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John Feinstein Discusses Bob Woodward, John Riggins, Journalism

John Feinstein once interviewed John Riggins in the rain in Lawrence, Kansas. Those days are long gone, unfortunately.

November 01, 2018 - 5:30 pm

On Monday morning, I received a tweet from someone who said he’d read a number of my books, suggesting I consider doing a book on The Canadian Football League. He pointed out that a number of famous players had played in the CFL—including Doug Flutie and—currently—Johnny Manziel. I added Warren Moon, who is now in the NFL Hall-of-Fame, to the list. There are plenty of others.

I’d love to do that book, not so much because of the famous players who have been part of the league but because I know those who play up there—most not rich or famous—have stories to tell. It was Bob Woodward—more on him later—who taught me many years ago that one doesn’t have to be rich or famous to have a poignant story to tell.

Reading the tweet and thinking about the possibility of a book on the CFL, sent me flashing back to the summer of 1980, when I was still a kid reporter at The Washington Post. I was exactly the kind of reporter then-Post sports editor George Solomon loved: I was young, I was single, I was hungry and I didn’t cost much. I also had no problem getting on airplanes or staying in hotels. In fact, I loved doing both.

How times have changed.

In July of that year, I made a trip that began with a flight to Kansas City. There, I rented a car and drove to Lawrence, Kansas, searching for John Riggins’ house. I honestly don’t remember now how I found it, but there I was on a rainy morning knocking on his door.

Riggins had been a no-show at training came in Washington—actually Carlisle, Pennsylvania—that summer and most of Washington was losing its mind wondering if or when the star running back would show up to play.

This was when the Redskins—yes, back then I used the team’s nickname—owned Washington. It wasn’t just that they sold out every game and had a huge waiting list for season tickets; it’s that they dominated the news—not just the sports news—in Washington.

Richard Nixon’s resignation as president in 1974 was a bigger story than Sonny Jurgensen’s retirement in 1975—but not by much.

That was why when Riggins refused to speak to anyone in the media, even those who considered friends, Solomon sent me to knock on his door.

Riggins was home. When he opened the door he looked at me and said, “What?”

I introduced myself and said I’d been sent to try to get him to talk about his contract situation because people in Washington were losing sleep over it.

Riggins laughed and said, “Well, I’m really sorry you came all this way for nothing, but I’ve got nothing to say. I’ve told everyone the same thing—no comment.”

He was too polite to simply slam the door in my face, so I tried another tactic. “Look, Mr. Riggins (yes, I called him that), I understand. But what you have to understand is if I go back and tell my boss that, he might fire me (an exaggeration, but not by all that much). I’m the low guy on the totem poll at the paper. I’m sort of like a taxi squad guy (that’s what the practice squad was called back then). Please tell me something so I don’t get cut.”

Riggins actually laughed. “Look, tell you what, you come inside and we’ll call your boss together and I’ll explain to him that you tried everything you could to get me to talk and I’m such a bad guy, I wouldn’t do it.”

My answer to that was completely honest: “That won’t work at all.”

We stood there looking at one another. Riggins was about to close the door when I tried one last time: “One question,” I said. “Will you just tell me one thing?”

Riggins sighed, no doubt figuring if he answered one question he’d be rid of me.

“One—but nothing about the contract,” he said.

I nodded. “Do you think you’ll play this season?”

That turned out to be the right question. Riggins went into a long answer about how it was really up to general manager Bobby Beathard and not to him; that Beathard and owner Jack Kent Cooke knew exactly what he wanted; that he wanted to play but there were moments in life when you had to stand up for what was right for you and your family.

I never took out a notebook. I suspected if I did, the door would slam in my face. I followed up, asking him to fill in some blanks: had he talked to Coach Joe Gibbs? Was there a deadline in his mind when the season would be lost? How tough was it for him being here with training camp going on?

Riggins kept answering, I kept asking.

“Okay,” he finally said. “That enough to keep your job?”

“I hope so,” I said. We shook hands.

I ran in the now pelting rain to my car. I scribbled notes as quickly and precisely as I could. I have a very good memory and I was able to remember some key quotes exactly. In more general areas, I paraphrased.

I drove to a Holiday Inn, checked in and called Solomon to tell him what happened. “Start writing,” he said.

The story was—of course—stripped across the top of the front page of sports.

Riggins friends in the media weren’t very happy that he had talked to me—a stranger—when he wasn’t talking to them. One of them, Frank Herzog, who was then the play-by-play voice of the team called me and said, “John says he thought he was talking to you off the record.”

“Frank,” I said, “did he think I knocked on  his door because I was personally curious about his contract?” I told him I hadn’t taken out a notebook and Frank laughed.

“That’s good work,” he said. Frank was always a class act.

After my Riggins adventure, I flew to Minneapolis. I covered the game between the Diplomats and Minnesota Kicks my second night out.

That morning, I had read that Maury Wills had just been named manager of the Seattle Mariners. Wills was a D.C. native. I loved writing a about baseball; Solomon loved stories with a local angle. I was supposed to fly from Minneapolis to Vancouver with the Diplomats. There were two days in-between games.

I called Solomon and suggested I detour to Oakland to try to talk to Wills. The Mariners were resuming their season post All-Star break there. I flew to San Francisco took a very expensive cab rige to Oakland and waited for Wills to arrive for his new team’s off-day workout.

At first he said he was far too busy to talk to me. When I repeated who I worked for he said, “Wait until we finish and I’ll give you 15 minutes.” He gave me an hour. That story ended up stripped, too.

From there it was onto Vancouver for the Dips-Whitecaps game in old Empire Stadium—a wonderful, old-fashioned soccer venue.

Then, I flew to Calgary to spend three days working on a feature about the CFL—which is where this story began. The players and coaches could not have been more cooperative. I was supposed to write 1,500 words. I wrote 3,000. They all got into the Sunday paper.

I loved those days. I was making about $500 a week and never worried about money.

Prior to returning to sports, I’d worked for Woodward when he was metro editor and I was a cops and courts reporter. One day, I wrote a three paragraph story about a late night accident in which three people had been seriously injured. A car had crossed a median in Northeast D.C. and struck another car head on at about 3 a.m. It was a miracle no one had died.

The next morning, Woodward called me. Tapping on the tiny story, he said, “there’s a great story here if you follow up.”

“What? I said.

“What was going on in these three lives when the accident happened? What were they doing out at that hour? Your story says the guy who crossed the median wasn’t drinking, so what happened?

I was skeptical but drove to D.C. General Hospital that afternoon. In those days, you could just walk into a hospital, give a name and be told what room that person was in.

All three were conscious and willing to talk. It turned out the young man who had crossed the median was a law student at Howard. He’d been studying for a final and decided to drive to his apartment to steal a few hours of sleep. He’d fallen asleep at the wheel.

The couple in the other car had just learned hours earlier that she was pregnant with their first child. They were leaving town to go tell their parents the news when their car was struck. They’d been holding hands, saying a prayer of thanks, when the accident happened. The baby, miraculously, was unharmed.

The story was stripped—on the front page of the entire newspaper. Woodward knew his stuff then—just as he does now.

I’d love to do a book on the CFL. If I was young and single and the publishing industry was what it was in the 1980s, I’d do it. But I’m old and not single and no one nowadays would think to send a reporter to a hospital looking for a story in the wake of a non-fatal accident.

You bet I miss those days.
 

John Feinstein’s latest book is, ‘The Prodigy,’—a novel about a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters and must deal with adults—including his father—trying to use him to become rich. His next non-fiction book, “Quarterback,”—about playing the position in the NFL—will be published in November.