Riggins came into his first pro training camp frightened. "I was always scared of the next level," he says. "Scared whether I could make the next cut. When I was about to go to Kansas from Centralia, I could just hear people saying under their breath, 'Well, he was pretty good in the little pond, but wait till he gets to the university, they'll straighten him out.' By the time I was a senior at Kansas I was pretty confident, but when I got drafted, the old fear came back. I remember a writer telling me, 'You're a Number One draft choice, they're not going to cut you. They never cut their Number One.' And I said, 'Yeah, but I don't want to be the first.' That's probably why I came chugging into camp in an old '63 Chevy, so I could leave town inconspicuously."
Jet Fullback Matt Snell had gone down with a preseason injury, so the job was Riggins' from Day 1. As a rookie he became the first player to lead the Jets in both rushing (769 yards) and pass receiving (36 catches). He blocked, he ran hard, he showed a natural instinct for pass catching. Against San Diego he made what New York Backfield Coach Ken Meyer called "the most amazing play I've ever seen." Riggins was swinging out for a screen pass, with 240-pound Linebacker Jeff Staggs lying in wait and 260-pound Tackle Andy Rice closing from the blind side. Riggins one-handed the slightly overthrown ball, stiff-armed Staggs in the same motion, rode with Rice's tackle and dragged both of the defenders for two yards. "A two-yard gain, who will ever know about it?" Meyer said. "And yet it's one of the greatest feats of coordination I've ever seen on a football field."
"People talk about the younger generation, the long hair and funny clothes," said Grantham, then a 32-year-old right linebacker, and an original 1960 New York Titan, staring at Riggins' blossoming sandy Afro. "I don't £are what this kid looks like. He can play football with anybody."
Riggins came back in 1972 ready to take a shot at Snell's single-season Jet rushing record of 948 yards. He played hurt—he had a series of minor injuries. He didn't complain. The Jets got the maximum mileage out of his aching 23-year-old body. Midway through November Ewbank brought New York into Miami with a 6-3 record and some very real playoff hopes. Riggins played with a charley horse and damaged feet. With a minute and a half left in the game, the Jets, trailing by four points, had the ball deep in their own territory. Joe Namath called three swing passes to Riggins and a draw by Riggins. Net gain: 18 yards. End of game. Dolphin Safetyman Dick Anderson was laughing as he made the last tackle.
Four days later, in a Thanksgiving game in Detroit, Riggins, despite his sore leg, carried the ball 18 times in the first half. He wound up with 105 yards on 24 carries but limped off the field in the fourth quarter. The next week, against New Orleans, his right knee started locking. It had been chipped. He knew something was wrong but was told to tough it out. Two days later he was operated on for removal of a bone chip. His season was over with two games left. He fell four yards short of Snell's record, and New York missed the playoffs. "If only Riggins had stayed healthy all year," everyone said. The Jet players voted him their MVP anyway.
During the off-season Riggins took a long look at his career up to that point. He'd done it their way and it hadn't worked. Now he felt like an old man. He began to have serious thoughts about the game and about human durability. The Jets sent him a $1,000 bonus. He sent it back.
He was sharing a Greenwich Village apartment with Farasopoulos, the curly-haired little safetyman from Brigham Young. A bar, an old Wurlitzer jukebox, a barber chair and a couch without legs were the furnishings. The life-style was fast. Friends who visited from Kansas couldn't understand the way he was living.
"I didn't know who I was or where I was half the time," Riggins says. "I'd wake up asking myself, 'Why the hell am I doing this?' Everyone who had long hair in those days was either a hippie or a war protester. I didn't see myself that way. So I shaved my head and grew a Mohawk. I was staking out my own territory, letting everyone around me know I was making my own decisions."
In '73 Riggins told Ewbank he wanted more money, a lot more. He had originally been given a two-year contract for $22,000 the first year and $25,000 the second, plus a $40,000 signing bonus. Namath was making $250,000. Riggins wanted $150,000. "The beating I had been taking was unnatural," he says. "I couldn't walk for two days after every game. And I was only 23. When all the glory is gone and you've got that little crook in your walk, then you'll ask yourself, was it worth it? Anyone who can't see that is stupid. I may be from a small town, but I'm not a hick."
"I've always felt that players go to pot quicker when they're overpaid than when they're underpaid," Ewbank said. So Riggins held out. It was a bad time for the Riggins boys. Frank had been released after four years as an outfielder in the California Angels' organization and in football had tried out unsuccessfully for both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Chiefs. Billy was thinking of quitting the University of Kansas football team. One day, John and Billy drove a pickup down to the Blue River near Kansas' Tuttle Creek State Park and camped out.