This is the goal. I need to pick 53 NFL players to fill out a roster. I have to get ten guys for a practice squad. The pool of athletes I’m choosing from is from 1980 to 2018. Let’s say they are playing a season for me, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. This is not a list of the 63 best players I’ve seen. I’m trying to build a team. Here are the NFL player’s I’d trust the most.
Tom Brady/Joe Montana/Aaron Rodgers/Steve Young
I rank Elway higher than Young all time. In this case I’m mixing it up with a lefty, and a beyond scrimmage runner like Steve Young. Rodgers can be my “hail mary” guy. I would have used John there as well.
Walter Payton/Marshall Faulk/Terrell Davis/LaDainian Tomlinson/Marcus Allen
Payton is the best football player on this team. T.D. and L.T. can carry the load. Faulk stretches the field and will excel in the slot. Marcus Allen can play full back and gets it done in short yardage.
Jerry Rice/Randy Moss/Calvin Johnson/Michael Irvin/Larry Fitzgerald
The first three are the best I’ve seen do it. Irvin is the groups motivator. Fitzgerald beat out Cris Carter by an inch.
Tony Gonzalez/Rob Gronkowski/Jason Witten
Witten will also help make up for not having a traditional full back.
Larry Allen/John Hannah/Anthony Munoz/Bruce Matthews/Jonathan Ogden/Gary Zimmerman/Randall McDaniel/Dermontti Dawson
These dudes are impressive. They can all play the entire defensive backfield. Most versatile unit on this trust squad. They can block and tackle on special teams. Some can play running back and receiver. If Reed touches the ball, he’s magic. Barber can cover the Welker types. Lott and Polamalu can play spot linebacker duty, and a couple can throw.
We lost one of the world’s great people just over one year ago. As missing him continues and even increases, it’s also getting easier to understand the impact he had on my life. I’m learning to have a friendship with my memories of him. Outside of his loved ones, sports was Rusty’s number one passion. I’m excited to share more of the things that made him tick.
#1-KARL MALONE WAS HIS FAVORITE NBA PLAYER OF ALL TIME: He used to study Karl on VHS tapes rewinding them over and over. He especially loved Karl’s post moves. Rusty loved his defense and his over the shoulder pass. He would boast “nobody runs the floor and rips down the rim like Karl.” In high school he signed his name Rusty “the mailman” Riggs.
#2- HE TAUGHT ME HOW TO THROW THE BALL IN THE POST: The first time we played in the “Roundball Ruckus” (3 on 3 basketball tournament) I blew our last game. I was being smothered on the perimeter and kept turning the ball over as Russ begged for the ball down low. We lost the game because of this and Russ was pissed. In rare form he gave me a personal jab over me “not being able to make a simple post pass.” It hurt to let him down and needless to say by the next year, I was a master at the variety of ways to pass the ball in the post. I got Rusty the ball, he scored 16 of our 20 points and this time we won. He pushed me with joy and yelled, “that’s how you pass the ball in the post boy!” That moment meant a ton to me. Every time I make a post pass, it’s him.
#3-RUSS HAD AN EXTRA GOOD REASON TO FOLLOW DEREK SMITH’S CAREER: Rusty played on the same field with Derek Smith in ninth grade. Riggs knew exactly how tough and good Derek was from that experience. Rusty watched him play every snap of his high school career. We were blown away how good Derek was at football, especially on defense. After Snow College Derek had gone on to play at Arizona State. One night in 1996 I got a call from Russ saying “Derek Smith is dominating against one of the best teams in the country.” That was when we realized Derek was really on his way. Derek played 12 seasons in the NFL against and with people that were larger than life to Rusty and I. Smith was a starter and one of the best tacklers in pro football. Derek gave Rusty a great deal of inspiration.
#4- HE WAS A DALE MURPHY FAN: Russ took a lot of pride in the fact that Dale Murphy was a Mormon. He would always bring up his back to back NL MVP awards and liked to mention how close he was to being a Hall of Famer. He was annoyed his guy was two home runs short of 400. I spent a couple of hours with Murphy in 2002. He was such a nice guy. I told Dale how much Rusty admired him.
#5- HE LIKED TO SAY GOODBYE TO THE VISITING NBA TEAMS: One of his favorite things to do after going to a Utah Jazz game was watch the visiting team leave on their bus. Russ was a die-hard fan. He would have no problem waiting an hour to catch a glimpse of the players. It wasn’t just him being in awe, he wanted to be close to something he knew he could be a part of as a future media member. He loved that we were flipped off by a member of the San Antonio Spurs.
#6- HE WAS GOOD AT MAKING PREDICTIONS: He seemed to be on fire for about a decade predicting games. It became a bother for me because he would use it as argument leverage. If he didn’t agree with me on something he might go, “look here little Jaybird, you don’t have to watch any NBA playoff games this weekend. I’ll just tell you what will happen and save you the time.”
#7- HE WAS SO HAPPY JARED AND I WORE IDENTICAL SHIRTS: For months Rusty had been anticipating meeting, and playing basketball with my buddy Jared. I can’t remember why, but I ended up making the horrible decision of wearing the same t-shirt as Jared. The shirts had a cartoon face of Michael Jordan. This was like handing Rusty comedy dynamite. For about twelve years he made a phone books worth of jokes over this.
#8- HIS NAME BECAME “RUSS” IN THE HOT SUMMER OF LOUISIANA: When he left on his LDS mission in early 1994, his name was Rusty. In the community of Algiers ( New Orleans) he came away with a different name. He was playing basketball on a hot summer day. Coming from Highland Utah it was culture shock for Rusty and his companion to be the only white people among 25 guys. Rusty described the competition as “unbelievable”. He said the best player there was a 6’8″ black guy who had played at the University of Houston. The guy was cool to Rusty as he dominated everyone. As Riggs started to perform some guys started calling him “Utah.” The stud ball player started calling him “Russ.” He adopted the name from there with pride. It was important for him to earn the respect of these guys.
#9- HE ADORED MARCH MADNESS: He could sense the NCAA Tournament coming each year. He bragged about teachers in high school that would play the tourney on t.v. during class. Rusty would go to the games anytime they would be in Salt Lake City. His biggest selling point was how popular March madness was. I eventually caved to its popularity which made him happy.
#10- HIS WADE/LEBRON ARGUMENT WITH ME BECAME LEGENDARY: It started in the spring of 2006 when I said, “right now Wade is as good as LeBron.” Russ freaked out over my statement. From that time on LeBron James versus Dwyane Wade was a factor in our friendship up until four days before Russ passed away. It would probably rank as one of our eight greatest sports arguments. I had several niche advantages in this debate, but he won this one with the safe choice of James on his side. He would often make remarks like, “Wade in a little back pack on LeBron’s back like Yoda and Luke.”
#11-RUSTY HAD GREAT APPRECIATION FOR MARSHALL FAULK: August 10th, 1992: He was there to witness San Diego State getting their first ever win in Provo. Marshall gutted the Cougars for 299 rushing yards and three scores. That game was burned into Rusty’s memory and he followed Faulk for his entire NFL career.
#12- HE HATED THE UNIVERSITY OF UTAH: He believed hating the school on the hill was part of his life’s job description. I felt like he put 80 percent of the energy into hating Utah as he did loving BYU. If someone walked by with Utah gear on it’s as if he was smelling an enemy from a strange planet. Utah wins hurt him. Utah losses made him feel great. Utah beating BYU was a nightmare, and beating Utah was like winning the Super Bowl for Russ. When BYU quarterback Max Hall verbally ripped Utah to shreds after a 2009 win, I’ll never forget Rusty’s words. “To say everyone at the University of Utah is classless is obviously not true. It was crazy for him to be so harsh with the microphones in his face. Part of me loves him more for ripping them so bad though.” He was unapologetic for feeling this way about the U of U.
#13- RUSS, HALLOWEEN, AND LAMAR ODOM GO TOGETHER: I have a random but clear memory of Halloween night 2008. I was driving on Redwood Road and on the phone with Russ. We were arguing about Lamar Odom. He claimed Lamar was not going to get any better while I stated he could still improve by a level. We must have gone on about this for an hour. That was the same call in which he told me about his families Halloween tradition to eat donuts and chili. He laughed when I said it was weird yet made perfect sense. Odom went on to get better, but not enough for me to ever bring it up again.
#14- HE HAD TO KNOW THE SCORE NOW: When he was in the rare situation of having to work during a BYU football game, he was not going to wait until later to watch on tape in its entirety. We were broadcasting a football game at Davis High School years ago. BYU was playing at the same time. Every time we went to commercial he yelled “score?” Russ ended up buying a student dinner to keep him updated throughout the night. On the drive home he said he was going to go re watch the game. I asked him if he was sure Ruth had taped it? He said, “bro, she’s a professional at this point.”
#15-HE GREW UP ON NFL FILMS: We always shared common ground here. It makes sense that he loved “NFL Films.” Ed and Steve Sabol captured the art of football in a very romantic light. It was about the sights, sounds, and by far the best view of the National Football League. It’s no surprise Riggs dug this part of pro football. He was a very sentimental person.
#16-HE LOVED HIS GAME DAY ROUTINE: BYU game day Saturday’s were his greatest reward in the life of being a sports fan. He would only allow college football talk on the radio. It’s the only time I remember him never listening to his R&B music. He was feeling joy as he heard scores from other games around the country. He always parked in the same neighborhood. I often said, “are you sure you can park here?” He’d always respond, “my family has been parking here for 25 years dude.” He would often park in tight spaces, weird angles, whatever it took. He was parking in this little semi-circle no matter what.
#17- LAVELL EDWARDS STADIUM WAS HEAVEN ON EARTH TO RUSTY: He always wanted to be there early. We would walk down the North side of the stadium when we arrived. As Russ got near , his religious type experience would begin. You could almost hear “Rudy” music as he would soak in just how happy he was to be there. Russ thought this stadium was a hallowed NCAA beauty and he felt lucky it was like his back yard. He would often go to an intersection to sell an extra ticket. I initially struggled to realize this was legal. He would constantly make fun of me for it. He would go “Jay, scared to cross the road.”
#18- HE WAS NEVER LOYAL TO AN NFL TEAM OVER THE LONG HAUL: He liked the 49ers as a kid and then later on as he followed Steve Young. He spent some time cheering for some of Andy Reid’s Eagles teams. He was never really attached to an NFL team. He knew it would be over load with the energy he put into BYU and Utah. The April before he died he claimed, “I guess I’m cheering for the Detroit Lions now.” The Lions had two BYU players ready to make an impact.
#19- BYU OVERMIAMI WAS HIS FIRST BIGGEST WIN AS A FAN: September 28th 1990: Rusty was there to see his Cougars beat the number one ranked Miami Hurricanes 28 to 21. On his mission tape in 1995 he describes this day. “At the time I’d never been so pumped up for a game. When Miami came onto the field with all their glory and cockiness I got a rush and lost a little breath. Ty threw for 406 yards, and we beat them! I’ll never forget the embrace with my dad and just going crazy. This was my “1984.”
#20- RUSS WAS VERY GOOD AT BASKETBALL: American Fork High School had a large student body and was one of the best basketball schools in the state of Utah. He was in the last group of five guys that did not make the varsity team his senior year. He was a star on his “city league” team. Of the 20 or so people we hung out with over a few year window, he was the best player of the group. He was a solid defensive player, but awesome on offense. Bigger guys who would play physical (i.e. Alan Owens and Kevin Franson) could give him fits, but Russ scored points. He had several pet moves in the post including a tricky hesitation drive he was proud of. He could shoot outside and developed three-point range in his early twenties. An inside player who would get hot shooting outside is nice. Remember that he was six feet four inches tall. Rusty scored buckets. He got hot and usually stayed hot. I was very proud of the basketball player he was.
#21- HE WAS ABLE TO INTERVIEW JERRY SLOAN: While working for the ‘”Davis County Clipper” Russ had the opportunity to interview Jazz legend Jerry Sloan. Jerry is a hard-nosed man and I was curious to ask Russ what his first question was? He said, “right before I opened my mouth I thought don’t say anything stupid, think defense.”
#22- RUSTY SPENT MANY HOURS TALKING ABOUT TONY ROMO: Because of my interests, Russ spent more time talking about Tony Romo than I’m sure he would have chosen to otherwise (Steve Riggs and Dan Merrill got a taste of these talks). Russ was a master at arguing. He knew how to jab me with Tony’s failures but keep me on board by praising his talent. The last play Russ saw Romo make was a season saving, fourth down pass to beat the Redskins in 2013. Russ text me, “and with a hurt back? That’s pretty impressive Tony.”
#23- A LOOK AT THE LAST 3 BYU FOOTBALL GAMES HE WATCHED: The last home game he saw was a 59-13 victory over Idaho State. The last regular season game was a 28-23 win at Nevada. The last BYU football game he ever saw was a 31-16 loss to Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl. The game was December 27th, 2013. When BYU lost it hurt Russ. At 38 years old he had gotten good at knowing how to handle it.
#24- RUSS WAS AN ALLEN IVERSON FAN: He didn’t love him right away. Over time he saw a guy tough enough to live diving on the floor, and brash enough to take on Jordan. Russ was mesmerized by Iverson’s quickness. He backed him the entire way during his 2000-2001 MVP season.
#25- HE BAILED ME OUT AT DAVIS HIGH SCHOOL: He and I were broadcasting a High School football game on TV. He got several of these little gigs over a few year period and always asked me to join in. This was being taped beforehand and would be played later in the night. We had to do a shot of ourselves on the sideline before we went up to the booth. I kept screwing it up. I was stumbling on the line and messed up for the third straight time. I walked away in disgust as the camera guy seemed a bit surprised. Russ bumped me and said, “compared to what you have done, this is like goofing off in the back yard. This is too easy for you bro. You got this.” I calmed down and made it happen. His support was like a jolt of excitement. As the play by-play guy he nailed his job like always.
In 2008 Tony Romo was at his “most prolific and probably most athletic.” In 2009 he had his best season in the most “traditional sense”.” The 2013 version of Romo was “the best the player has been so far.” You have to consider the money he had recently been paid, the criticism he got for it, and the new level of responsibility he would take on. In part because of a league high number of injuries to defensive lineman, the 2013 Cowboys were mostly bad on defense. Against the pass, this unit bled yards on a historical level. Tony was great this year! By “great” I mean he beyond did his part for his team, and even without a playoff birth was a top seven or eight NFL quarterback. Romo was way more clutch than not, but the story will come out different. He will once again get the blame because of a few reasons. It’s a quarterbacks league, his past mistakes, and mostly his high-profile team leads to him getting attention but constantly snubbed of credit. He also gave his critics two unforgettable games where his “Romo blunders” cost his football team the game or at least a chance.
Did you see Romo throw two late picks against Green Bay to help the Cowboys finish blowing a 26 to 3 lead this last December? I know you did. All of you couldn’t stop talking about it. It was a big game. It was being shown in a prime spot. Then there was the classic at home against the Denver Broncos. Romo put on a clinic that day. His 506 yards passing and five touchdowns were a product of his all time great pocket awareness, and escapeability. He led the Cowboys to a 48 point tie late in the game. With a chance to win, Tony threw the ball to the Broncos who came out on top 51 to 48. It was a cruel, almost fitting dagger. It pains me to admit that game is probably the best 60 minute nut shell example of how most fans view Tony Romo.
The next morning Michael Smith of ESPN said, “You know we always say the quarterback gets too much credit when he wins and too much blame when he loses? As far as his critics go, Tony Romo is the ONLY quarterback I’ve seen that gets NONE of the credit when Dallas wins, and ALL of the blame when they lose.”
Romo always gets his numbers. This time around brought 3,828 yards passing while completing 64% of his attempts. The 31 touchdowns ranked second in the NFC, and the 10 interceptions were pretty elite for a player known for turnovers. He fumbled a career low four times (one lost). Tony threw away balls at the right time, and took smart sacks. He was 8 and 7 as a starter, but 5 and 0 in the most crucial division games. He now has more yards and completions than any QB in NFL history through their first 100 starts.
Avid Sportsman Tony Abbott is never shy or dishonest about his Romo opinions. On five different occasions this year in the middle of down to the wire Cowboys games, Abbott proclaimed “the SEASON was on #9 right here”. He was not putting just each of these games is on one guy, he was saying the entire temperature and direction of the franchise right now, is on Romo. Lets look at the five contests.
November 3rd VS Minnesota Vikings: The Cowboys were coming off a one point horror show loss at Detroit. They were 4 and 4 and could not afford to lose this ballgame. Dallas was down three points to the Vikings with 2:44 left in regulation. The Cowboys had the ball on their own 10 yard line. Romo and his right arm accounted for all 90 yards that ended with a go ahead touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining. Other than winning, I really enjoyed knowing my South Dakota family members/Vikings fans watched the same thing I did.
November 24th at New York Giants: New York had won four in a row and talked ridiculous trash all week. The temperature was 22 degrees and the wind 27 mph. Dallas let go of a 21 to 6 third quarter lead. They found themselves tied at 21, with the ball on their own 20 yard line, with 4:45 left in the game. In methodical fashion, Tony led the Cowboys on a 16 play drive. He spread the ball around, he needled the Giants to death and made them look worse the bigger the play became. Dan Bailey knocked in a close range field goal to win the game. This kept the Cowboys season alive, and essentially knocked the Giants out.
November 28th VS OAKLAND RAIDERS: This game was an uphill climb from the opening play. The Cowboys first kick return attempt became a fumble and a Raiders score. Oakland led 21 to 7 with under two minutes remaining in the first half. Tony completed five straight passes to set up a short running touchdown. In half number two, Romo completed all 12 of his passes and led the team to a 31 to 24 victory.
December 15th VS Green Bay: I mentioned this game is where the focus will stay. Tony was having a good day helping Dallas build a 23 point half time lead. He also threw a clutch TD to Dez mid way through the fourth quarter as the Packers mounted a furious comeback. The qb then put the cherry on the collapse by throwing two late picks. The first INT was extra bad. The kind of play you want to pretend didn’t happen. The Packers played good, but this was one of the most embarrassing losses in franchise history.
December 22nd at Washington Redskins: As things ended up playing out, the Cowboys had to win this game to keep the season alive and to set up an NFC East title game with the Eagles. Dallas was down nine points at the beginning of the last quarter. Romo hurt his back and was experiencing shocking pains down his legs. He decided to put on another display of bad ass clutch play. The stand out plays were a fourth down and six completed for 20 yards to Cole Beasley, and a scramble then 51 yard hurl to Terrance Williams. The Boys failed to punch in the football on three straight running plays. It was fourth down and the year from the 10 yard line. Tony showed off his footwork and patience as he hit DeMarco Murray for a game winning touchdown pass and the best moment for the Cowboys in 2013.
I have to mention it: October 20th at Philly in a one score game late in the third quarter, after throwing a bad interception..Tony leads a drive where he completes seven out of eight passes for 69 yards. In the process he converts five first downs and a slant pattern for a score to put Dallas up 17 to 3 where the score would stay.
Abbott is a smart guy who does not think that Romo is as good as I do. I had to note, that Romo delivered enormous clutch plays and succeeded in 80% of those challenges put out there.
The night after the Redskins win on “NFL Gameday Final” Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk said, “If you really pay attention to it, the Cowboys constantly are in the position that Tony Romo HAS to make a play. Your team is built to have one guy have to constantly make or break the game. That is why Tony Romo is always in the hot seat.”
Everyone jumped head first in how and why Romo changed a key play late against Green Bay to a pass. Did anyone mention ANY of the plays he changed in ANY of his clutch moments? They did not. After Tony sacrificed his body and sold out in the pressure at Washington to give Dallas a chance did anyone take a breath to celebrate it? They did not. What I heard instead was, “If Kyle Orton plays good next week it will make Romo look so Bad.” I also loved the “Romo would have choked against Philly” card. He could have easily thrown a pass to cost Dallas the East. Without his pressure packed performances, the Cowboys would have never been there.
Romo has a lot to prove to be a truly great NFL player.That doesn’t mean I’m not tired of him playing like the low-level star he is, and getting the respect of an overpaid backup.