Pasadena, Calif. — No way am I going to tell you that 235-pound fullback John Riggins of the Washington Redskins singlehandedly defeated Miami 27-17 in Super Bowl XVII. You want horror movies of a guy using a football as a battering ram, rent yourself a low-budget flick from some independent producer who photographs cleats through the bottom of a soda pop bottle.
What Riggins did in the shadow of California's San Gabriel mountains on Sunday was a commercial. Thousands of people who saw John slip into four-wheel drive and annihilate a Dolphin defense that had been advertised as the best in the National Football League weren't too sure they believed what they saw.
Nobody, except Riggins, carries a football 38 times in a championship game; sets a Super Bowl record of 166 yards gained; sprints 43 yards for a touchdown (the longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history); and also racks up seven first downs. I mean every time John hit the line he looked like a rhino charging a British Land Rover on safari. By the time it was all over, spectators were wondering if Riggins and his No. 44 jersey hadn't been cloned at least a couple of times.
While Riggins often comes off as a born character who works to project a flaky image, there is more to John than a pair of powerful legs, an upper torso that can support a suspension bridge, and a flair for bright lights.
Actually Riggins is a ruggedly handsome man who calls himself a blue collar worker because he likes to grovel in the dirt, and who seldom talks with reporters, although he broke that self-imposed rule several times prior to Super Bowl Sunday.
He is an honorary member of the Hogs, a nickname given to themselves by Washington's offensive linemen, who may be the first players ever to have their stomachs nominated for football's Hall of Fame.
John, who once shaved his head so that he would look more like a Mohawk Indian going into battle, spent five productive years with the New York Jets before he was traded to Washington in 1976 because of too many disagreements. The Redskins weren't spared his independent approach, either, when he sat out the 1980 season rather than accept their offer.
''The secret of running up yardage, at least for me, is knowing that I'm going to get a chance to carry the ball 20 or more times a game,'' Riggins told reporters. ''That is really the only way a runner can get a feel for what the defense is doing. Once you've established that feeling, then suddenly it becomes a case of you dictating to your opponents instead of them dictating to you. In fact, you can even start to do things on first down that you couldn't do before.''
Against Miami, a team that had consistently played the most tenacious defense of any franchise in the NFL, Riggins was able to get just the yardage the Redskins needed time after time to keep drives going. Once when Washington faked a handoff to John in the third period and gave the ball instead to Alvin Garrett , the entire Dolphins defense pursued Riggins while Garrett ran the ball 44 yards to the Miami 9-yard line.
For those not familiar with Riggins's background, he is an 11-year NFL veteran who has four times gained more than 900 yards in a season. What makes him so tough to tackle is the way he explodes off the ball, makes use of the tremendous strength in his upper body, and can still run the 40 in close to 4.7 seconds.
As for Super Bowl XVII, it was one of the best ever played from a spectator's standpoint. At halftime, on the basis of a 76-yard scoring pass play from Miami quarterback David Woodley to wide receiver Jimmy Cefalo and a 98-yard touchdown run on a kickoff return by Fulton Walker, the Dolphins led 17-10 and looked like a slightly better team.
But the balance of power began to shift noticeably in the third period when Miami's zone defense couldn't adjust to the Redskins, who were often putting two tight ends in motion. This made things a lot easier for Washington's offensive line, which began pushing the Dolphins around almost at will.
''When we went into our locker room at halftime, I really believed that we could win and I said so during my talk to my players,'' explained Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. ''I reminded everybody that we'd been in this spot before during the reglar season; that we'd always come back strong; and that we could do it again. They didn't just agree with me. They agreed with me like they meant it.''
By the time the game was over the Redskins had controlled the football for almost 37 minutes; outgained the Dolphins 400 yards to 176; and held Miami QB David Woodley to four completions, while intercepting him once.
As in all important football games, there is usually a key play, and the one they'll talk about in Super Bowl XVII happened in the third period with the Redskins trailing 17-13.
Getting one of its few good pass rushes of the day, Miami could conceivably have won the game at that point when defensive end Kim Bokamper batted quarterback Joe Theismann's pass up in the air. All the trappings were there for a spectacular interception and probably a score that would have shifted the momentum back to Miami. Instead, Theismann was somehow able to reach over and knock the ball out of Bokamper's hands before he could gain control.
The fact that Riggins was named the game's most valuable player was about as predictable as the congratulatory post-game locker room call from President Reagan. To go one step further, if Riggins hadn't played on Sunday, Miami probably would have won Super Bowl XVII, no matter how well the rest of the Redskins had performed. It was as simple as that.