ATLANTA -- Twenty-five years after he played his final game as an Atlanta Falcon, Gerald Riggs got the phone call every NFL player dreams about. He was joining the franchise's elite ring of honor, just the ninth Falcon to be selected.
Only trouble was, when Atlanta owner Arthur Blank called the Chattanooga resident, Riggs didn't believe him.
"I thought it was one of my friends playing a joke on me," Riggs said Monday night from the Georgia Dome, where his No. 42 was retired and hung from the rafters at halftime of the Falcons game with the New York Jets.
"I kept saying, 'No, who is this?' It took about five minutes for me to believe it was Mr. Blank."
Blank confirmed that in the minutes before the opening kickoff.
"Gerald wouldn't believe me," he said. "And he knows me. But he richly deserves this honor. He did a first-class job for this franchise."
He did such a good job when he played for the Falcons (1982-88) after being a first-round draft pick out of Arizona State that Riggs still owns the team's career rushing record of 6,631 yards. He reached three straight Pro Bowls (1985-87). He was the only running back to gain 100 yards on the 1985 Chicago Bears, arguably the best defense of the past 50 years.
After joining the Washington Redskins for the 1989 season, Riggs played three more years. He scored two touchdowns in a 37-24 win over Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVI and finished with six touchdowns in that year's playoffs.
So which team does Riggs consider himself closer to -- the Falcons or Redskins?
"I had a big impact on both organizations," he said. "But I'm a Falcon because they gave me an opportunity."
It is certainly an elite group of former Falcons he joins. Other "ring" members are linebacker Tommy Nobis, defensive end Claude Humphrey, center Jeff Van Note, quarterback Steve Bartkowski, running back William Andrews, offensive lineman Mike Kenn, linebacker Jessie Tuggle and defensive back Deion Sanders.
"Players chosen for this honor," Blank said, "embodied excellence on the field and displayed passion for our fans and the community. We are happy to welcome Gerald as the ninth member of this exclusive club."
R.C. Thielemann was an Atlanta offensive guard during Riggs' first three seasons. After also wrapping up his career in Washington, but retiring before Riggs arrived, he returned to Atlanta, where he still lives.
Said Thielemann: "You never had to worry about third-and-1 when Gerald was playing for us. He just had unbelievable power and speed. Gerald was great to block for and a great teammate to be around. Just a really good guy."
Riggs' wife Sherry accompanied him to a private dinner party with Blank and others from the Falcons brass Sunday night. Included in that evening was a lengthy highlight reel of Riggs' career in the Big Peach.
"I didn't know Gerald during his playing career," she said. "But everybody always talks about what a great player he was. When you watch those highlights, it's easy to see why he's being honored."
Riggs has been in and out of the media since his playing career ended, recently hosting a radio talk show in Chattanooga and currently working on an Internet project.
But with halftime approaching Monday night and Sherry and Gerald Jr., the former Red Bank High and University of Tennessee running back, both by his side, Riggs Sr. wanted only to enjoy his induction into the Falcons' ring of honor.
"I haven't soaked everything in yet," he said. "But it's great to do this on Monday night, when there are no other games going on. I'm just excited to hear those cheers one more time."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com