Bad News for the NFL: John Riggins’ Wife Is a Lawyer.
Lisa-Marie Riggins’ fight against the NFL’s shabby treatment of older retired players.
The more Lisa-Marie Riggins spoke, the more flabbergasted Frank Fahrenkopf became. It was November 2016, and the two were having lunch at the City Club on 13th Street with Lisa-Marie’s husband, John, the Washington Redskins’ star running back in the 1970s and ’80s.
Fahrenkopf had chaired the Republican National Committee in the 1980s. Like many prominent Washingtonians of the Reagan era, he often was a guest in former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke’s luxury box at RFK Stadium—back when the team was winning Super Bowls and when a breakaway run by “Riggo” would cause the stadium’s bleacher seats to bounce up and down. “When that place started to rock,” Fahrenkopf says, “it would literally move!”
He’d been thrilled to get Lisa-Marie’s lunch invitation. But she and John didn’t want to reminisce about gauzy past glories, such as the time John shed Miami Dolphins defender Don McNeal like a wet overcoat while rumbling 43 yards to score the go-ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XVII. Instead, the couple had a case to make.
Lisa-Marie, an attorney who’s been told (more than once) that she looks like actress Heather Locklear, laid out the facts as if she were arguing a case in court. Too many older NFL retirees were in trouble, she explained. Their brains were battered, their bodies breaking down. They were struggling to support themselves and their families. They needed help. And they needed money.
These men had helped build the league, which in 2017 generated $14 billion in revenue. They had made it possible for today’s players to receive multimillion-dollar salaries, generous pensions, and a host of other retirement benefits. Yet almost none of them had gotten rich playing football, and now they were being left behind, Lisa-Marie said. Their pensions, dating from the contracts of a previous era, were relatively puny—in some cases, totaling less than $20,000 a year. Did that seem fair?
“It was incredible,” Fahrenkopf says. “With all the money flowing into the NFL and the millions the players are making today, my first thought was ‘Well, hell, if you are a retired player, you must be in pretty good shape.’ I had no idea.”
Few people do, which is why the Rigginses and other former players are now mounting a Washington-style campaign to publicize the inequities and try to get them reversed. Last September, along with Hall of Famers Elvin Bethea, Joe DeLamielleure, and Ken Houston, the couple launched a nonprofit called Fairness for Athletes in Retirement (FAIR). They want the NFL and NFL Players’ Association to institute pension reform: to spend millions to bring the paychecks of older retirees up to the level of those leaving the game today.
It’s a big ask, and the group doesn’t have much leverage. Improvements to player benefits historically have been made through collective bargaining between the league and the union—negotiations in which former players have little say, given that the union has no fiduciary responsibility to them. But even before that, FAIR has to lobby its own constituents, a group divided and suspicious due to prior efforts that raised money and promised change without producing significant results—a group, in other words, that would be plenty skeptical of a Washington lawyer. “I feel like a politician,” Lisa-Marie says.
Riggo may be the name people know, but FAIR was her idea. She’s its president, the one planning donor events and working the phone. And though she’s lived in Washington for years, in some ways she’s getting her first education in the way the town runs.
Lisa-Marie didn’t know a thing about football growing up. She was a military kid who had to learn a new community every time her father, an Army Ranger, was transferred to a new post. “My dad never even watched it,” she says.
Then in 1982, she enrolled at American University, when everyone in Washington was watching the Redskins. John was the team’s most beloved star, a country boy from Kansas who became an iconoclastic folk hero—celebrated not only for powerful, punishing runs that earned him the nickname “the Diesel” but also for his off-field wit and irreverence. His “Five O’Clock Club,” in which Redskins players would gather in a shed after practice to down brews, was the stuff of legend; so was his inebriated exhortation to Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor at a 1985 black-tie dinner: “C’mon, Sandy baby. Loosen up. You’re too tight.”
John and Lisa-Marie met in the late 1980s through Riggo’s Rangers, his foundation for military and NFL veterans. He was retired by then and still a font of colorful headlines—for his unconventional side gig (he starred in a local play), his even more unconventional living arrangements (a trailer alongside the Potomac, a storage warehouse in suburban Virginia), and one big misadventure in parking (one night he found himself blocked in outside a Georgetown restaurant and used his truck to move the other guy’s truck out of the way).
Lisa-Marie was more than a decade younger and taken at first sight. They started dating a few years later, when she was living in New York. In 1992, she went along for John’s induction into the Hall of Fame. It was her first time around a large group of retired NFL players. She felt oddly at home. Like her father’s Army buddies, they were basically a bunch of grown-up fraternity brothers—never more so than when Riggo invited his former teammates to stop by the couple’s room at the Holiday Inn.
“We probably had 30 people in there, players and coaches,” Lisa-Marie says with a laugh. “It made Animal House look like piker time.” Retired defensive end Doug Atkins never left, drinking and storytelling until 6:30 am. Finally someone from the Hall of Fame knocked on the door. Mr. Riggins, it’s time for you to get in the parade car.
Four years later, John and Lisa-Marie were married in Rudy Giuliani’s office by the mayor himself. (The story in a nutshell: When the couple decided to tie the knot, they were having a late dinner in an Italian restaurant that was empty except for Giuliani and his entourage. For good luck, they later asked him to officiate, and after Hizzoner realized their faxed request on “No. 44” stationery wasn’t a prank, he agreed.)
By the mid-aughts, John was working as a football commentator and sports talk-radio host. Lisa-Marie had a new law degree from Fordham. They had two young daughters. Life was busy but good.
Then Lisa-Marie found herself walking into a Rockefeller Center cafe one day to see some old friends, Sylvia Mackey and her husband, John, a former Baltimore Colts tight end. He was wearing one of his signature black cowboy hats, Lisa-Marie says, “but he was no longer John Mackey.”
Mackey had a man purse. Inside were crayons. He had no idea where he was and wandered around the room like a young child. Sylvia broke the news: Her husband had dementia. Diagnosed a few years earlier at age 59, he had deteriorated ever since—becoming forgetful and lethargic, refusing to brush his teeth, and on one occasion being tackled by four airport security agents after he ran through a scanner checkpoint, thinking the agents were trying to steal his Super Bowl and Hall of Fame rings.
Mackey received a monthly NFL pension of $2,450. It wasn’t enough. Sylvia had gone to work as a flight attendant to help pay his medical bills. She was struggling and looking for support.
“To see what happened to them was mind-blowing to me,” Lisa-Marie says. “That’s when I started to realize there was a problem.”