It takes a special breed of athlete to make it as an NFL running back.
He should be quick, elusive, durable, fearless, and versatile.
Former New York Jet and Washington Redskin John Riggins had some of those characteristics.
Riggins wasn’t particularly quick or elusive.
However, he was fairly durable, could catch passes when called upon, and was absolutely fearless.
For the man they called “Diesel” there was no need to be quick or elude tacklers when you simply ran over them.
While you’re pulling cleats out of your chest cavity, maybe also reevaluate not getting low when you try to tackle John Riggins … pic.twitter.com/r27D7zOf8J
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) November 29, 2021
Riggins played the position for 14 years and helped Washington win a Super Bowl.
Along the way, he became known for his outsized personality and outlandish remarks.
This is the story of John Riggins.
Robert John Riggins was born on August 4, 1949 in Seneca, Kansas.
On August 4, 1949, John Riggins, NFL Hall of Fame running back (New York Jets, Washington Redskins – Super Bowl champion/Most Valuable Player, 1983), is born in Seneca, Kansas. pic.twitter.com/P0yoXAzCts
— MMJYBBJWIdols (@MMJYBBJWIdols) August 4, 2020
He seemed to be destined to play sports and enjoy life to the fullest while still a young man.
As he attended Centralia High School in Centralia, Kansas, Riggins was a three-sport athlete and also played in the school band and was an excellent math student.
Not only was he an All-American as a quarterback on the gridiron, but Riggins was an all-state selection in basketball and won the state title in track two years in a row for the 100 meter dash while also participating in the long jump.
By the time Riggins was putting a wrap on his senior year, several colleges reached out with scholarship opportunities.
Ultimately, “Riggo” (as he came to be known) didn’t go too far for college.
He chose to attend the University of Kansas with his brother, Frank.
Riggins Helps the Jayhawks to the Orange Bowl
There are some places in the country where football is king.
For the most part, Kansas is not such a place.
However, the University of Kansas has a rich tradition of good basketball and boasts some of the sport’s coaching and playing icons.
The Jayhawk football team, unfortunately, has not experienced the same success.
By the time Riggins arrived on campus in the late 1960s, Kansas had been to two bowl games in program history.
In 1968, he helped add to that total while playing for second-year coach Pepper Rodgers.
Rodgers moved Riggins to running back and the sophomore responded with 866 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
Kansas: RB John Riggins pic.twitter.com/xCODLKgJPA
— #1 terps lacrosse fan ned 🤠 (@thenedbelliveau) May 3, 2021
The Jayhawks lost only one game during the ‘68 regular season and were selected to play in the Orange Bowl against Penn State on New Year’s Day, 1969.
Their 9-1 record meant that Kansas won their first conference title since 1947 and would appear in the Orange Bowl for the second time (the first was also in 1947).
Through the first three quarters, the score was tied at 7-7.
Early in the fourth quarter, Riggins scored from a yard out and Kansas took the lead 14-7.
Minutes later, the Jayhawks had an opportunity to increase the lead when they found themselves on the Nittany Lions’ 14-yard line on 4th and one.
However, instead of kicking a field goal, Rodgers tried to have Riggins rush for the first down.
Instead, he was stuffed for no gain and Penn State took over.
Then, with just 15 seconds remaining, the Nittany Lions’ Chuck Burkhart raced into the end zone from three yards to put the score at 14-13.
Instead of tying the game with a PAT, coach Joe Paterno went for two points.
The conversion attempt failed and the Jayhawk fans began rushing the field.
However, the exuberance was short lived when the game officials alerted both sides that Kansas had 12 men on the field during the attempt.
After the fans had returned to their seats, the Lions’ Bob Campbell scored to give Penn State the heartbreaking 15-14 victory.
Kansas Regresses While Riggins Sets Records
Only a year after finishing the ‘68 season with a bowl birth, the 1969 Jayhawks cratered to a 1-9 record.
The losing affected Riggins as well as he rushed for 662 yards and only one touchdown.
In 1970, Kansas improved to 5-6 while Riggins announced himself to the sports world.
On the strength of 209 attempts, he ran for 1,131 yards and 12 touchdowns while also adding seven receptions for two more scores.
While the team muddled through a losing record, Riggins’ rushing attempts and yards led the Big Eight.
Additionally, he set a school record for touchdowns in a season and became a second-team All-Conference and unanimous All-American.
First Round Pick
The New York Jets won Super Bowl III after quarterback Joe Namath’s famous guarantee that New York would beat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.
Only two years later, the franchise slogged through a 4-10 record that included their running game being ranked 13th in the league in rushing yards.
Hoping to improve that part of their offense, the Jets selected Riggins with the sixth overall pick in the 1971 NFL Draft.
John Riggins, Super Bowl MVP and Pro FB Hall of Famer, got his NFL start w/ the Jets. Riggo was 6th overall pick in '71 draft, Jets' first 1000-yd rusher (1005 in '75) & ran for 3880 yds & 25 TDs in his 5 seasons in G&W. Wish old #44 a happy 69th birthday today. pic.twitter.com/kHvlD8sFC3
— Randy Lange (@rlangejets) August 4, 2018
Though he was a high pick, Riggins didn’t have faith that he would survive as a pro.
“I wasn’t a very good player in college, to tell you the truth,” he insisted years later. “I thought I might be the first No. 1 draft choice to be cut. I’d seen a few big names flop just ahead of me.”
He didn’t have to worry about being a flop.
By the time training camp ended, Riggins was the Jets starting fullback who played like a halfback.
During his rookie season, Riggins became the first player in team history to lead the franchise in both rushing and receiving when he ran for 769 yards and a touchdown and caught 36 passes for 231 yards and two more scores.
His reception total was surprising to some as Riggins had only collected nine total passes at Kansas.
In 1972, Riggins carried the ball 207 times for 944 yards and seven touchdowns.
He also caught 21 passes for 230 yards and another score.
On October 15 against New England, Riggins and fellow back Emerson Boozer combined to rumble for 333 rushing yards, which set a team record.
Both runners had over 150 yards rushing in the contest which also set a franchise record.
Riggins was four yards from Matt Snell’s franchise single-season rushing record but had to sit out the last two months of the season due to minor knee surgery.
Despite the time missed, he was named the Jets’ MVP for the year.
By that point in his career, the Jets were witness to Riggins’ personality and running style.
He had decent speed, but Riggins had no problem using his 6’2”, 230-pound frame to simply run over the opposition.
At some point, the comparison between Riggins’ running style and a big diesel truck (“The Diesel Named Desire”) were mentioned and, gradually, Riggins became known simply as the “Diesel.”
By his third year, Riggins was sporting some unique hairstyles that led to surprised stares and laughter from his teammates.
John Riggins in 1973, showing off his mohawk: pic.twitter.com/zlAsuZcl
— SI Vault (@si_vault) January 12, 2012
He also displayed other quirks that endeared him to the team.
“Initially, you knew he was a character just by the way he carried himself,” said Namath. “I remember John from his Mohawk days and his motorcycle. He painted his toenails before a game. I thought that was cute. Green, of course. He was eccentric, but as a teammate he was sensational. I never played a game with him when he wasn’t prepared.”
“I actually grew the Mohawk for the fun of it. I wanted to show everybody I was my own boss,” Riggins explained. “I always wanted one as a kid but my folks wouldn’t let me have it,” Riggins continued (he also grew an afro during his New York years).
Riggins missed 11 games in 1973 and 1974 combined due to shoulder injuries and only rushed for 1,162 total yards and 11 scores (including two by reception) during that period.
Riggins Leaves New York
Finally free of the injury bug, Riggins started every game in 1975 and ran for 1,005 yards, eight touchdowns, and caught 30 passes for 363 yards and another touchdown.
His yardage total made Riggins the first running back in Jets history to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season.
Based on his stats, Riggins was voted to his first (and only) Pro Bowl after the year.
He was also voted team MVP for the second time.
Jets RB John Riggins carries against the St. Louis Cardinals, 1975. pic.twitter.com/YfU16J0osf
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) October 11, 2020
Although he was a major factor on the Jets, Riggins was unhappy.
Despite Namath’s declining production, New York was still a pass-oriented team and the Diesel wanted to run wild.
There was also the problem with the Jets constant losing.
Even with Riggins and Namath on the roster, the team didn’t get much better.
During Riggins’ five years with the organization, the team never won more than seven games.
“I don’t care too much about individual acclaim,” he said at the time, “but I do care about our team winning. I want my contributions to mean something.”
Before the ‘75 season, Riggins tried to force his way out of New York by asking management for a contract that matched Namath’s.
The Jets refused and Riggins played the season under the remainder of his existing contract so he could sign with a new team in 1976.
Eventually, he got his way, and when he hit the open market, Minnesota, Houston, Washington, and the LA Rams all reached out.
After careful consideration, Riggins signed a five-year, $1.5 million deal with the Redskins.
From Backfield-by-Committee to Starter
In 1976, Washington coach George Allen was busy stockpiling talent.
In addition to Riggins, the Redskins also had former Cowboy Calvin Hill, Mike Thomas, and Larry Hill in the backfield.
The committee approach meant Riggins was limited to 162 carries for 572 yards and three touchdowns.
Washington would post a 10-4 record and lose to Minnesota in the Divisional round.
In 1977, the Redskins added former Dolphin and Bronco Jim Kiick and Riggins was limited to just five games due to a sprained knee.
After the ‘77 season, Allen left the team and Washington hired Jack Pardee.
Under Pardee, Riggins carried the majority of the rushing load in 1978 and ran for 1,014 yards and five touchdowns along with 31 receptions for 299 yards.
John Riggins enjoyed a banner season in 1978 when he ran for over 1,000 yards while leading the NFL in both musketeering and ribaldry. pic.twitter.com/DpyNcF9NGH
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) November 20, 2020
His season was exceptional enough that Riggins was voted the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
In 1979, Riggins continued to plow over defenders on his way to 1,153 yards and nine touchdowns along with 28 catches and three more scores.
Riggins Leaves Washington, then Returns
Before the 1980 season began, Riggins attempted to renegotiate his contract but Redskins management refused.
Severely disgruntled, he then decided to sit out the 1980 season while Washington put Riggins on their ‘left camp-retired’ list, which meant that Riggo couldn’t play for any other team in the NFL.
In the spring of 1981, new Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs traveled to Riggins’ off-season home in Kansas for a visit.
When he arrived, Riggins was out hunting so Gibbs spent the time talking to Riggins’ wife.
Shortly after he returned, Riggins and Gibbs had a conversation that the coach would never forget.
John Riggins goes hunting near his Lawrence, Kansas home in June 1983: pic.twitter.com/AZnYaz8C
— SI Vault (@si_vault) November 15, 2012
While Riggins sat in full camouflage hunting gear and Gibbs made his sales pitch, Riggins seemed convinced he needed to be with the Redskins.
“Halfway through the conversation, he says, ‘You need to get me back there. I’ll make you famous,’” recalled Gibbs. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh, my God, he’s an egomaniac.’ I thought, ‘I’ll get him back and then I’ll trade him. I’m not putting up with a fruitcake.’”
Gibbs flew back to Washington and received a call from Riggins not long after.
“’Joe, I made up my mind, and I’m going to play next season,’” Gibbs continued. “I thought it was great. I’ve got him back, and I’ll trade that sucker. But then he says, ‘There’s only one thing I want in my contract.’ I ask what it was. He says, ‘A no-trade clause.’”
Riggins was signed by Washington and promptly announced to the media, “I’m bored, I’m broke and I’m back.”
In his first season back with the team, the Redskins went 8-8 while Riggins ran for 714 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Beginning with the 1981 season, Washington rarely used Riggo as a backfield receiving threat, reducing his reception numbers to single digits nearly every season.
Super Bowl MVP
In 1982, everything came together for Washington and Riggins.
The year included a players’ strike that reduced the number of games to nine.
Behind an offensive line filled with so much beef and bad attitude that they were nicknamed “the Hogs,” Riggins carried the ball a league-high 177 times for 553 yards and three touchdowns.
“It’s the blockers that make us go,” Riggins said. “It’s no surprise to the defense as to who is going to carry the ball. You say it’s tough on me but it’s just as tough on the guys up front because the defense knows we’re coming.”
Washington ended the truncated season with an 8-1 record and then bounced Detroit, Minnesota, and Dallas in the playoffs with Riggins scoring a touchdown each against the Vikings and Cowboys.
In addition, he rushed for a franchise playoff record 185 yards against Minnesota.
Then, for the first time since 1972, the Redskins returned to the NFL’s biggest game of the year.
Super Bowl XVII began with Washington’s opponent, the Miami Dolphins, taking a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter.
The Redskins tied it minutes later before Miami’s Fulton Walker returned the kickoff 98 yards to put the Dolphins back on top 17-10.
Washington chewed into Miami’s lead in the third quarter with a field goal to make the score 17-13.
With a little more than 10 minutes remaining in the game, the Redskins faced a fourth down with only inches to gain a first down.
Gibbs called Riggins’ number and the Diesel proceeded to burst through the line and rumble for 43 yards and a touchdown.
Fourth and one in the Super Bowl: BEAST MODE ACTIVATED.
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) February 1, 2019
The score put Washington ahead for the first time all day 20-17.
Just minutes later, euphoria in Washington reached fever pitch when quarterback Joe Theismann found receiver Charlie Brown for a six-yard touchdown reception.
The final score was 27-17 and Riggins was named the game’s MVP based on his 38 carries, 166 yards, and one touchdown.
Washington’s victory was the franchise’s first championship since 1942 and Riggins’ postseason run of four consecutive games of over 100 yards rushing set an NFL record.
After the game, Riggins delighted teammates and fans when he declared, “Ron (Reagan) may be president, but tonight, I’m the king!”
A Near Repeat in 1983
Although he was in his early 30s (geriatric for a running back), the Diesel only seemed to get better.
In 1983, he barreled through opponents to the tune of 1,347 yards (a career-best) and an NFL-leading 24 touchdowns.
Riggins’ touchdowns mark set a league record at the time.
During the season, he scored in his 13th consecutive game which set a league record.
He was given the Bert Bell Award for the NFL Player of the Year and was named an All-Pro for the first time in his career.
Riggo’s running helped lead Washington to a 14-2 record.
John Riggins rushed for over 11,000 yards in his career despite looking like some guy Joe Gibbs met in a liquor store parking lot. pic.twitter.com/FpuPbVgjRY
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) September 30, 2021
Then, during their first two playoff games against the Rams and 49ers, Riggins rushed for 242 yards and five touchdowns combined.
The ‘Skins returned to the Super Bowl where they faced the LA Raiders.
Unfortunately, the Raiders proved too much to handle, limiting Riggins to 64 yards and a score on their way to a 38-9 pounding.
A Memorable Moment with O’Connor
In 1984, Riggins continued to be a workhorse for Washington as he carried the ball over 300 times for 1,239 yards and tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns with 14.
John Riggins never ran out of bounds because stopping the clock would delay his post-game beers. pic.twitter.com/M5CxbeMu7S
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) January 25, 2022
The Redskins returned to the playoffs but lost to Chicago in the Divisional round.
Then, in January of 1985, Riggins was a guest of People Magazine at the Washington Press Club’s annual black-tie event, “Salute to Congress.”
Riggins spent a good portion of his time before and during the event drinking a hearty sum of alcohol while refraining from eating anything.
He was then seated at a table that included noted magazine editors, various state governors and Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Riggins was bothered by a back brace but still had a good time with many at the table.
He found a way to spill several bottles of wine which turned the table cloth red.
Late in the evening, O’Connor got up to excuse herself, stating that she had an early appointment the following morning.
What better way to celebrate Father’s Day than a picture of my Dad escorting a hammered John Riggins out of a press dinner in DC. And yes… this was the infamous “loosen up Sandy baby” evening to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor pic.twitter.com/I0qHjb2TwW
— trey wingo (@wingoz) June 17, 2018
Not missing a beat, Riggins sidled over to O’Connor and her husband and said, “Come on, loosen up, Sandy baby, you’re too tight.”
Thankfully, Riggins wasn’t escorted off the premises.
“[O’Connor] took it in great stride. I was sitting next to her and she was very gracious, laughing and smiling back. We thought it was kind of a delightful mix of personalities to have at the table,” said Hal Wingo, assistant managing editor of People.
Riggins and O’Connor were guests at a function again years later. As a way to make up for his behavior in 1985, Riggins gave O’Connor a dozen roses.
Riggins returned in 1985 and rushed for 677 yards and eight touchdowns.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) April 26, 2022
A good portion of his yardage came when he ran for over 100 yards in three of his last four starts.
Near the end of the year, former Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers replaced Riggins as the Redskins’ starter.
When the season ended, Washington released Riggins and he promptly retired.
In 14 years, the Diesel rushed for 11,352 yards and 104 touchdowns and added 250 receptions for 2,090 yards and 12 more scores.
Many of Riggins’ football records were obtained after his 30th birthday, a remarkable feat for a professional running back.
He was a one-time All-Pro and Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl winner and MVP, A Bert Bell Award winner, Comeback Player of the Year, and two-time NFL rushing touchdowns leader.
Riggins would later become a member of the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team, one of the ‘80 Greatest Redskins,’ and a member of the Washington Commanders’ Ring of Fame.
Since retiring after the 1985 season, Riggins has not been idle.
For several decades, he has been a sports commentator on television and radio.
In 1994, Riggins began taking acting lessons and performed in off-off Broadway plays and guest roles in television shows.
The praises and accolades for Riggo have also been steady.
In 1992, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
— thom loverro (@thomloverro) August 4, 2021
The University of Kansas placed Riggins in their Ring of Honor in 2007.
Then, in 2012, NFL Films was on hand as the Riggins’ brothers attended a ceremony at Centralia High School to rename the football field Riggins Field in honor of their parents, Franklin and Mildred Riggins.
Riggins’ various interests since leaving the NFL have reflected his life philosophy.
“Football was never my life. The guys [and] the relationships were my life. I have an ability to relate to damn near everybody.”