"We fished, we hung ropes up and swung from them, we ran," says Billy. "We talked about everything. John said, 'If you go back and play you'll be a blocker. You'll wear high-top shoes and a donut around your neck. You might have a chance to play pro football some day, bomb squad, for a minimal amount of money. You might last a year or two.' It was straight from the shoulder, pow! But in a strange way, it got me to go back and play. At the same time there was a lot of pressure on John from our folks to return to the Jets. I think that pressure is what eventually got him back there."
Four days before the Jets' Monday-night season opener against Green Bay, Riggins signed a two-year contract for $60,000 and $70,000. "Damnedest sight you ever saw," Ewbank said. "He signed the contract sitting at the desk in my office. He had that Mohawk haircut, and he was stripped to the waist and wearing leather pants and a derby hat with a feather in it. It must have been what the sale of Manhattan Island looked like."
The Jets were practicing at Rikers Island prison in New York City. "Hey, Riggins!" one of the inmates shouted as the Jets got off their bus. "Don't go near the fort!"
That year and the next two with the Jets were spent in the Twilight Zone. New York went 4-10, 7-7 and 3-11. Wackos and loonies came and went. On a flight back from Miami, after a 31-3 loss in '73, Riggins held a tape cassette next to the loudspeaker mike, and as Bette Midler's Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy blared through the plane the whole place erupted in a frenzy of dancing. "I held the tape deck," Riggins says, "but they were the ones who were doing the dancing."
"What killed me," Tannen says, "was watching Mike Adamle [another former Jet] interviewing [Redskin owner] Jack Kent Cooke on TV after the Super Bowl and asking him if Riggins is as crazy now as he was then. Crazy? When Mike was with the Jets he used to take off his clothes on the flights back from games and sit there in his underwear. 'Why, Mike?' I'd ask him. 'More comfortable,' he'd say."
Charley Winner replaced Ewbank in '74. He was fired the next season, four days after a fight broke out on the Jet bench during a game in Baltimore. That was Riggins' final season in New York and it ended with a Jet rushing record of 1,005 yards, a second team MVP award and a Pro Bowl appearance. He'd played out his option that year for $63,000. He knew he'd had it with the Jets.
"You could say it was like a marriage that didn't work out," he says. "A lot of promise in the beginning, and then things completely collapsed. What happened to me at the Jets was that I learned to become a loser. I think I envisioned myself then as one of those souls who wander through the NFL without a cause to believe in, not really a member of a team, just a member of the NFL searching for a playoff. A soldier of fortune, a mercenary fighter—that would be the logical extension of it. Except that in the soldier-of-fortune league sometimes the players don't leave the stadium after the game."
Riggins said the Jets made him one offer for the 1976 season—$100,000. He let it be known that he thought he was worth what Namath was making, and at $450,000 a year Namath was the highest-paid player in the NFL, although in 1975 he'd ranked 27th among its quarterbacks and led the league in interceptions. A recent court decision had created a short-lived situation that allowed Riggins and 23 other players complete free agency, and he shopped himself around. He had one price for the Jets and a lower one for the rest of the league.
"The Jet General Manager, Al Ward, talked to me one time," Riggins said. "He said, 'What do you eventually want to do in life?' I said, 'Oh, I might like to be a sportswriter someday.' "
On June 10, 1976 Riggins signed a five-year, $1.5 million contract with the Redskins. The Jets had gotten nothing for him. "Maybe it was bitterness on their part, but a lot of rumors followed me from New York," he says. "Rumors that I was overweight, that I wouldn't practice injured. Maybe if I had I wouldn't be around today. Rumors that I didn't like to practice—well, I've never made a secret of that. Rumors that I was on drugs. You name it."