NFL draft: Robert Griffin III embarks on pro career, and Washington Redskins fans await

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of Robert Griffin III’s home town, Copperas Cove, Tex. It is 65 miles north, not south, of Austin. This version has been corrected.

April 21, 2012

Robert Griffin III’s car turned off one dirt road and onto another. He was riding shotgun and his fiancee was driving. The blue Chrysler Pacifica has just one embellishment: a bumper sticker for his church.

The car slowly passed a home that features a Washington Redskins flag high atop a flagpole in the front yard — sacrilege here in the middle of Dallas Cowboys country — before pulling into a driveway. “Welcome to the Griffin Estate,” reads the wooden sign on the front door.

In the middle of a grassy, nondescript three-acre lot, the Griffin home is a modest one. Most of the neighbors have no idea, in fact, who was raised here. The only real clues inside are the plaques that hang in the entryway and the Heisman trophy in the curio cabinet behind the couch.

Robert Griffin III’s life will change this week. The talented quarterback is expected to be the No. 2 pick in the National Football League draft on Thursday, and he appears bound for Washington, where the Redskins have spent the past two decades searching for a franchise quarterback. He’ll be charged immediately with reviving an organization mired in futility and will carry with him the hopes and expectations of its legions of fans.

It’s a task that doesn’t seem to unnerve Griffin. His goals are so numerous. He plans to soon finish his master’s degree in communications from Baylor University. Maybe run track in the Summer Olympics someday. Go to law school, too. Oh, and he wants to learn the guitar. And he hopes to write more poetry.

“I’m a hopeless romantic,” he said, “so anything I write about is love or the sky. I do have a weird fascination with the sky. It’s pretty cool. Whenever you’re flying and you just look at the clouds — that’s pretty sweet. Those are the types of things I write about. I don’t write about heartbreak and things of that nature.”

Those things barely exist in his world. Griffin’s existence is one where broken plays result in highlight-reel touchdowns. His upbringing was always pointed toward a goal — almost from the moment he was born.

His family was filled with women. His aunts had girls and his parents, Jacqueline and Robert Griffin Jr., an Army couple stationed at the time in Okinawa, Japan, already had two daughters. Everyone was convinced another girl was on the way.

“I secretly prayed that I’d have a boy,” Jacqueline said. “I’m traditional: I wanted to give my husband a son.”

When the doctor announced a boy, Robert Jr. was elated. Only for a second would he let his new prize out of his sight. “He went to a pay phone and called everybody in the United States,” Jacqueline said.

Twenty-two years later, there’s no shortage of superlatives used to describe Robert Griffin III, a player heralded into the NFL by magazine covers, endorsement deals and hype that matches his wide smile and big personality. The portrait painted by friends, family, teammates and coaches is of a young man blessed with athletic talent and willing to eschew Friday nights with friends in order to maximize it. His confidence is mistaken for cockiness by some, who worry how that self-assurance might play inside the locker room and how it will be received outside it. But others insist Griffin’s belief in his own ability is among his best attributes.

Griffin is the product of discipline, of a military family, of hard work. His braids sprout from the back of his ballcap. His socks are brightly colored. His style is his own.

“He’s a great poster boy for guys who don’t quite fit in,” said Kaz Kazadi, Baylor’s assistant athletic director for athletic performance.

“That’s his reputation, being a freak,” teammate Ahmad Dixon added with a chuckle, “on and off the field.”

So no one is surprised Griffin is suddenly on the NFL’s front doorstep, a unique talent who’s about to take the step for which he and his family have invested years of sweat and preparation.

“I could recall prophesying over him,” said Bishop Nathaniel Holcomb, pastor of the Christian House of Prayer Ministries, Griffin’s 5,000-member church. “I felt the Lord said that he would be a rising star. . . . There was just something unique about him.”

‘Griffin Hill’

On a recent spring afternoon, the elder Griffin and his 22-year-old son stood on the side of the road just a few miles from their home, trying to explain the unique training exercise. The posted speed limit is 55 mph. Dogs were barking from the nearby animal shelter. Technically, this half-mile of angled asphalt is called N. First Street. They call it “Griffin Hill.”

“Believe it or not, this was a place of comfort with all the cars and the dogs,” Griffin said.

The two would come after midnight when the traffic was light, and a young Griffin ran up and down the hill. They’d come after football practice, tethering an SUV tire to the young man’s waist. They’d come every Thanksgiving, every weekend, every time Griffin needed a pick-me-up.

“I even had him run down it one time in college,” the elder Griffin said. “Remember that?”

His son chuckled.

“When you train, you got to have something you’re confident in. So this was something we were confident in,” said the quarterback, a chiseled 6 feet 2 and 223 pounds. “Didn’t matter what time of season it was. If I needed to get in shape, we came to Griffin Hill.”

His childhood was filled with training exercises — some typical, others unorthodox. The family bounced from base to base and Griffin from school to school before they settled into Copperas Cove, just west of Fort Hood. Both New Orleans natives, Robert Jr. was a petroleum supply specialist for the Army and Jacqueline a personnel specialist. Each was intimately involved in Griffin’s development as an athlete.

His father would train, coach and study. Griffin didn’t learn to drive until he was a freshman in college, and it was his mother who took him to school, practices and games.

“My dad was tough, pushed me, always looking for ways to make me better,” Griffin said. “My mom was caring. That’s why I say I got all my emotions from my mom.”

Griffin didn’t play football until he was 12 and didn’t run track until he was 11. He was already a standout basketball player by that point. He told his father he wanted to be like NBA legend Michael Jordan, so the two would hit the courts every day. Everyone in the family still recalls the drill in which a right-handed 8-year-old Griffin had to run from goal to goal, shooting 120 left-hand layups.

He came home that night in tears. “He was upset,” Jacqueline said. “ ‘Dad’s being mean! I’m not left-handed!’ ”

Jacqueline was in the middle, soothing her son and seeking explanation from her husband. “It was a house divided,” Robert Jr. said. But they all knew there was a purpose. That’s why they studied videos of quarterbacks such as Hall of Famer Roger Staubach and sprinters such as Olympian Michael Johnson. That’s why Griffin played in church leagues against older kids and practiced against adults at Fort Hood. That’s why the elder Griffin made sure his son always had new shoes and the best equipment.

“I always wanted to make my dad proud, but he never made me feel like I was obligated to do anything,” Griffin said.

The only slight deviation in the plan came the night Griffin turned 13. His father received a call that he’d be shipping out the next day to Iraq, where war was in its infant stages.

“He told me I was the man of the house, so I had to try to stick as much as I could to the plan he set out,” Griffin said.

They talked regularly by phone. Griffin continued training on his own and before long the family was reunited. By the time Griffin began high school, both his parents retired from the military and devoted themselves to their children’s activities.

Jacqueline made breakfast each morning and dropped her son off at school. She returned an hour later with a morning snack, and then made the five-mile drive again before noon to deliver lunch. She was back at the school in the afternoon with a pre-practice snack before heading to the sideline to film practice. That evening her husband would study the tape, calling Griffin over to discuss and dissect anything that stood out.

“I felt if they saw how devoted we were to them and the sacrifices we made so they could be the best they can be, then they’d only strive harder,” Jacqueline said.

Robert Jr. and Jacqueline both say they were always doing what their son wanted, and coaches say the Griffin parents were never too involved, never too pushy.

“Robert’s his own man. He’s going to do what he wants to do,” said Jack Welch, athletic director and head football coach at Copperas Cove High. “If he didn’t feel like doing something, he didn’t do it.”

Griffin watched plenty of television — “Dragon Ball Z” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” — and says his devotion to sports didn’t come with a high personal cost.

“I was still able to be a kid. . . . The fun that I sacrificed was hanging out all the time with my friends,” he said, “and that’s just something that I didn’t do.”

Quiet kid, funny socks

In the small towns across Texas, football serves as a cultural compass. Copperas Cove, 65 miles north of Austin, has a population of about 30,000. A tumbleweed couldn’t blow through town without hitting a strip mall. There’s just one high school, and football is king. Case in point: the team’s weight room is 10,000-square feet, at least three times the size of the Redskins’ in Northern Virginia.

Griffin played varsity basketball as a freshman and was obliterating track records each time he laced his spikes. Welch had his eyes on Griffin since elementary school and was eager to give him the starting quarterback job his junior year. By then, Griffin could already heave a ball 60 yards with little effort.

“Some kids grow into their height, grow into their size,” Welch said. “He had to grow into his talent.”

Griffin threw for 3,300 yards, ran for 2,161 more and accounted for 73 total touchdowns in two seasons. Copperas Cove appeared in back-to-back state title games and college coaches were enamored with Griffin’s athleticism. Most were more impressed with Griffin’s legs than his arm, though. He set state records in the 110- and 300-meter hurdles and was just one-hundredth of second off a national record in the 300.

“I had coach after coach come in here and say, ‘Coach, I think he’d be a great free safety. What do you think?’ ” Welch recalled. “I said, ‘If he wanted to be.’ ‘Coach, I think he’d be a great receiver. What do you think?’ ‘If he wanted to be. But guys, Robert’s going to play quarterback.’”

Houston Coach Art Briles saw a multitool quarterback, though, and when Briles accepted the head coaching job at Baylor in 2008, Griffin followed. He graduated high school early — seventh in his class — and enrolled at Baylor the spring before other freshmen arrived. Griffin didn’t yet have a driver’s license, so he spent most of that first semester in his room listening to music. Other athletes lived in the same Waco, Tex., apartment complex.

“He didn’t really hang out with anybody, and still doesn’t too much now,” said Lanear Sampson, a wide receiver on the football team. “But he kind of did his own thing, and off the field he didn’t have too much contact with people.”

The quiet kid with the funny socks and competitive streak managed to draw attention in the weight room and on the practice field, but many had trouble deciphering Griffin’s earnest ambition and self-confidence.

“When he was younger that rubbed teammates the wrong way,” Kazadi said.

“Some people saw it as him being cocky,” running back Jarred Salubi said. “But it really wasn’t. He was just a real confident person.”

That spring with the track team, Griffin won the Big 12 title in the 400-meter hurdles and qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials. The following fall with the football team, he set a college record by beginning his career with 209 completions without an interception. But just three games into his second year — and not long after Griffin quit track to focus on football — he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

“It could have easily been a sob story — ‘Robert Griffin stops running track, dedicates all his time to football, gets hurt in football, never plays again,’ ” Griffin said. “I didn’t want it to be that.”

He attacked the recovery. He added muscle mass, studied the offense from the sideline, increased his arm strength by throwing the football seated in a chair. The result was Big 12 comeback player of the year and offensive player of the year honors in 2010.

Coaches, though, describe a player who tried almost too hard at times, who wanted to be too perfect. No detail was too small. If he was facing a hard-hitting defense, he’d plan to play at exactly 222 pounds. If he wanted more quickness the next Saturday, he’d decide early in the week he’d weigh 216 pounds instead.

At Baylor, athletes meet once a week with sports psychologists. “We told him, ‘Griff, if the ball’s not right on the point or everything doesn’t work out great, it upsets you. That’s your weakness,’ ” Kazadi said. “We showed him the bad side of being a perfectionist.”

Griffin said he understood and immediately set out to correct it.

Confidence or cockiness?

Griffin earned his bachelor’s of political science in three years. He says he doesn’t drink and doesn’t smoke — “never have and probably never will” — and calls himself a homebody. Teammates say when he does attend a party, Griffin says hello and leaves within 30 minutes.

“There has not been a night that I went home, put my head on the pillow and wondered, ‘Is Robert doing all right?’ ” said Philip Montgomery, an offensive coordinator on the Baylor coaching staff.

Kazadi has to think back to Griffin’s freshman season — November 2008 — to recall a time the quarterback stepped out line. The strength coach says he went on a tirade, telling Baylor players that breakfast was now mandatory and warning of dire consequences. The next day Griffin skipped the morning meal.

“Where were you?” Kazadi asked.

“I had to go vote,” Griffin said.

It wasn't exactly a capital offense, and Kazadi didn’t know what to do. Griffin, though, volunteered to accept the sentence — bear crawls the length of the field three times.

“That was the only time I had to punish him,” he said.

Many of Griffin’s other miscues have been inadvertent and others open to interpretation. He threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more in Baylor’s win over Texas last December. Immediately following the game, ESPN’s Samantha Steele mentioned the prospects of winning college football’s top award. “I could be wrong,” Griffin said on live television, “but I think Baylor won its first Heisman tonight.”

His supporters will point out that Griffin was trying to shift the focus to his school, not himself — not to mention, he was proven right a month later when he edged out Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck for the Heisman. The Indianapolis Colts are expected to select Luck with the No. 1 pick in the draft Thursday.

Still, Griffin’s words weren’t exactly coated in humility.

“It’s hard to temper what you have to say when you’re that much better than other people,” said Heath Nielsen, Baylor’s assistant athletic director for communications. “That line between . . . having confidence and coming across as arrogant and cocky is a really fine line. He kind of weaved back and forth at times.”

Griffin makes no apologies for his competitive streak — for wanting to win Baylor’s first Heisman, for wanting to be the top player in the draft. And his teammates say that side of his personality is also what makes Griffin refreshing and unique.

When Griffin turned 21, he and about 30 friends and teammates got together for a birthday paintball outing. For Griffin, competing is fun and winning essential.

“He was one of the last guys standing every single round,” said Dixon, a Baylor defensive back.

Reviving the Redskins

Terry Shea is the quarterback guru who has helped prepare several players for the NFL draft, including Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, St. Louis’s Sam Bradford and Tampa’s Josh Freeman, all quarterbacks. He spent nine weeks earlier this year working with Griffin. “He’s probably got a higher ceiling than any of them,” Shea said.

Griffin can do so much with his feet, but he also fires bullets with his arm. A small wrist-flick and the ball spins with more velocity than most coaches have ever seen.

“He’s a freak athlete. Dude, it’s unreal,” said Nick Florence, Griffin’s backup at Baylor. “It’s not fair.”

His friends say money and celebrity won’t change Griffin. His family says his work ethic won’t waver. His coaches say he won’t have trouble learning a pro-style offense. And NFL experts say the only thing that can derail Griffin is injury.

“There are a lot of different ways we measure quarterbacks on and off the field,” said Steve Mariucci, a former NFL coach and current NFL Network analyst. “This guy seems to have an ‘A’ grade in all of them.”

Griffin will have to learn a new offensive system and must polish his skill-set. He says he really likes the Redskins coaches, with whom he met multiple times in the weeks leading up to the draft. Due diligence, team officials called it. But no matter how hard they looked — like everyone else — it’s hard to find a lot wrong with Griffin.

“I don't have any concerns about this kid. What you see is what you get. . . . He’s a special young man,” said ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, a former NFL head coach who noted that Griffin almost single-handedly turned around the Baylor football program. “I think he can do the same thing for the Redskins. He can revive the Redskins.”

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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