The Night the Football Star Told the Supreme Court Justice: “Loosen up, Sandy baby.”

By Ron Cohen

Two UPI legends: Ron Cohen toasts Helen Thomas.

In 40-plus years as a journalist, I wrote about wars, assassinations, elections, tornadoes, plane crashes, fires, floods, volcanoes, moonwalks. I interviewed presidents, wannabe presidents, movie stars, several governors who wound up wearing orange prison jump suits, best-selling authors, hall-of-fame sports figures.

Not to mention a dark-haired woman who regularly had been smuggled into the White House, under Jackie’s nose, for middle-of-the-night dalliances with John F. Kennedy.

But the story that caused the biggest sensation: John Riggins and Sandra Day O’Connor.

Google the words “Loosen up, Sandy baby” and you will find several hundred references to the night of February 1, 1985, when John Riggins, star running back for the Washington Redskins, and Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman Supreme Court justice, found themselves at the same table at a formal dinner.

I was an organizer of the Washington Press Club’s annual dinner, which honors members of Congress—even if they haven’t done anything particularly honorable, which these days is most of the time.

The dinner, that year in the ballroom of a Sheraton Hotel, is a big event on Washington’s social calendar. Journalists and members of Congress, women dressed in long evening gowns and men in tuxedos like strutting penguins, mingle at an hour-long schmooze-fest masquerading as a cocktail party. Then after dinner several newly elected members of Congress, chosen for their supposed wit, attempt to entertain the crowd. Occasionally one is funny.

Here’s what happened that night:

John Riggins, a sports hero in Washington, had been invited by Time magazine. Other guests at the Time table included Justice O’Connor and her husband, John.

Sandra Day O’Connor: Role model for women clawing to break through the glass ceiling of jobs historically reserved for men. One of the world’s most respected women. Reserved and proper. Tight lips, tight smile. Prim, formal, aloof. Nary a blonde curl awry.

John Riggins: Outgoing, outspoken, outrageous. Funny, profane, brutish. Motorcycles his preferred mode of transportation. The hairdos under his football helmet ran from Mohawk to six inches of Afro. At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, he’d rather flatten tacklers than evade them.

Placing the two at one table was begging for combustion. Riggins knocking down more than a few before dinner was begging for disaster.

He stumbles, in tux and calf-high cowboy boots, into the hotel dining room. As he hunts for his seat in a sea of identical tables, guests bounce off him like undersized defensive backs.

My wife Jill and I are at the UPI table, next to the one where Time execs were entertaining their guests.

Riggins and O’Connor sit across from each other at the round  table. Riggins tries to engage her in long-distance conversation in a room buzzing with many hundreds of guests. Either she cannot hear him or chooses not to.

No matter how many times he tries to get her attention, she continues to give him the cold-shoulder.

His bleary eyes narrow and in a voice that could have been heard in an adjacent time zone he calls out:

“Loosen up, Sandy baby! You’re too tight!”

“Sandy baby” reacts as if she had been shoved into primordial ooze. In an attempt to regain the composure befitting a Supreme Court justice, she purses her lips even more tightly and continues to talk to her husband.

The Time editors seem too stupefied to intervene.

Riggins keeps drinking. At one point, during the soup course, he rises with some difficulty, mumbles something, takes a couple of shaky steps, crouches on his haunches—then slides slowly to the floor, coming to rest, outstretched, under Jill’s chair. And, quite noisily, he falls asleep.

“If I’d known I was going to be sleeping with John Riggins, I’d have worn my nightgown,” Jill said afterwards.

And she would tell a reporter from the Los Angeles Times:

“Then he squatted and was staring off into space. He was really out of it. He dropped to one elbow, then he was flat on the floor. I knew he was under my chair when his cowboy boots hit my shoes.”

As Vice President George H.W. Bush rose to deliver the evening’s closing remarks, snores and belches from the football star were audible.

I leave the ballroom to dictate a story to the UPI Washington bureau. “Loosen up, Sandy baby” dominates the first paragraph.

Surprisingly exclusive in a room filled with journalists, my story splashed on newspaper front pages the next morning. Radio and TV stations broadcast it on an endless loop.

Competitors scrambled to try to catch up, including the rival Associated Press.

An AP reporter made follow-up calls to guests at the UPI table, only to be told, “The AP? Are you kidding?”

Jill had a “Loosen up, Sandy baby” T-shirt made for me.

The T-shirt women in O’Connor’s morning exercise class presented her with one that said, “Loosen Up With the Supremes.”

That night would forever entwine the lives of Sandra Day O’Connor and John Riggins.

When he was inducted into the pro football Hall of Fame, news stories gave Riggins’s dinner antics nearly as much ink as his gridiron exploits.

And when O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court in 2005, reporters normally more familiar with the judicial system than the sports world wrote about “Loosen up, Sandy baby.”

Riggins launched a short-lived acting career after his gridiron days. In his Broadway audience on his first opening night was—yes, Sandra Day O’Connor.

After the show, in his dressing room backstage, she handed him a Sharpie and a new football.

The smile as he autographed it nearly tickled his earlobes.

And she grinned a “loosened up” grin right back at him.
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Excerpted from Ron Cohen’s new book, Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast!: A Journalist’s Uncommon Memoir. Published by Trafford Publishing, it’s available from Amazon in hardcover or paperback.

Cohen, who joined UPI in 1961 and became its managing editor, is also the author, with Gregory Gordon, of Down to the Wire: UPI’s Fight for Survival. Here’s the New York Times review of that book.

Comments

  1. Ron Cohen says:

    Re the New York Times review of the book, Down to the Wire: UPI’s Fight for Survival:

    The Times reviewer got one crucial thing wrong.

    The UPI brass most assuredly did not acquiesce to my airing of its dirty laundry. I did that entirely on my own, locking the newsroom door the first day so they couldn’t intrude, and not answering my phone so they couldn’t tell me personally that I was fired. The owners must have realized what a First Amendment stink it would cause in the industry if they canned me, and as the momentum of the stories grew it became harder and harder for them to say “no.” Even the editor in chief conveniently was unavailable to pass approval on the most explosive and lengthy story about the owners malfeasance, which broke when ASNE was holding its annual meeting in Miami, and which was used almost in its entirety, with maximum impact among the editors, on the Herald’s Sunday front page.

    But my decision to cover our demise was most definitely the reason I got fired by the new Mexican owner who bought UPI out of bankruptcy. And why Greg Gordon got fired a week before the book was published, three years after I left.

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