By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
It is fascinating how a story finds you. One minute you’re lost, out of ideas and incapable of creative thought, then a daydream, a song, a headline or a random event delivers the goods. It’s the chase - the pursuit of inspiration. That’s the best part of the writing process. The words themselves…that’s a love-hate thing. Sometimes the sentences come easy and the final product does the original idea adequate justice; other times it’s a grind to type a coherent sentence.
For this “View”, the idea arrived by accident – the best kind of delivery. A deliberate, early-morning search of the infinite World Wide Web offered nothing. I was trying too hard. The topic was waiting in my in-box.
It wasn’t obvious. A friend sent an innocuous YouTube link to an NFL Films segment on one of our favorite players. I clicked on it with no expectations other than a distraction from my lack of leads. Minutes later I was feverishly searching for a killer excerpt from a poet and a poem I had never heard of. That’s the chase. Love it. And now for those sometimes troublesome words…
The player was ‘Skins Hall of Famer John Riggins. The poet? Robert W. Service. The poem? “The Law of the Yukon.” And the excerpt? Well, I’ll get to that.
It is easy to underestimate Riggins. A self-proclaimed horse of a different color, his showmanship and appetite for debauchery always lead his story. Yes, he did drink a couple morning beers during his first visit with new ‘Skins coach Joe Gibbs. Yes, he was “El Presidente” of team’s infamous post-practice beer-slinging “Five O’clock Club.” And yes, he did once encourage Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to “loosen up, Sandy baby, you’re way too tight” in an obnoxious drunken stupor.
But Riggins was and is more than an inebriated jock. He is very thoughtful and a keen skeptic of conventional wisdom. He possesses both the intelligence to see situations for what they are and the courage to speak about them honestly. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Every man is born an original, but sadly, most men die copies.” Riggins isn’t “most men.”
During the NFL Films piece, Riggins talked eloquently about how the nasty business of football affected him personally. He described his initial naiveté, his quick loss of innocence and how it bothered him to see teammates cut. Riggins loved the game between the lines; the game played outside the lines weighed on him.
The process of tearing through veils and uncovering the truth isn’t unique to football; it is part of growing up. Eventually the fairy tale of youth diminishes and the world is seen through an adult lens. From that more complex and conflicted perspective, politicians become less virtuous, corporations less just, churches less wholesome and many people less genuine than advertised. It’s the messy truth…making peace with it is an on-going internal wrestling match within us all.
Riggins eventually found some peace with the underbelly of professional football. When reflecting on his infamous playoff run after the 1982 season, Riggins, by then an 11-year veteran, talked about being aware of the moment and the opportunity to rewrite his legacy. This awareness was the impetus for him demanding carries from the coaches. Riggins was all-in. Football was going to be just a game again, if just for this brief stretch.
Riggins’s run to glory ended with Washington’s first Super Bowl championship and the Super Bowl MVP trophy for its eccentric running back. Riggins was lost in the moment, a grown up once again playing a child’s game. He found something in the competition between the lines that allowed him to play true to the excerpt he quoted from Service’s “The Law of the Yukon” poem: “Men with the hearts of Vikings and the simple faith of a child.”
Riggins found something pure during his legendary playoff run, something that, despite knowing the impurities of football, allowed him to play with all his heart and believe with the uncorrupted faith of a child. While navigating our own complex and imperfect worlds, may we all find something worthy of such unqualified commitment.
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