Just as Ross Detwiler was putting the brakes on the St. Louis Cardinals offense, my phone rang from its perch at the Austin Grill bar in Silver Spring. I can assure you that there are only a few calls I am taking at that moment. This was one of them.
Unlike the voice on the other side of my phone some three weeks ago that would only speak to me about Raheem Morris' playcalling duties in the Rams game on the condition of anonymity, I knew that this voice would never make such a request.
John Riggins' voice is tattooed on the brains of countless Washington sports fans, and thanks to the technology of modern phones, that familiar voice shot through my iphone clearly and distinctly. For a moment, I swore he was moonwalking in front of a Ford truck.
While I won't pretend to be lifelong friends with the Diesel, we did a few things together back when he was doing sports radio in D.C. I know he would likely have trouble picking me out of a lineup today, but the tone in his voice suggested the opposite was true. The main reason for this call was to talk about Riggins being honored as a "Hometown Hall of Famer" by Allstate and the Pro Football Hall of Fame at his former high school in Centralia, Kansas. The event is taking place at his high school today, October 12.
"You know Ken, what this is all about is the kids in these towns and communities. You make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and it's kind of the high-water mark. A lot of guys get there and don't really go back. It's important to get back." I suggested that his hometown naturally felt very much like he belonged to them, much the same way Redskins fans feel. Riggins agreed, stating in a 'you-don't-know-the-half-of-it' tone, "That's the truth!"
I added, "After all the stuff you've done, it must be nice to have people claim you as their own!"
John paused and answered, "You know what...you could say that!"
John's brother Bill will be presenting him with a plaque that will remain on permanent display at Centralia High School. (Centralia High School is located at 507 John Riggins Avenue, in case you were wondering if there was any chance John Riggins wasn't remembered in Centralia.)
I knew it was the end of the day for John and that he had a big day coming up, so I prepared a few Redskins questions for him (of course) before I let him go.
As you all know, I was and still am a big Clinton Portis fan. I consider myself very lucky to have been able to watch both Portis and Riggins run for the Washington Redskins. I wasn't going to ask John to compare himself to Clinton or critique his style on this call. Kevin and I were more interested in the rushing record Portis was chasing down.
"John, what were you thinking as Clinton rubbed up close to your rushing record...or records?"
"Personal records never really mattered much to me. It took so many more guys than just me to get those numbers," John said with a hint of embarrassment in his voice. It was obvious that Riggins did not agree with the fact that it was only his name on those rushing numbers.
He continued, "But those records mattered to Clinton, and so I wanted them for him. I wish he could have gotten there. To me, it was never really much of an accomplishment."
(My response of, "WHAT!?!?!" caused him to chuckle, but his point was clear.)
"John, as long as we are talking about running backs, what do you think of this guy Alfred Morris?"
I wasn't prepared for what came next.
"Who?" John asked. "I have never heard of him. I don't watch football anymore...haven't since I kind of got out of that whole sports thing."
"John, I have to say that is kind of shocking to me. I am surprised."
"Well Ken, you know, I always kind of saw football as my occupation. Even though I put 40 years into the game, it isn't who I am...it's not how I identified myself. The broadcasting thing came my way and I was maybe too dumb to go and find something else. I was kind of like water...following the path of least resistance."
I reiterated how much I, and many of you, enjoyed listening to him every day. He thanked me, but it was clear from his tenor that he just didn't see himself returning to that chapter of his life. I wanted to hit him with just a few quick-hitters on the way out, and he obliged.
Ken: "Favorite coach you ever played for?"
John: "That would have to be Weeb Ewbank, because he was the kind of guy who would buy you a beer before and after the game. There's nothing wrong with that!"
Ken: "What was your favorite play to hear called in the huddle?"
John: "Awwww, I don't know...probably a play-action pass where I didn't have to block!"
Ken: "Who was your favorite team to play against?"
John: "I want to say the Cowboys, but also the Giants. They both had great defenses, but Dallas was always a great game."
Ken: "Which defender that you faced regularly in your career was your favorite or someone you respected a great deal?"
John: "NOBODY! If you played defense...you weren't my friend."
It's hard to pull off the act of pretending you aren't in awe of the man at the other end of the line. When I am old and gray (God willing), the memory of John Riggins taking it to the house on 4th and 1 in Super Bowl XVII against the Miami Dolphins will remain prominent in the ol' dome. The character of John Riggins, as portrayed by John Riggins, will also always be an important one to this sports fan. When I finally got to meet Joe Gibbs, it was John Riggins that I wanted to talk to him about the most.
As always, we thank John Riggins for his time...for his game...and for hating the Dallas Cowboys.