John Riggins was a Jet rookie in 1971 when he first realized he was in the entertainment business. The writing on the locker-room wall couldn’t have been hard to read in those years. All those Nielsen families huddled around their Zeniths on Monday nights offered weekly proof that football was now more than a game for Americans. The miniskirted chicks and camera crews chasing Broadway Joe Namath all over town after a hard day’s night were also good clues.
“It was the third week of the season,” recalls Riggins, painting a picture of the afternoon. “Joe wasn’t scheduled to play. He’d been injured in pre-season after tackling a Lion defensive back who had intercepted him.” But when both Jet QBs went down, No. 12 strapped on his helmet.
“The ovation when he trotted on the field must have lasted five minutes,” says a fellow who heard more than a few standing O’s in his career, although not many wearing a green-and-white uniform. “I remember sitting in the huddle and levitating. Imagining it was for me. It’s pretty heady stuff, loud, sustained applause. I think, besides the money, it’s what keeps bringing athletes out to play. I know it’s what I miss about football.”
It must have been the sound of two hands clapping that brought Riggins to the Storm Theatre, a tiny stage off Times Square, where he appeared through March 2 in William Hauptmann’s play Gillette. Riggins played a tough, optimistic charmer, looking to earn “big coin” on a Wyoming oil rig so he can buy a fishing boat in Alaska. Even if Riggins was the star, in a stadium this size he was Off-Off-Broadway John.
Most male ex-jocks, after being cast a few times in that most popular TV and film role, Himself, make a U-turn for the comforts of the broadcasting booth. The failure rate of athletes with crossover dreams is spectacular. When a dramatic career like Chuck Connors’s or Fred Williamson’s is about as good as it gets for a retiring pro, modest hopes are realistic.
Too many lean years in summer stock at Jones Beach and winters at Burt Reynolds’s dinner theater were signals to Broadway Joe that he, too, should hang up his buskins.
Riggins knows he served mainly as producers’ bait to reel in starved football fans when Super Bowl XXXVI became history. But to his credit, he is also aware there’s life outside sports. “The stage is an interesting place to be,” he says. “But I’m so inexperienced. Maybe this’ll help me figure out what I want to do.”
Bo Eason is another NFL vet treading the boards in New York during this post-postseason. Runt of the Litter, his one-man show at the MCC Theater, which he wrote himself, is a soliloquy by a pent-up Houston Oiler safety pacing around the locker room before he goes out against his brother, the opposing quarterback, in the biggest game of their lives. Eason was himself a safety with the Oilers from 1984 to 1988 before seven surgeries put an end to his football career. When the 49ers released him before the 1989 season, he returned to college at UC-Davis to study acting.
He wanted the play to be physical (“If it was just talking, it would be just like SportsCenter“), and he delivers impassioned speeches about the camaraderie and violence of the game, and how much he loves it, while slapping a football and hopping on and off a training table.
“You can express yourself through action in sports and onstage,” he says. “Action is what football’s about. Hitting people in the mouth, if you acted that way now you’d be arrested. But what do you do with all that energy and aggression that used to be legal to express on the football field? I wanted to show a guy who hadn’t figured that out.”
How much the show reflects a real-life psychodrama rivalry with brother Tony, who valiantly led the Patriots to their Waterloo with the Bears in Super Bowl XX, Bo won’t say. “There’s supposed to be a surreality to the play,” he does say. But his tone onstage and over the phone is that of someone who has worked hard for what he’s achieved, in football and as an actor. He can be defensive, in both senses of the word.
“There are a lot of ex-athletes who are personalities, like Howie Long or Terry Bradshaw,” he says. “But they’re not actors. Some producer asks them to star in a movie or appear on television because of who they are. I wasn’t able to do that because I didn’t have that kind of celebrity.”
Eason’s harder road has taken him to community college theaters in California, and through years of acting classes in New York and L.A. where his exercises were sensory rather than on the Nautilus.
“It takes 20 years to train your ass off to be good at football,” he claims. “Joe Montana retires and steps over to try acting, and people expect him to be good without realizing that’s impossible. I’ve been in a dark room for 12 years, doing scene after scene. A lot of athletes are funny, entertaining. Physically they can do anything with their bodies. Potentially, yeah, some of them could be great actors. But are they willing to put in the time and look like shit for five years? I don’t think so.”
In the play, the younger brother rises at dawn every day and drills himself to “catch a thousand balls a day, every day” because grit and fight are his only hopes of competing against an older sibling ordained by both parents as the natural athlete in the family. The message seems to be that the scrappy shall vanquish the effortlessly gifted. Or as Bo cries out toward the end, “Bet on the runt every time.”
Looking at Eason, with his hunky Doug Flutie face and physique, stripped to the waist for most of the performance (and for a few minutes in just a jock), it’s hard to view him as pint-size except by current NFL standards. It’s even harder, if you’re a Patriot fan, to think of Tony as a passer of mythical finesse. (True, he was the Tom Brady of the ’85-’86 season, taking over when Steve Grogan got hurt, and guiding his team to one improbable victory after another. But he was also 0-6 passing in the game of his life—a record for a Super Bowl starting QB.)
No one could argue that the entitlements granted ex-athletes of a certain stature aren’t maddening. Whether it’s being a guest voice on The Simpsons without ever graduating from the Actors Studio, or playing in celebrity softball tournaments with Cameron Diaz, their opportunities for fun and easy profit are numberless. There are hundreds of wannabe jocks in Hollywood and New York who will ensure that if you played the game you’ll get a screen test or callback.
Then again, fame can be fickle. Even Riggins, with a plaque in Canton, a Super Bowl ring, and an MVP award in ’83, knows that whatever his future holds as an actor, he will be remembered most fondly by many fans for his off-field moves. When you can make boozy overtures to a Supreme Court justice, put your head in her husband’s lap, and fall asleep under a table during a speech by the vice president—and not be arrested but celebrated—you’re not only in the entertainment business, you should feel lucky that you are. He will probably never deliver original lines in a theater as well-known as the slurred ones he made during a Washington Press Club “Salute to Congress” in 1983.
“The day I drop dead,” says the 51-year-old thespian, “the first line of the New York Times obituary will say, ‘John Riggins, the football player who told Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “Loosen up, Sandy, baby. You’re too tight.” ‘ I’ll be famous for that. That and the Mohawk.”