Former Atlanta Falcons running back Gerald Riggs. AJC file photo

Rugged running back Riggs left mark with Falcons, on tacklers

Gerald Riggs never knew his real father. He tried to connect but it never worked out and without a fatherly figure in his life he found himself getting into some trouble growing up in Las Vegas.

But somehow, through a caring mother and stepfather and coaches that looked after him, Riggs became one of the best running backs in the NFL and the most recent inducted into the Atlanta Falcons Ring of Honor. And on top of it all, he is the father of three children, two that played football in both the Southeastern Conference and in the NFL.

But it was a rough beginning. Riggs went to Bonanza High School in west Las Vegas and disciplinary problems kept his playing time his junior year to just three games. Then Riggs, realizing he was going down a road that could lead to even prison, matured and had a great senior season in 1977.

That year, Arizona State and Arizona would leave the Western Athletic Conference for then what was called the Pac 8 and Riggs was a big Sun Devils fan. ASU offered him and he had four solid years in Tempe, playing fullback each season and rushing for 2,086 yards on 392 carries (5.3 yards a carry) and 17 touchdowns. He also caught 50 passes for 550 yards.

When the 1982 draft came around, Riggs knew he would be drafted but wasn’t sure what round. What helped him was it was the first year of the NFL combine and Riggs opened some eyes with his athleticism.

The Falcons took him with the ninth pick in the draft, joining a team that had All-Pro William Andrews. He would remain with the Falcons until the 1989 season, the team going just 35-68-1, and in 1985 he led the NFC in rushing with 1,719 yards and 10 touchdowns while also catching 33 passes for 267 yards. In three seasons from 1984-86, he was perhaps the most productive back in the league, totaling 5,212 combined rushing and receiving yards and scoring 32 touchdowns. He became the all-time leading rusher for the Falcons in 1987 and finished his career in Atlanta a year later with 6,631 yards, a mark that has stood for 28 years.

But in 1989, Riggs was moved to Washington. It was a blessing for him as in his final season in the league in 1991 he would score six touchdowns in the postseason and help lead the Redskins to a 37-24 win over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI.

At that point with 10 years in the league, Riggs retired with three Pro Bowl sections, he was named All-Pro twice and finished with 8,188 yards on the ground and 69 touchdowns. Interestingly, he caught 201 passes in his 129-game career but not one of them was a touchdown.

He then focused on his two sons, Gerald Jr. and Cody, who would go on to play at Tennessee and Florida, respectively.

Where he lives: Riggs, 54, lives in Chattanooga and has been married to Sherry for 10 years. He has two sons and a daughter, Victorious. Gerald Jr., a running back who had injury problems during his time with the Volunteers, signed with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in 2006 but was cut and played in the Canadian Football. Cody is a defensive back and played three years with the Gators before transferring for his final season at Notre Dame and is trying to make it in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans.

What he does now: Riggs does ministry work and also is a popular speaker, saying, “I want to give back to young people.’’

On his childhood: “It was tough. I never got the chance to share those moments like a lot of kids with their fathers. I had a stepdad who was real good to me but we were not that close when it came to sports. I had a lot of disciplinary problems and didn’t really start getting the chance to play football until my senior year. My junior year was filled with turmoil and I played in only three games. But then I made my mind up that I wasn’t going to let those other influences get to me. I knew there were bigger and better things ahead of me if I could be disciplined. That’s a message I send to kids now.’’

On why he chose to go to Arizona State: “It’s funny but back then Arizona was in the WAC and those are the games that came on television. Also, Frank Kush was the coach then and he was a big name. He also was known as a disciplinarian but that didn’t bother me. And it wasn’t long before I was the starting fullback. I loved my time there.’’

On being drafted by the Falcons: “It’s funny but the draft back then didn’t have all the stuff it has today with social media and everything. I was actually at a pizza place playing a video game when the guy running the place came up to me and said he had just heard my name on television. I had really had a good combine and ran a very good 40, but I wasn’t sure where I was going to be picked. There were no cell phones so I ran home and my agent had been calling and leaving me messages.’’

On his ability to catch the football: “That was a God-given talent. I had real good eye-to-hand coordination. But despite all that I never caught a touchdown pass in the NFL. I can’t tell you why.’’

On being the league’s leading rusher in 1985: “That season was somewhat of a blur but looking back what I really enjoyed was the teammates I had. We didn’t have a whole lot of big names. (Offensive lineman) Bill Fralic and I were the only ones that went to the Pro Bowl. I enjoyed playing with those guys but our win-loss record was not real good and we had some guys that didn’t show up when we needed it.’’

On being traded to the Redskins: “Funny, but I was leaving Atlanta kicking and screaming. It’s weird because I was watching the draft in 1989 and on TV they were talking about a trade between Washington and Atlanta and I wondered who it was going to be and it was me. But I got to go play for a great team and coach Joe Gibbs and they realized I had a special way of running inside and it worked. I was sharing time with Earnest Byner and we had a good group of guys up front. They had a lot of trust in me and moved the pile.’’

On retiring: “It was time and Washington was breaking up the team as well as the fact that Joe was about to get into cars (NASCAR). I was ready to stop.’’

On the football success of his two sons: “I think Gerald Jr. could have been one of the best around if not for his injuries. I am proud of what he did and how he fought through it. He gave a yeoman’s effort. I’m just as equally proud of Cody. He’s the smallest of us but he is a tough little kid. I am hoping it will work out for him in the NFL.’’

On being in the Falcons’ Ring of Honor: “I cherish being part of that group. I am indentified with some of the finest football players in football and I don’t care what they say about Atlanta, there has been some really great players.’’

On his reputation of being a class individual: “The Lord put me here for a reason and at some point and time I knew I would have something to share with young people. I played with a lot of rage on Saturdays in college and Sundays in the NFL. But I have been very lucky to have some very good people look after me and now it is my time to do the same. I never knew my father and there was a point in my life where I stopped looking for him. My stepfather and I didn’t have that same type of relationship as far as a sports connection but he has always been there and I love him to death.’’

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