Indiana, PA - Indiana County

SPORTS HALL OF FAME: Riggle was known for his hard hits

by MIRZA ZUKIC moz@indianagazette.net on May 18, 2017 10:39 AM

• EDITOR’S NOTE:  This is the sixth of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: J.T. Yard.

If you remember John Riggle, the star high school football player at Elders Ridge, you might remember his badge of honor. He wore it every season, all season long, August to November.

“One thing I do remember about him, being a hard hitter,” former teammate Paul Eckenrode recalled fondly, “he always had a cut across the bridge of his nose where his helmet would come down and hit his nose. He carried that wound with him all season, and a lot of times there’d be blood coming down his face, you know from hitting people and using his helmet. … It never healed. And that was all from him hitting so hard, but it never slowed him down. And he always had such a positive attitude on and off the field. He was just the No. 1 guy to be around. We were always glad we were on the same team as him.”

Riggle starred at Elders Ridge in the mid-1960s and went on to a successful college career at Georgia Tech. A fine tailback in high school, he once scored seven touchdowns in a game. He played in the prestigious Big 33 Game in 1967. He had scholarship offers from some two dozen Division I schools. He was selected to the all-conference team after his junior year at Georgia Tech.

Yet, the memories that seem to stick with people who saw Riggle play are the crushing blows he delivered, on defense and offense equally. From Pennsylvania to Georgia and beyond, he was widely regarded as one of the hardest-hitting players of his time.

“The biggest thing was dragging tacklers,” said Luke Lewandowski, the Elders Ridge coach during the 1966 season, Riggle’s senior year. “He always had a bunch of tacklers hanging on, and he’s gone, he’s moving. He was really strong as soon as he’s hit.”

The punishment Riggle dished out wasn’t reserved for opponents. He didn’t spare his teammates in practice, either.

“John Riggle, No. 44. I think of a hard runner, who always hurt you somehow whenever you tackled him in practice,” Eckenrode said with a hearty laugh. “He was a hard hitter in the games, and also he hit just as hard in practice. He never let up. If you had to tackle him, you knew, or if you had the ball and you were running, you knew he was going to drive you into the ground. He would do that, and yet, he was just a nice, I’d say rather quiet guy. Just a good guy to be around. But when you had the ball, you knew that if he got a hold of you, he was going to drive you into the ground and that something was going to hurt.”

A three-sport star at Elders Ridge who went on to start at inside linebacker for Georgia Tech, Riggle will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday as part of this year’s class.

 

If not for a mischievous teen act, Riggle might have never stepped foot on the football field and reached the heights that he did. The summer before he entered high school, he was on the school’s marching band and forbidden from playing football, as per his mother’s orders. But Riggle decided he’d had enough of the marching band and signed himself up for football.

“My mother would not let me play football, and starting in ninth grade, the band bus and the football bus were the same,” Riggle said. “They took us to the school together for summer practice. So when I got to the school for the first trip, I decided that I hated the band, I hated trombone, but I wanted to play football, so I forged my mother’s and father’s signatures, and I turned in my little note, and I went to football. And it was almost the first game before my parents found out. My mother was not happy. My dad was very supportive. And as they say, the rest is history.”

From the get-go, it was evident Riggle was a special talent in every sport he tried. He played varsity football as a freshman and lettered all four years, a rarity in those days. He played basketball, and Lewandowski recalls him being a strong rebounder and scorer around the basket. And on the track, he owned the Elders Ridge school records in the 440- and 880-yard events.

“Even though we all knew that he was special on our team, he never acted like it,” Eckenrode said. “He never acted like he ever thought that he was. He was just a regular guy, but he was always the leader of the team. In the summer, I remember my junior or senior year, in the summertime he’d get guys together to practice at his house.”

That Riggle is remembered better for his defensive prowess on the football field might be ironic considering he first made a name for himself in football as a capable tailback at Elders Ridge. His senior season in 1966, he finished with 1,179 yards and 20 touchdowns, numbers that brought interest from a flock of colleges and led to Riggle’s selection in the Big 33 Game. He was a three-time selection to the all-county team, based largely on his offensive numbers. And he is quick to admit he preferred the offensive side of the ball.

“I loved running the ball,” he said. “I scored a lot of touchdowns. It’s a big adrenaline rush to cross that goal line. I had a couple unbelievable games. One of my favorites was when I scored seven touchdowns in one game. That was against Sharpsburg — still remember that one.”

It was Oct. 8, 1966. Riggle’s senior year. Homecoming day. The Elders Ridge Rams trounced Sharpsburg, 69-6, and Riggle rushed for 179 yards that included touchdown runs of 16, 1, 40, 5, 5, 41 and 3 yards.

The stats Riggle piled up have been lost to time. The names of the accolades he collected escape him, too. But Riggle has long retained the lessons he learned as a young athlete at Elders Ridge, and he firmly believes that’s what has helped him to enjoy a long and successful professional career in the world of banking and finance management.

“There’s no doubt that sports give a person the tools he needs to succeed in life,” he said. “I think it’s an asset that is valued by me and treasured by anybody that’s ever played sports, the ability to work as a team, to reach goals, to overcome adversity, to not be a showboat, and at the same time, at the thrill of victory or the feel of running out of the stadium when we get out in front of 70,000 screaming people, or being with your buddies on the high school football field, winning a game.

“It’s just a wonderful feeling, but it also gives you all the tools necessary to succeed in life. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had a great life, couldn’t have been better. I had a lot of nice toys, and get some other things done in my life, which probably without football wouldn’t have been accomplished. I’ve been president of several banks. I’ve been president and chairman of the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce, and I think without a background in sports, and how to deal with people, and how to do the ups and downs, and be a little bit flexible, that would not have happened.”

 

When he arrived at Georgia Tech in August 1967, days after playing in the Big 33 Game, Riggle didn’t know what his role would be on the team. Would he play tailback? Linebacker? Both?

“I was kind of open when I got there,” he said. “I just wanted to play football. I would have played whatever position they felt I could contribute the most.”

The decision was made for him on the first day of practice.

“The very first day, I don’t know how exactly it happened,” he recalled, “but I was running back, and I used a stiff arm, and somehow, I ripped a big chunk out of my hand, right below the index finger. I’m sitting here looking at the scar. It took like 20 stitches to close it. They put me in a big bandage, and obviously, I couldn’t carry the football, so they moved me over to defense, and that’s where I stayed. Actually, I was probably better suited to defense than running back. I think it was about two weeks before I healed up, or maybe a little longer, and at that time, we were pretty well into the football season.”

Riggle made an impression on the Yellow Jackets’ coaching staff as a freshman. So much so that in the summer of 1968, he was voted by the coaches as “the best sophomore lineman on the squad and he is a real hitter,” according to an account in the July/August issue of The Georgia Tech Alumnus.

In the first game of his sophomore season, Riggle suffered a serious leg injury against Texas Christian University, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. He came back with a vengeance a year later, ranking second on the team with 104 tackles as a junior and landing on the Southland Independent all-star team. He went on to start at inside linebacker in every game for the Yellow Jackets as a junior and senior.

“Most folks, including the doctor and a coach or two, thought I would never play ball again,” Riggle said of the injury he sustained his sophomore year. “But I came back and started for two years on defense. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get back to where I started. I did lose a little speed, but finally got back pretty close to where I started.”

To understand Riggle’s drive, consider that in his heart of hearts, he didn’t believe he had a chance at the AFL or NFL. Considering he didn’t envision a future in football, nobody would have blamed him if he walked away from football after such a devastating injury. But Riggle didn’t. He never walked away from something he started.

“I think it goes back to Elders Ridge,” he said. “You’re playing for your friends, for your comrades, for Georgia Tech. Once you walk out of the tunnel with your fellow teammates and hear 60,000 or 70,000 people cheering for you and you’re arm-in-arm, it’s pretty hard not to do everything you can to get back. Now, fortunately, I always made progress. … I never got to the point where I wasn’t going to think about playing.”

Interestingly, in high school, Riggle didn’t consider himself to be much harder-hitting than any of his teammates. Until the day in college when he silenced a packed stadium with one hit.

“We were playing Georgia, and of course, Georgia Tech and Georgia is a rivalry of all rivalries,” he said. “And I remember hitting their star wide receiver, and just really busting him, and I think there were 60,000 or 70,000 people in the stadium at that game, and I could hear just a gasp, and that’s when I realized I was really a hard hitter.”

Future NFL legend Bud Carson, his coach at Georgia Tech, shared that sentiment. Carson is widely credited as the creator of the now-widely used Cover 2 defensive scheme, which he designed while at Georgia Tech. Carson’s next stop was Pittsburgh, where he spent five seasons with the Steelers and developed the “Steel Curtain,” considered one of the best defense in the history of the NFL.

“I’ll have you know, Bud Carson, the best defensive coach in the history of the world, said I was one of the hardest hitters he’d ever seen,” Riggle said with a chuckle. “That’s about all the background you need on that.”

 

One of the proudest moments of Riggle’s life remains being selected to play in the Big 33 Game some 40 years ago. A tradition that began in 1957, the game in its current format pits the top high school players in Pennsylvania against Maryland’s top players, but Pennsylvania’s opponents in the past have also included Ohio and Texas. When Riggle played, Pennsylvania squared off with Texas.

In January 1967, it was announced that Riggle was one of 50 finalists selected from a pool of 686 nominees for a spot on the Pennsylvania team. What Riggle didn’t know at the time was that being one of the 50 finalists didn’t mean an automatic spot on the game day roster in August.

“I didn’t realize until we showed up there, they said, ‘Hey, there’s 50 of you guys, and after one week, we’re going to cut 17 of you, and you get to go home,’” Riggle said. “That was one of the times that I had to work under pressure after high school. I was going, ‘Man, I have all this family, all these friends showing up at Hershey, and I may be heading home.’”

But as he usually did, Riggle thrived under the pressure of the moment. Not only did he make the final cut, he proved to be one of the few bright spots for Pennsylvania in a 45-14 loss to the boys from the Lone Star State.

According to the account in The Indiana Gazette on Aug. 14, 1967, Riggle “was highly complimented by the many coaches and newsmen for his efforts. He made many tackles and assisted in quite a few more.”

Riggle was the first Indiana County football player to be named to the team since the legendary Indiana High tailback Jim Nance six years earlier, in 1961.

“I think all 33 football players who made the cut, they would just write you a scholarship, wouldn’t even look at the tape,” Riggle joked. “It was quite an honor to be on that 33 team.”

 

Riggle wasn't an exceptionally imposing player. Standing at 6-foot-1, he estimates he “never got over 185 to 190 pounds,” but even at that, his teammates remember Riggle standing out from the crowd.

“He was one of these guys that seemed to get bigger faster than the rest of us,” said Eckenrode, the tight end on the team. “I remember when we were in ninth grade, he was playing with the varsity a lot. What’s that tell ya? … Now, I can’t remember exactly how much he played, but I do remember he did play with the varsity in ninth grade. He was bigger, maybe not weight-wise, but taller and more muscular. He was just a tough kid.”

“He was very wiry and very strong,” said former teammate Don Townsend, who played right guard and helped pave the way for Riggle out of the backfield. “He hit hard. I would say he was about the hardest-hitting guy on the team, except for the center maybe. … He played hard, he hit hard, and he really enjoyed the game. He always loved to play the game. He loved to hit.”

At Georgia Tech, Riggle’s weight was an inexact science, and it might have played into his legend there. The way Riggle remembers it, his coaches routinely added a few pounds to his listed weight on the roster.

“The coaches always said I was a lot bigger than I actually was,” he said. “I never got over about 185 to 190 pounds. But they always said I was at least 205, and I think my senior year at Georgia Tech, they always said I was 215.”

Behind the scenes, though, the coaching staff made attempts to get Riggle to those weights. To no avail.

“One of the trainers tried to fatten me up one time,” Riggle said, “and every evening he would show up, per coach’s orders, at bedtime, and give me five hot dogs to eat. And after a week, I’d lost a pound so they gave up on that.”

The truth of the matter is Riggle didn’t need to bulk up. What he might have lacked in size, he made up with toughness that came from growing up in a tough-minded coal town community.

“I think it really goes back to high school,” Riggle said. “I played with a bunch of tough coal miners, steel workers, farmers, and I was trying to think if anybody ever got hurt. And the answer is no. It was just a tough group of kids that I played high school ball with. I would say as far as toughness, it goes back to those high school buddies leading by example.”

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