Riggins attended Centralia High School in Centralia, Kansas, which is now located at 507 John Riggins Avenue. Educated at the University of Kansas, he broke Gale Sayers's career rushing record for the school and led the Jayhawks to the Big 8 conference championship in 1968, KU's last championship in football (through the 2006 season).
He was the first-round draft pick for the New York Jets in the 1971 draft. He spent five years with the Jets as he became the New York Jets MVP in 1972 and 1975. In that 1975 season, he made his only appearance in the Pro Bowl and was the first Jet to rush for 1,000 yards in a season (1,005). He eventually signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins in 1976. He remained with Washington until retiring in 1985.
In July 1980 the Redskins, balked at his demand that the club renegotiate his $300,000-a-year contract. The Redskins placed him on the left camp-retired list, a move that made him ineligible to play for any other team in the league. He sat out the 1980 season and didn't rejoin the Redskins until 1981, when new Washington head coach Joe Gibbs traveled to Kansas to make a peace offering.
"He had a camouflage outfit on", Gibbs recalled. “ He had been hunting, him and a buddy. He had a beer can in his hand. It was 10 o'clock in the morning and he's meeting his coach for the first time and I'm thinking [sarcastically], 'This guy really impresses me.' But I went in there, and halfway through the conversation he says, 'You need to get me back there. I'll make you famous.”
In 1981 Riggins showed up at the Redskins training camp, telling the media "I'm bored, I'm broke, and I'm back."
Playing in the Super Bowl
Riggins played in Super Bowl XVII and Super Bowl XVIII for the Redskins, in tandem with quarterback Joe Theismann and Washington's legendary offensive line known collectively as "The Hogs." He had 38 carries for 166 yards and a touchdown along with a 15-yard reception in Super Bowl XVII, becoming the game MVP.
The key play in the game, a play designed for short yardage called 70 chip, featured Riggins at his best. With 10 minutes remaining in Super Bowl XVII and the Redskins trailing the Miami Dolphins 17-13, Riggins took a handoff on 4th-and-inches, broke an attempted tackle by Dolphin cornerback Don McNeal and rumbled down the left sideline, and past a stunned Dolphins' bench, for a 43-yard touchdown that gave Washington a 20-17 lead. The Redskins would tack on another score late in the game to clinch a 27-17 triumph, the Redskins' first world championship since 1942.
Riggins overall performance in the 1982 postseason was outstanding: 610 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in 4 games, which actually amounted to a total greater than the 553 yards he rushed for in 8 games during the strike shortened 1982 season. His 610 rushing yards and his 4 consecutive games with over 100 yards were both NFL postseason records.
In the following season, Riggins rushed for 1,347 yards and scored an NFL record 24 touchdowns, a record that stood for 12 years. Riggins went on to have another outstanding postseason, rushing for 242 yards and 5 touchdowns in their 2 playoff games, extending his NFL record of postseason games with at least 100 rushing yards to 6. He then rushed for 61 yards and a touchdown in the Redskins' 38-9 Super Bowl XVIII loss against the Los Angeles Raiders.
Riggins was known for his hard running style and tough demeanor. He finished his career with 11,352 rushing yards. At the time of his retirement this was good enough for fourth on the all-time list, and as of the 2006 NFL season, he was still 12th. With 250 receptions for 2,090 receiving yards, he totaled 13,435 combined yards -- among the best ever for a running back. He also rushed for 104 touchdowns and caught 12 touchdown receptions, which at his retirement put him second all-time, and as of the 2006 NFL season these numbers were still the 8th most touchdowns ever scored by an NFL player. He was the second player ever to rush for over 100 touchdowns in NFL history, and the first to do it since Jim Brown reached the milestone in 1965.
In 1993, as both Riggins's and Theismann's jerseys were retired, Riggins was nowhere to be found. But when Riggins suddenly bounded onto the field in full Redskins battle regalia, the RFK Stadium crowd cheered wildly.
Riggins' nightlife drew as much attention as his on-field exploits. In 1985, at a Washington Press Club dinner, an intoxicated Riggins infamously told Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor: "Come on, Sandy Baby, loosen up. You're too tight," then passed out on the floor.
Since retiring from professional football, Riggins has worked as a sports commentator on television and radio, and is a popular, near-notorious, figure in the Washington D.C. area. In 1994, he began acting lessons and has since starred in off-off-Broadway productions of the plays Gillette and A Midsummer Night's Dream (in which he played Bottom). His television credits include Guiding Light and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
In July 2005, Westwood One announced that Riggins would serve as color commentator for the network's weekly national radio broadcast of Sunday Night Football starting in the 2006 season (although Riggins began his role as color commentator in 2005).
On July 18, 2006, Triple X ESPN Radio was launched with Riggins hosting The John Riggins Show. Riggins can be heard in the Washington, D.C. area weekdays from 4-7pm on 94.3 FM, 92.7 FM & 730 AM, WXGI 950 AM in Richmond, Virginia and WXTG 102.1 FM in the Hampton Roads, Virginia area. Riggins also briefly worked as a guest host on WNEW-FM radio's Sports Guys in New York City.
It is rumoured that the fictional character Tim Riggins, from the NBC show "Friday Night Lights", is loosely based on him.