- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2003

NEW YORK — As the character known as Riggo — “a role I played for 15 years,” he said — John Riggins was the model of straight ahead consistency on the field and unpredictable wackiness off it. There seems to be a Riggins story for each of the 11,352 yards he gained as a Hall of Fame running back with the Redskins and, before that, the New York Jets. Some of them are even true.

Now Riggins, who started taking acting classes in 1994 and starred in an off-Broadway play last year, has taken on a new role. He is Mitch Hendon, a character in the soap opera “Guiding Light,” which at 50 is the longest-running show in the history of television and only a few years younger than Riggins, 53.

Hendon is a tough ex-Marine, a wealthy owner of several auto dealerships and not a very nice person. He is shrouded in mystery. Riggins himself knows little about Hendon, but thinks he might be a CIA operative. In one of the multiple plot lines, Hendon’s wife, who was cheating with a younger man, has been murdered. Some folks in the town of Springfield believe Mitch might have done it. Explaining the character, executive producer John Conboy said, “He would hang you up by your feet if he wanted to get information. He would rather handle a situation physically than discuss it.”

This is fine with Riggins, who, when he played, also preferred to handle situations physically, especially situations that called for crunching out a first down. He has taken a liking to Mitch Hendon, describing him as himself between the ages of 8 and 12. “I used to be a little bit of a bully,” he said. “I was bigger than the other kids.”

Once again, Riggins is the biggest person in the room. Looking younger than his age, he looms large as he paces nervously on the set in Studio A of the New York Production Center in midtown Manhattan. He is 6-foot-2, and brisk, nine-mile walks around Central Park have helped maintain the same 240 pounds he employed to pile-drive into opposing defenses. Or would-be thieves. Riggins recently surprised an intruder in the West 39th Street apartment he shares with his wife, Lisa-Marie, a law student to whom he has been married seven years on Thursday, and his 6-year-old daughter, Hannah. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time; Riggins ended up pinning the unfortunate fellow to the ground in the lobby until police arrived.

But in the studio, something is a little off. Namely, Riggins. He has not worked in six weeks, as Hendon is what is known as a “recurring character,” not a regular, and has rehearsed only a little. Still, in soaps, that’s the way it is. Also, an alarm clock rudely jolted Riggins awake at 6a.m. As he paces, wearing a tan suit, Riggins not only mouths his lines but tries to shake off the rust and the cobwebs. “My day was shot from the beginning,” he groused later. “I felt like I had a hangover without having a hangover.”

Riggins has some experience with such matters. As a member of the Redskins’ “5 O’Clock Club,” he shared beers with the offensive linemen, the “Hogs,” behind a shed every day after practice. He occasionally played with real hangovers, and was charged with DUI twice and public drunkenness (nothing stuck in court) after he retired at the age of 36 in 1985. But all that is old news. While he still enjoys a frosty beverage now and again, Riggins has cleaned up his act considerably. “I think you kind of outgrow that stuff,” he said.

Riggins was in bed by 10:45 the night before, and he can’t understand why he feels so out of it. Also, in his first scene, Riggins is sitting in a restaurant booth with actor Justin Deas, a six-time Daytime Emmy winner who plays Buzz Cooper, one of Hendon’s few friends.

“That was kind of a struggle a little bit,” Riggins said. “I was uncomfortable physically because I had to sit in a stilted position and all that stuff. It didn’t feel quite right. But so what? You still have to get the meaning across.”

So there, Riggins is still a gamer. Give him the ball, or a script, and he’ll know what to do. When he played for the Jets from 1971 through 1975, he missed several games and some within the organization suggested he didn’t know the difference between playing hurt and playing injured. That wasn’t a problem with the Redskins, especially after Joe Gibbs arrived as coach in 1981, the same year Riggins returned after a season-long holdout. Gibbs helped popularize the one-back offense, and Riggins was the one back. The “Riggo Drill,” as it was known, was simply Riggins repeatedly getting carries until the defense caved in.

Acting is less painful than football, at least in the neck, shoulders and knees, and Riggins overcomes the discomfort. He breezes through a dress rehearsal and then the actual taping without a hitch. He later said he wasn’t exactly thrilled with his work. But he likes his next scene better. Riggins unfolds himself from the booth, walks outside the restaurant and confronts a character named — no kidding — Harley Davidson Cooper, Buzz’s daughter and an ex-cop.

The dialog cannot be revealed here because the episode, and subsequent ones Riggins taped, won’t air until July, and such disclosure would be tantamount to leaking national security information. Or worse.

It can be said, though, that Riggins, or Mitch, is his usual menacing self, bad intent bubbling just beneath the surface. “When I walked out with Harley, now that, all of a sudden, was when it started to come to life for me,” he said. “I got into this guy who’s sort of on the edge. There’s a lot of intimidation he gives off.”

• • •

James Earl Jones once worked on “Guiding Light.” (The “The” was dropped from the title a few years ago.) So did Christopher Walken, Kevin Bacon, Allison Janney and Calista Flockhart. But when Riggins joined the cast, it set off a huge buzz. Crew members brought footballs and photos to autograph. “He was definitely a household name,” said actor Frank Dicopoulos, who plays the Springfield chief of police and who ran out to buy a ball for Riggins to sign.

Brian Mertes, one of several “Guiding Light” directors, grew up in Lawrence, Kan., and watched Riggins play for the Kansas Jayhawks. When he learned Riggins was coming aboard, “I was so psyched,” Mertes said. “I went out of my mind.”

But then Riggins had to perform.

“He blew me away,” Mertes said. “He came in prepared. He’s able to think on his feet and change gears. He’s smart. He’s interested.”

Said Dicopoulos, “I think he’s great, absolutely fantastic. When I first saw him on the monitor, I thought, ‘This guy’s good, this guy’s interesting.’”

Beth Ehlers, who plays Harley Davidson Cooper, said Riggins is “perfect” for the role of Mitch Hendon. “He’s supposed to be big, intimidating, menacing man,” she said. “And he does it well. He has a very strong presence.”

Riggins believes he just might have a future in acting. As his old coach, George Allen, liked to say, the future is now.

“I think I was always meant to do this,” Riggins said. “I tell people, I don’t think I was really a football player. I was an actor. Because of the physical skills I had, and some DNA, I was able to create the illusion I was a football player.”

Then he must have snookered a lot of folks, especially the linebackers and safeties who filled the hole, met Riggins head-on, then wished they hadn’t.

“Obviously I was able to accomplish things at the highest level,” he said. “But, still, you’ve got to fool somebody. Listen: You can be the fastest guy out there, or the biggest, but if you don’t have the ability inside you to convince people you’re the toughest guy, too, when in fact you’re not …”

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Former Redskins center Jeff Bostic, an ex-Hog, said he had no idea Riggins was acting in a soap opera. He said he was surprised. Then again, he said, he wasn’t.

“John acted a lot of times when he was playing,” Bostic said from the Atlanta office of the construction company he owns. “Most of his acting didn’t happen when he was on the field.”

Riggins has joked that when he dies, the first thing people will remember was the infamous story of how in 1985 he told Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “Loosen up, Sandy, baby, you’re too tight.” So was Riggins; he passed out on the floor shortly thereafter. The next day, he apologized with flowers. Riggins knows he is saddled with the story, but is learning to accept it. He recently found himself at a Washington party attended by many important people. He walked upstairs and there he was, “nose to nose” with O’Connor, he said. They both started laughing. Riggins said she told him, “You’re going to be on my tombstone.”

But it wasn’t the first time they had met since the incident. In 1992, when Riggins was making his acting debut at the Olney Theater, O’Connor presented him a dozen roses, returning the gesture from seven years earlier. They are joined forever.

Another oft-told Riggins story: After Joe Gibbs got the Redskins job, he journeyed unannounced to Riggins’ home in Lawrence to talk to him about returning and to see what kind of shape he was in. Gibbs rang the doorbell at 9a.m. Riggins came to the door holding two beers. “One for him and one for me,” he said.

Riggo lore is endless, much of it “a lot of things you can’t print,” Bostic said. After Riggins and his first wife divorced in 1989 and she returned to Kansas with their three children, he lived in a trailer and then a warehouse. (“The ultimate living experience,” he said. “Tools, outdoor gear. I could fix things. Weld something.”)

There was Riggins at a Super Bowl party wearing a top hat and tails. Riggins reading Field & Stream stuck between his playbook during team meetings. Riggins sporting a Mohawk haircut with the Jets, and a camouflage wardrobe as a Redskin. Riggins’ pregame enemas. Riggins, frustrated with missing the playoffs, spinning doughnuts with his truck on the artificial turf practice field after the ‘81 season. “I tried to leave a little mark,” he said.

“You always meet somebody who reminds you of somebody else,” Bostic said. “I never met anybody like John.”

But, he adds, it is important to remember this: “For all the things he did off the field, I don’t know if there was a more serious football player. He’d bring his lunch pail and be there all day long.”

In late 1982, the strike-shortened year, Riggins told Gibbs to give him the ball 30 times a game and hitch the team wagon; he would pull it. When Gibbs relayed the conversation to Wayne Sevier, the special teams coach, Sevier replied, “I’d be getting me a trailer hitch.” The Redskins went on to beat Miami in Super Bowl XVII as Riggins recorded one of the most famous plays in team history, turning a simple run, “70-chip,” into a 43-yard touchdown gallop that clinched the game.

The next season, Washington went 14-2 but lost to the Los Angeles Raiders in the Super Bowl. Riggins had 375 carries, gained 1,347 yards, rushed for 24 touchdowns — the NFL’s second-highest total ever — and made All-Pro. He had another big year in 1984, but age and the constant battering was wearing him down, and he quit after the next season. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame seven years later. In the meantime, Riggins had to confront the inevitable question that faces all retired athletes: “Now what?”

• • •

“If you play your cards right, you can make enough money from football and be financially independent,” Riggins said. “But what do you want to do?”

With his sly wit, keen insight into the human condition and rather unique view of the world, not to mention his penchant for speaking directly and to heck with the consequences, Riggins was a natural for broadcasting. He has done a lot of that over the years, including current gigs with Sports Talk 980, where his oldest son, Bob, works, and Channel 4.

That was fine, but Riggins felt he needed to do more. He had toyed with the notion of acting, appearing in the HBO series “First and 10” in a cameo role. Then in 1992, playwright Bernie DeLeo asked Riggins to audition for the lead role in his play at the Olney Theater about, surprise, football, called “Illegal Motion.” Riggins nailed the audition and landed the part, drawing boffo reviews.

Bitten by the bug, Riggins moved to New York in 1994 to take acting classes. He met Peter Dobbins, a director and part-time actor, and they rehearsed scenes from a play called “Gillette.” Said Dobbins, “I was immediately taken aback by how serious he was.” Dobbins always wanted to direct the play and finally, last year, he got his chance. He asked Riggins to audition for a supporting role. He ended up getting the lead part of Mickey Hollister, an oil field worker hoping to strike it rich. The play ran for a month in a tiny theater on the third floor of a church rectory.

“The thing that became evident was that John was very disciplined,” Dobbins said. “You hear all the stories about him being a wild, crazy guy, but he was always on time, always prepared.”

Although he never saw “Gillette,” Rob Decina, the casting director for “Guiding Light,” thought of Riggins for the Hendon part. Coincidentally, so did Bill Graham Jr., who works for Procter and Gamble, which produces the show, and whose father, Bill Sr., happens to be executive director of the Olney Theater. Riggins came in to read for Decina and John Conboy. “He was great,” Decina said.

Many believe that working on a soap is the hardest form of acting. You go through pages of script with minimal rehearsal time. For Riggins, it is the perfect opportunity. He has found that he loves acting, that there really is a way to replace the lost exuberance and sense of accomplishment he got from playing football.

“When the moments are right, it really does make the hair stand up on the back of your neck,” he said. “It gives you a rush. An actor who’s been doing this for 30 years might roll his eyes to hear me say that. But you know what? That’s what I enjoy about it.”

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