came busting through there he looked like a Clydesdale horse. All those high school coaches standing around, their eyes just popped. I think it was a big turning point in John's life, breaking Frank's record. It was probably the first time he thought he just might be a better athlete than Frank, even after the great senior year that John had had in football."
That senior year, which is still discussed in almost religious tones around Centralia, was summarized by one sentence in The Kansas City Star in November of 1966: "John Riggins, 215-pound brother of Kansas varsity footballer Junior Riggins, is rated the top high school player in the nation."
John ran for 1,456 yards in nine games, averaging a little more than 12 carries per game and 13.2 yards a carry. If the games had been closer he might have had numbers no one ever would have matched, but unbeaten Centralia outscored its opponents 457 to 24, and Riggins' work usually was over by halftime. He scored 197 points for the season, threw for 433 yards and averaged 61 yards per punt return and 48 yards per kickoff return; on defense he backed up the line and led the Panthers with 78 tackles. He could run a 4.6 40. In his final game, against the Horton Chargers, Centralia Coach Lennie Mohlman decided to showcase John for the college scouts. The result was 403 yards rushing, 64 passing and 37 points scored.
"The closest thing to a crucial game he had was against Frankfort, a town 15 miles away," his father says. "It was undefeated, too, and there was probably the biggest crowd in the history of either town at that game—something like 900 people. Usually there were about 200 in the stands, but this time they ringed the field, three deep. John gained 220 yards on 16 carries and scored four TDs. He just tore 'em apart.
"After a while no one would punt or kick off to him. He'd just start up the middle and break outside and there was no one fast enough to catch him."
"There were times," Mohlman says, "when he just went straight down the center of the field. He didn't have to cut or zigzag or anything. The guys on the other team just fell back away from him. Too many of them had already been hurt trying to stop him."