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Monday night, Oct. 18, 1982. The NFL Players Association strike was four weeks old and looked as though it would never end. America was learning it could live without pro football, guards and tackles were becoming acquainted with the insurance business, and the Washington Redskins' 33-year-old fullback, John Riggins, who hadn't worn pads for a month, who hadn't even worked out more than once or twice, had just played two games in two days.
They had been billed as the NFLPA All-Star Games, and they were the union's attempt to show the world it could play football all by itself. On Sunday in Washington, Riggins had turned in a full afternoon's work for the NFC team. He then had caught the red-eye to Los Angeles that night and suited up for Game No. 2, in the L.A. Coliseum. Now it was late, and as the car carrying Riggins back to his hotel crept through the deserted streets and the glaze of sleeplessness settled over his brain, he was suddenly aware that the very small and very crazy person sitting next to him in the backseat was digging him in the ribs with his elbow.
"Shot for shot, waddya say?" Louie Giammona, the 5'9" halfback and special teams wacko then with the Eagles, was saying to Riggins. Giammona was one of the four others who had played in both ends of the twin bill, but he was just getting warmed up.
"What?" Riggins said.
"I'll trade you shot for shot, first you hit me, then I hit you, waddya say?"
"This," said Riggins, "isn't the way to win my friendship."
"O.K., then you hit me, hit me!" Giammona said, bouncing up and down in the seat. "I don't mind. I love it."
"Well, Louie, I'll tell you what we'll do," Riggins said, brushing away the weariness for a moment. "When we get up to the hotel room, we'll tape your ankles together and hang you from the ceiling upside down. Then we'll take turns using you for a heavy bag—if that's what you really want."
The two guys in the front seat guffawed, Giammona calmed down, and Riggins once again turned his attention to the darkened streets. Thirty-three years old, 10½ NFL seasons behind him, and here he was, gliding through the streets of Los Angeles on a trip from nowhere to nowhere. Was this really what he'd been destined for—an up-and-down career, never really focused, a reputation built more on his wry and cryptic comments off the field than his play on it?
The answer, of course, was no. In the wake of the strike the Redskins won their division, and Riggins suddenly became the dominant running back in NFL playoff history. He can be a hard-eyed realist. He has always demanded full pay for services rendered—he sat out the entire 1980 season in a contract dispute—and he has always had a fine sense of the limitations and vulnerability of the human body, particularly his own. And in his triumphant finish last season, he showed the full depth of his sense of reality in a way the football community could best appreciate. With the playoffs approaching, he went to the Redkins' offensive coordinator, Joe Bugel, and told him that he wanted the ball. Bugel pointed Riggins toward the office of Head Coach Joe Gibbs. "Don't tell me, tell him," Bugel said.