Becoming a Redskin: Robert Griffin III's journey from Texas to Washington

The moment required all of Robert Griffin III’s many intangible skills — his impeccable sense of timing, his penchant for the dramatic, his preternatural confidence, his heart-melting charm. He waited patiently until everyone at the dinner table seemed absorbed in conversation, then rose silently to his feet.

It was March 20 in Waco, Tex., in a private back room at the 135 Prime steakhouse, and Griffin and his family were having dinner with the top brass of the Washington Redskins: owner Daniel Snyder, Coach Mike Shanahan, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen.

The next day, at Baylor’s pro day, would be the first time Griffin, the Baylor quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner, would throw passes in front of NFL personnel before the April 25 draft, for which the Redskins held the No. 2 overall pick.

At first, no one at the table seemed to notice as Griffin — trying to be casual, as if he was merely too warm — stood and began to remove his green Adidas hoodie. But then the others caught a glimpse of what he was wearing underneath: a burgundy, official NFL-issue T-shirt, with a large Redskins logo on the front.

The bold statement, which Griffin later acknowledged was “premeditated,” sent the room into spasms of laughter and applause. The Redskins’ brass seemed shocked, considering the draft was still five weeks away, the 22-year-old Griffin had yet to throw for them and there was still some uncertainty over what the Indianapolis Colts would do with the No. 1 overall pick. But they seemed blown away by the gesture. His mission accomplished, Griffin flashed his now-famous, toothy smile and sat back down.

“What if you had gotten the days mixed up,” Snyder, with a smile, leaned over and asked Griffin, “and worn a Colts shirt by mistake?”

Griffin laughed, he later recalled, but he was dead serious about his message: I want to be a Redskin.

“I wanted to show them where my mind was, where my heart was,” he said later. “I knew my pro day was going to go extremely well, [but] I didn’t want to make [the Colts] want me. I wasn’t going to play that game.”

The process of making Griffin a Redskin began on March 10, when the team traded four high-round draft picks to the St. Louis Rams to move up to the No. 2 spot in the draft, and became official Wednesday morning, when he signed his name to a four-year, $21.1 million contract in an office at Redskins Park in Ashburn, a week before the opening of training camp.

But that night in Waco, some four months ago, was when Griffin became a Redskin at heart. What followed — a dazzling performance at Baylor’s pro day, the draft itself and the signing of his contract — seemed like mere formalities.

In the weeks since, Griffin has lived through a head-spinning, life-altering transition — from Texas to Washington, from amateur to pro, from Baylor’s spread offense to the Redskins’ more complex West Coast system, from regional hero to national pitchman, from college student to multimillionaire, from the face of a small private university to that of the third-most valuable franchise in U.S. professional sports.

But through it all, the son of two retired Army sergeants has pursued one mission above all others: Becoming a Redskin. And not just a Redskin, but someone who can lead grown men to greatness, reward the faith the organization has shown in him and live up to the expectations of a fan base that has come to see him as nothing less than the franchise’s savior.

“He clearly knows,” said his father, Robert Griffin, “he has to deliver.”

The playbook

The first thing Griffin noticed about the playbook was how huge it was — a three-ring binder, five inches thick, stuffed nearly full with pages. White with a Redskins logo on the front, its contents were tabbed for easy flipping and divided into chapters — cadences, snap counts, protections, plays, red zone offense, two-minute offense and more.

“They wanted to throw the whole offense at me, just so I could see — these are the possibilities,” Griffin said. “They wanted to confuse me. They wanted to make things hard, to see what I could handle.”

The Redskins had drafted another quarterback, Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins, in April, a decision widely criticized by analysts on ESPN and the NFL Network, but it gave Griffin a natural study partner.

During much of May, the rookies roomed together at a suites hotel a mile and a half from Redskins Park, where they spent most of their evenings in their living room, on opposite sides of a coffee table, poring over their playbooks and taking nightly quizzes.

The quizzes, devised by Kyle Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, were designed to reinforce material in the playbook, not unlike the tests conceived by high school math teachers.

“It was just making sure we knew the route combinations, the protections,” Griffin said. “What was paramount was that you get it in your brain — it’s stuck there, so you can pull from it. It’s stuff like, ‘What protection do you have on 24-Jet?’ Some of [the answers] don’t come to you immediately, so you look them up in the playbook and write them down, and that makes you learn it.

“They were long quizzes, play after play after play. What’s your protection on that play? What’s your ‘hot’ on this play? What’s your primary read? What do you do against this coverage, [or] against that coverage? It’s an extreme attention to detail, and I loved it.”

The quizzes weren’t graded, but each morning Shanahan and LaFleur went over them and corrected the answers Griffin and Cousins had gotten wrong, making sure the young quarterbacks knew the right answers — and why they were the right answers.

On the practice field, the first thing Griffin would do after running every play — from the simplest handoff to the most complex throw — was to confer briefly with Kyle Shanahan, who would ask Griffin what he saw: What coverage was the defense in? Where were the safeties? Did all your receivers run the right routes?

The Shanahans appeared genuinely stunned by Griffin’s aptitude. Mike Shanahan noted the lack of a single busted play or wrong formation during the entire three-day rookie camp — Griffin’s first practices under the Redskins’ scheme.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had that [happen] in any minicamps I’ve been involved in,” he said. “. . . Very few people can take as much verbiage. It’s like learning a new language. Some people are able to pick it up very quickly and [others can’t]. Robert was able to pick it up very quickly, and it showed on the field.”

In early May, when Griffin arrived at Redskins Park for his first day of work at rookie minicamp, he made his way to the locker room to discover that he had been placed next to linebacker London Fletcher, the 37-year-old veteran who is the team’s unquestioned spiritual leader. The placement was not accidental.

“That was a big moment,” Griffin said. “I understood why they put my locker next to his. He’s the leader. I’ll never try to overtake London Fletcher. For me to be next to him is an honor. He knows I have to be a leader, because that [responsibility] is thrown upon a quarterback. But he’s definitely a guy who can help me do it. I know if I ever need anything, I can count on him.”

Now, as the veterans began arriving for the first organized team activities, Griffin, had already reached out to many of them by phone or text message and managed to find the delicate midpoint between a rookie’s humility and a quarterback’s charge to lead.

“He’s willing to work. He’s in here early. And he’s in his playbook,” Fletcher said. “He has an aura about himself that [makes] people want to gravitate to him and just get to know him.”

Back in Texas, Robert Griffin would wait for his son’s inevitable post-practice phone call. One time, his son told him: “Today, it was a grueling one, but I learned so much. I truly felt [like] I’m elevating my game.”

Another time, the elder Griffin was watching clips from practice on the Redskins’ Web site and saw something in his son’s footwork that he didn’t like. “I called him, and he said, ‘Dad, I’m already on top of that.’ And I watched some more [clips] a couple of days later, and it was fixed.”

During his first visit home after getting the playbook, Griffin pulled it out of his bag to show his mother. “This is my homework for the next year,” he told her. Griffin’s father may have been the only person outside the Redskins organization whom he afforded a good, long look at it. They went through it, talked about it. Griffin’s father took on the role of quizmaster.

“That playbook is Coach Shanahan’s vision,” he said. “And that’s what Robert is going to capture — Coach Shanahan’s vision.”

As he flew between Washington and Texas, perhaps a half-dozen times in all, Griffin usually checked a suitcase, but the playbook — along with an iPad the Redskins gave him, with all the plays in video form — boarded the plane with him, safely tucked in a carry-on bag.

“It’s with me all the time,” he said. “It’s not my bible, but it’s what we live by.”

One other item was a constant presence in Griffin’s carry-on: an official Wilson NFL football. Even when there was no one to throw with, he liked to toss the ball in the air to himself, or just hold it in his right hand, gripping it, spinning it, feeling the laces.

A hectic summer

At 7 p.m. on May 9, nearly a thousand congregants packed the Christian House of Prayer Ministries in Copperas Cove, Tex., to hear the church’s most famous member speak, and to bid the young man farewell and Godspeed as he prepared to head east to start a new chapter in his life.

“RGIII!” the pastor, Apostle Nate Holcomb said, using Griffin’s ubiquitous nickname, as the congregation roared and an organ churned out major chords. “Speak to us for a moment!”

Throughout this transitional period in his young life, as Griffin was toggling between the sentimental tug of the past and the vast possibilities of the future, he found himself becoming increasingly philosophical. Always capable of looking inward, he seemed to be taking stock of his life and his character.

For the church service, Robert Griffin III had brought along the Heisman Trophy, which normally resides in a wooden cabinet, typically hidden from view behind closed doors, in the living room of the modest rancher just outside Copperas Cove where Robert and Jacqueline Griffin had raised their three children.

“When I was young, you always told me [to] never forget where I came from,” Griffin said to Holcomb when he took the microphone, according to an audio recording of the service provided by the church. “[So] I want to take this time to tell you guys about my parents . . .

“We have the Heisman here, and it’s so much more than just a trophy. You don’t build a house all at the same time, so that trophy came through all those different things my mom and dad had to go through when they were young to give me the life they gave me. One thing my dad always told me, was he would make sure I always had what he didn’t have. He couldn’t play basketball because he didn’t have tennis shoes — so I had five pairs of tennis shoes.”

He spoke of his faith, and of the obstacles he had overcome — chiefly a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during his sophomore year at Baylor. When Griffin was done, Holcomb placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder, bowed his head and prayed: “We thank you for this mighty oak in the forest of God . . . and [ask] that wherever you take Robert, others will see the love of God, and they will come out of darkness and into the marvelous light because of this young man.”

Afterward, Griffin sat at a table in the lobby of the church until late in the evening, signing autographs and posing for pictures with church members. Four days later, he accompanied his parents back to church for Mother’s Day services.

But that would be Griffin’s last visit to Christian House of Prayer Ministries for a long while. When he wasn’t in Ashburn, he was typically in Waco, tying up loose ends. And when he wasn’t in Waco, he was on the road somewhere, maintaining a schedule packed with appearances, many of them for his sponsors, which include Gatorade, Adidas, Subway, EvoShield, Castrol, EA Sports and Nissan.

Even squeezing in family time became difficult. At one point, Griffin flew from Washington to Houston for the day to sign autographs at a memorabilia show, called his parents and begged them to drive over from Copperas Cove — some 31 / 2 hours away — to see him, knowing he had to turn around and fly back to Washington after the show.

“We dropped everything and went to see him,” Jacqueline Griffin said. “We spent half an hour with him afterwards, and then he went back to the airport.”

The hectic schedule had some people close to Griffin wondering whether he was spreading himself too thin, but he promised them it wasn’t too much and insisted the marketing engine would shut down once training camp started. The goal was partly financial. Griffin hoped to live for the year off his sponsorship income, which could reach seven figures for someone with his national appeal, and put all his Redskins earnings — more than $14 million in bonus and salary — in savings.

“I’ve definitely been busy, but I’ve found my pockets of time to chill out and relax for three or four days, and make sure I can spend some time with my family before I have to go off,” Griffin said. “I usually ask myself, ‘Am I doing too much?’ And usually when I ask myself that, I am. And I haven’t asked myself that.”

The Redskins and Griffin’s agents at Creative Artists Agency did their part to keep Griffin’s schedule clear by limiting his media availability. He did almost no one-on-one interviews between the draft and the start of training camp, other than those arranged by sponsors, who traded access to Griffin for exposure for their products.

But from the outside, it appeared as if Griffin was everywhere. He did Leno. He posed for pictures with Snoop Dogg at an Adidas event. He won an ESPY, and walked the red carpet. His first Adidas commercial, a dark, futuristic spot titled “Do What Light Does,” went viral on Twitter.

The summer seemed to breeze by without a hitch, save for one thing: In late June, news broke that Griffin had been the victim of an alleged extortion plot by a former Baylor walk-on basketball player. The scheme was broken up by the FBI, and the basketball player, Richard Hurd, was arrested.

Although the existence of such a plot, naturally, shook Griffin’s inner circle, nothing ever emerged about the derogatory information Hurd claimed to have. The story disappeared in less than 48 hours.

“We have nothing to hide,” Jacqueline Griffin said. “So we’re not worried about it. It seems like high-profile people, whether they’re an athlete or an actor or whatever, they come under a lot of scrutiny and people are trying to dig and dig. I’m not saying [Robert is] perfect or we’re perfect, but there’s nothing you’re going to find that’s gonna be. . .  I mean, good luck.”

Moving on

On July 8, Griffin and his fiancee, Rebecca Liddicoat, stood together in the middle of his near-empty, off-campus apartment in Waco, having just finished boxing up all their belongings for the move to Washington, and cried.

“I didn’t feel any kind of sadness until it was done,” Griffin said later. “When I saw the apartment empty, that’s when I knew this chapter was closing. It was tough for me to go to campus and say, ‘See you later’ to people I’d been working with for years. That’s where I had sweated. That’s where I tore an ACL and recovered from it. That’s where I won a Heisman and [where] we won 10 games [in 2011]. We did so many great things there.

“To leave that all behind and move on to something new, it was sad. There were a lot of tears.”

The next day, still overcome by emotion and “just having a moment,” as he would say later, Griffin jumped on his Twitter account and tweeted pointed questions to some of his Redskins teammates, with the hashtag #KnowYourWhy. “Why do you play the game? Why do you sacrifice?”

“I was kind of just feeling like, this part of my journey is over. It really hit me hard,” he told the Web site Rant Sports. “. . . I know my why. I sacrifice for my teammates. I want to make my family proud. So I know my why. I just want them to know theirs.”

From Waco, Griffin’s belongings traveled on a moving van up I-35 toward Dallas, and eventually made their way east along I-30, I-40 and I-81 towardNorthern Virginia, where they were unloaded into a rental home in a gated community not far from Redskins Park.

Griffin and Liddicoat found the house on their own — they plan being to rent this year, and buy in 2013 — with some direction from the Redskins. Griffin’s mother, who had helped her son move into his Waco apartment four years earlier, made a point of staying out of it this time, in deference to Liddicoat. “That’s a good thing for them to experience together,” she said. “It’s gearing towards their future.”

Theirs was a highly typical house-hunting experience for new transplants to the Washington area, characterized first and foremost by sticker shock.

“Robert’s a very frugal kid,” his father said. “He was shocked [by the prices]. He called me — they were looking at a place, following the [Redskins’ suggestions]. And that harsh reality — everyone who knows him knows he’s not going to be some guy spending wildly. But he had to make a choice, and he felt it was important to be close to the [Redskins] facility, so he did it.

“I want him to live at middle class. Now, the rent he’s gonna pay is not middle class, but his expenditures away from the rent will be. And that’s important to me. If I see something I don’t like, he’s gonna get it from me.”

Before the Waco apartment was packed up, before the final move east, before the start of training camp, Griffin’s parents visited him at Baylor one last time.

Griffin and his dad worked out together and threw the football around. And Griffin and his mom set aside some time for their own ritual, the one they had followed together since Robert was a boy. He sat in a chair, and she stood behind him and braided his hair, painstakingly twisting each lock just so, giving her son his trademark look.

Usually, this was their time to talk — “Mommy time,” she sometimes called it. But this time, Jacqueline Griffin worked in near-silence, and Robert Griffin III kept his eyes — and his focus — on something else the entire time: the Washington Redskins playbook that stayed open on his lap, thick with schemes and possibilities.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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