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They Bought His Act Hook, Line And Sinker
Paul Zimmermen
September 01, 1983
When John Riggins said he wanted the ball in last year's NFL playoffs, the Redskins went along, and he reeled in the Super Bowl crown
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September 01, 1983

They Bought His Act Hook, Line And Sinker

When John Riggins said he wanted the ball in last year's NFL playoffs, the Redskins went along, and he reeled in the Super Bowl crown

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The legend grew. Michigan State Coach Duffy Daugherty supposedly called John three times in one day. John says it was only once. The telegrams that arrived were turned over to his coach or his father. He knew where he wanted to go—to Kansas, to play in the same backfield with Junior—but he flew out to the University of Colorado anyway to take a look.

"I'd never been west of Salina, Kansas," Riggins says, "and I looked at the mountains in awe. I saw a Colorado game and then met a whole bunch of alumni—doctors and lawyers and businessmen. That evening Bobby Anderson—he was a quarterback on the team and the younger brother of Dick Anderson, who played for the Dolphins—took me out. He and his date, Tom Harmon's daughter, Kelly, were driving me to pick up my date, and he asked me, 'What do you want to do? A movie O.K.?' and I said, 'Yeah, fine.'

"Then Bobby asked me, 'Have you seen Doctor Zhivago?' and I said, 'Well, I might have met him this afternoon, but I don't remember him.' I could see him and Kelly looking at each other: 'Gee-zus, where did this guy come from?' "

At Kansas he majored in journalism, getting one scoop when he copped a look at a police accident report and came up with an identity that was being withheld. "Got me a C in journalism that semester," he says. In 1968, his first season on the varsity, he gained 866 yards rushing and was named Big Eight Soph of the Year. Frank was his blocker now, splitting the job with a little tailback named Don Shanklin. The Jayhawks went 9-1 but lost to Penn State in the Orange Bowl. Then the bottom fell out. Kansas was 1-9 in Riggins' junior year and 5-6 the next. He had the consolation of making one All-America team as a senior and leading the Big Eight in rushing (1,131 yards) that year.

Around campus he was something of a curiosity. He fought in the Kansas City Golden Gloves one year and made it through two bouts, his loss in the second ending in leaden-armed fatigue—"Just standing there, my arms at my sides, everyone booing." In another escapade, Frank remembers John somehow commandeering a Rolls-Royce, complete with chauffeur, and piling 10 kids in it for a spin. And his attire was as outlandish as his behavior. "He'd dress in overalls and carry a lunch pail and wear these little bitty wire-rim granny glasses that had originally been his grandmother's," says John Wooden, who runs a college hangout in Lawrence called The Wheel. "One night he pulled up on a motorcycle, with this girl riding in back who was almost as big as he is. There must have been 440 pounds on that motorcycle. The tires were flat to the ground. Everyone came out of the restaurant to look at them."

"I remember meeting John at one of those preseason All-America things in Chicago," says Steve Tannen, then an All-America cornerback at Florida. "You know what they're like; you're dealing with a lot of egos, everyone trying to strut his stuff. Very few guys stuck out, but Riggins did. John and Mike Phipps of Purdue and I sort of hung around together. John was an individualist, but the thing that really separated him from the rest of the guys was that most of them had the IQ of an after-dinner mint."

With the pro scouts it was a toss-up whether Riggins or Ohio State's John Brockington would be the first runner picked. There was one negative about Riggins: He was different. "The scouts were around all the time," Riggins says. "They all wanted to give me the same tests, running tests, spatial tests, four, five, 10 times. I'd say, 'Hey, I've got better things to do, man.' So they wrote down in their little books: 'Bad Attitude.' And you know-something, they were right."

Nonetheless, the New York Jets, with the sixth pick in the draft, had no trouble deciding to make Riggins the first running back chosen. Coach Weeb Ewbank had seen his share of eccentrics. At the time, Ewbank's Jets were a team in transition. The veterans who had won the Super Bowl in '69—guys like Larry Grantham, Don Maynard and Pete Lammons—were showing their age. A new breed was arriving.

"We were the flower people," says Tannen, the Jets' No. 1 draft choice the year before Riggins arrived and a film and TV actor these days. "Me in '70, Riggins and Phil Wise and Chris Farasopoulos in '71. Before that it was a club of good 'ol boys, heavy drinkers, three-piece suits, big, sturdy cars."

"My image of pro football from the guys I played with as a rookie," Riggins says, "was that you needed a hangover on Sunday to play in the NFL."

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