“At least for tonight, Ron’s the president, but I’m the king.”
— John Riggins, Jan. 30, 1983
The Washington Redskins trailed Miami 17-13 and had a fourth-and-1 on the Dolphins 43 as quarterback Joe Theismann barked out the signal: “Goal line, goal line, I-left, tight wing, 70 chip on white!”
Then he slapped the ball into the stomach of his indestructible, 33-year-old running back, and a few seconds later the Redskins’ 40-year wait for an NFL championship was all but over.
John Riggins, perhaps the league’s most unconventional player, burst through the line, shook off a desperate grab by Dolphins cornerback Don McNeal and raced down the left sideline toward the end zone and everlasting Redskins glory. The play with 10:01 remaining in the fourth quarter put Washington ahead to stay in what ended as a 27-17 victory in Super Bowl XVII at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
It remains the most famous play of the Redskins’ 79 seasons in the nation’s capital. Though coach Joe Gibbs won two more Super Bowls and has designs on another in his second tour of duty, Riggins’ electrifying run 23 years ago today won’t be forgotten by those who paint their faces burgundy and gold and yowl their heads off on game days at FedEx Field.
“We decided to take our best shot and go at them,” Gibbs said. “We didn’t want to lose a Super Bowl by not being tough enough.”
After the game, President Ronald Reagan placed a call to Gibbs in the Redskins’ chaotic locker room and wondered jokingly whether the running back might be willing to change his name to “Reaggins.” The president, who had been a sportscaster as a young man and later played the ill-fated George Gipp in the movies, knew a starring performance when he saw one.
In just his second season as a coach at age 42, Gibbs steered the Redskins to an 8-1 record in a strike-marred regular season and NFC playoff victories over Detroit, Minnesota and Dallas, outscoring them 83-31. But Washington was a three-point underdog to Don Shula’s Dolphins.
Riggins was often a contrary sort who Gibbs had talked into ending a one-year sabbatical before the 1981 season. Riggins gained 714 yards rushing in 1981 and 553 in the abbreviated 1982 season but apparently felt underworked. As the Redskins prepared for the postseason in January 1983, he approached Gibbs and growled, “Gimme the ball 20 to 25 times a game, and we’ll do it.”
The coach complied, and never did he make a wiser move. Counting his Super Bowl-record 166 yards on a whopping 38 carries against the Dolphins, Riggins rushed for 610 yards in four playoff games.
“I’ve played about 130 regular-season games, and they don’t exactly raise the hair on the back of my neck,” he said. “But the playoffs — they are something different.”
And Riggins was different, on and off the field. Earlier in his career, he sported an Afro, a Mohawk and a bald head long before the cue-ball look became common. He sat out the entire 1980 season when the Redskins refused to renegotiate his contract. And two nights before Super Bowl XVII, he arrived at a “casual dress” party thrown by owner Jack Kent Cooke with a top hat, white tie and tails and a walking stick. A few years later at the National Press Club, he drunkenly told then-Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “Loosen up, Sandy baby, you’re too tight” and passed out.
When it came to lugging a football, however, he was all business. The 1982 Redskins featured Theismann, gabby defensive end Dexter Manley, the Hogs offensive line, undersized and overachieving receivers known as the Smurfs and the uninhibited Fun Bunch that celebrated touchdowns by leaping in unison in the end zone. But Riggins clearly was the engine that powered the train, which is why appreciative teammates called him “The Diesel.”
In the fourth quarter, Theismann handed the ball to Riggins 13 times as the Redskins killed the clock and the Dolphins. They added an insurance touchdown later in the period when Theismann tossed a 6-yard pass to Charlie Brown, but Miami was pretty much done when Riggins crossed the goal line.
Although its contributions were overshadowed by Riggins, the defense also stood tall. The Redskins outgained Miami 400 yards to 176, limiting the Dolphins to 34 yards in the second half as quarterbacks David Woodley and Don Strock failed to complete a pass. The Dolphins had won the AFC Championship with the mediocre Woodley, but he swiftly lost his job to Dan Marino the following season.
Despite their statistical advantage, the Redskins trailed 17-10 at halftime.
Said Gibbs afterward: “I told ‘em a lot of things hadn’t gone right in the first half and that they’d turn around. I said I had a good feeling about the game, and they said the same thing.”
This good feeling seemed justified when Alvin Garrett ran a reverse for 44 yards to the Dolphins 9 on Washington’s second possession. The Redskins had to settle for Mark Moseley’s 20-yard field goal after Theismann overshot Garrett in the end zone.
Early in the fourth quarter, Theismann led the Redskins into Miami territory. On fourth down, Gibbs, who had promised he would let his team “do what we do best,” then ordered the obvious call — a handoff to Riggins that would gain short yardage and a first down. The Diesel turned the play into a game- and title-winner, with the help of a great block by tight end Rick “Doc” Walker.
“I didn’t see much of the run because I was in the dirt blocking [linebacker] Larry Gordon,” Walker recalled. “When I looked up, I saw the big Diesel rolling along.”
After the game, Riggins remained true to unconventional form. Slipping into a pair of camouflage pants, he quietly sneaked out the back door of the locker room — leaving the celebrations to his teammate and Redskins fans everywhere.
Perched on his head was a battered cap reading “Ducks Unlimited.” It should have been a crown.