Robert Griffin III: Poised to handle the pressure

Sally Jenkins
Columnist March 11, 2012

The most important fact about Robert Griffin III is the numeral after his name. Look at it. It’s dead straight, and it tells you exactly who he is. Don’t let the broken-play dazzle of Griffin distract you, with his across-the body throws, and his high-stepping in those knee-length white socks, pretty-legged as a Rockette. This guy is all about straight lines. He’s a man with a plan, and there’s not a trace of a bend in it.

Every single thing Griffin has set out to do, he accomplished. Every one. If you want to know why the Washington Redskins aren’t fearful he will be a bust, why they paid such a ransom for the second overall pick in the NFL draft in hopes of getting the Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor, despite the long history of teams who have been fooled by a young quarterback’s too-good-to-be-trueness, look at the numeral.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

It’s less about inheritance than a family’s self-betterment from one generation to another, each laying down track for the next. His grandfather, the first Robert Griffin, was a construction worker who hauled himself out of the New Orleans projects. The second Robert Griffin spent 21 years in the U.S. Army working his way from enlistee to sergeant first class. He and his wife Jacqueline, who also served as a sergeant, trained their son with an Army-inspired creed that hard work and good planning are moral values.

Two weeks ago, RGIII was asked to describe himself to observers at the NFL’s annual scouting combine. “Military kid, both my parents were in the military,” is what he answered. “Mom did 12 years, Dad did 21, served in two wars. Discipline was something that was obviously huge. If you say you’re going to do something, you do it. If you start it, you finish it. ‘Yes, sir’; ‘no, ma’am.’ You’ve got to have that kind of structure in your life.”

A child of Army parents “has to manage some things maybe sooner than they should have to,” Robert Griffin Jr. observed in a phone interview. The Griffins changed duty stations frequently, “and none of them was easy.” They were in Okinawa, South Korea, Fort Carson, Fort Lewis and Fort Hood. While Robert Jr. worked his way up the ranks as a petroleum specialist, Jacqueline held a succession of good jobs in the “head sheds,” the offices of the commanding general at their various posts.

At 11:30 p.m. on the night that Robert III turned 13 years old, the phone rang in the Griffins home at Fort Hood. The Army didn’t care that it was the boy’s birthday. Robert Jr. was being deployed the very next morning to Kuwait, to serve in the war in Iraq. “You’re in charge,” he told his son. “Don’t change anything while I’m gone, and stay away from the TV.” He didn’t want him to follow the war on TV and be frightened. RGIII, without being asked, decided it was his duty to protect his mother and sisters from the news as well. Whenever he caught them watching it, he would flip the set off. Instead the family relied on phone calls from Robert Jr. for their news. Fortunately, Ted Koppel was embedded with his unit, and he borrowed the Koppel crews’ international cellphones to call home regularly.

Shortly after returning home at the end of 2003, Robert Jr. finally decided to retire — Jacqueline had taken her own retirement in 1998 — and the family settled permanently in Copperas Cove, Tex., near Fort Hood, to finish raising their children, Robert, and his older sisters Jihan, a teacher’s aide, and Dejan, a department store manager. The Griffins considered that life in the service had been a worthwhile exchange.

“It provided my wife and myself a chance to achieve some things we wanted to do as individuals,” Robert Jr. said. “We elevated ourselves economically and career-wise.”

In fact, he said, they had “loved” the Army.

The rules in the Griffin house were simple and strict: Homework was the first duty. There was no hanging around without a purpose. Nobody got a car — kids didn’t need wheels. But along with rules came incentives: Top grades earned extra allowance. “The only thing Robert did was homework and play ball,” Copperas Cove High School football coach Jack Welch said. “He was very grounded, very rooted.”

When RGIII showed promise as an athlete the Griffins decided they could do worse than train him according to military principles. In addition to being a spectacular football player, he was a potential Olympic-caliber hurdler, and Robert Jr., who dabbled as a part-time track coach, took over his physical workouts. Jacqueline videotaped every single one of his practices. Together, the Griffins would review game tapes as if they were after-action reports. To correct his mistakes, they showed him tape of star athletes who did it the right way, Olympic hurdlers and NFL quarterbacks.

“The discipline the military has, the forethought, the planning, the backup planning, the after-action reviews, when I started to train Robert those are some of the tools we utilized,” Robert Jr. said. “They were expected in the military. It was part of our development as adults.”

After football practice at Copperas Cove High, when other kids were relaxing, Jack Welch would watch open-mouthed as RGIII would pull a tire with his father. Then “you would see him running the road on the way back to his house, up the hills,” Welch said.

By his senior year in high school, RGIII was class president and not only had earned his diploma early, he graduated seventh among his peers. “He was a scholar,” Welch said. He had also qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials as 400-meter hurdler, and was being recruited by most of the major football powers. He was a stunningly diverse talent, according to Welch.

“There are some who can run awfully fast, and some who can throw awfully hard,” Welch said. “But you have not seen one as brilliant, and intelligent, and elusive. He puts all the ingredients together.” To top it off, he was a superb leader, though he exercised what Welch called a subtle “servant-type” leadership, always bringing doughnuts to his linemen and deflecting credit.

Most of the schools recruiting him, however, were so in love with his sprinter’s speed that they wouldn’t promise to use him at quarterback. Instead they wanted to transform him to a receiver or running back. He discarded those, and instead committed to Art Briles and Baylor, which also had a world-class track program under director Clyde Hart, who coached sprinter Michael Johnson.

“We recruited him as much for who he was as what he looked like,” Baylor track coach Todd Harbour said.

He was far more than a fast athlete, Briles decided, after watching videotape with him during a recruiting visit — monitored by his mother, who sat quietly in a corner.

“He’s extremely gifted athletically, with tons of natural ability,” Briles said, “but the great thing about Robert is, he’s not satisfied living on his ability. He wants to be a great technician, great from a schematic standpoint, and when you put those two together, he can be the best there is.”

RGIII went off to Baylor “with a plan,” his father said. He kept it largely to himself, telling only his mother: In addition to being the best quarterback in college football, he intended to surprise his sister by beating her to graduation, though she is 18 months older. He embarked on an accelerated course load in political science. True to his word, he would finish in three years, making the dean’s list twice.

The football part of his plan developed a little more slowly, because three games into his sophomore year he blew an anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. He dealt with the injury in typical Griffin fashion. He was a workout fanatic whom Briles would find in the weight roomon Friday and Saturday nights. He and his father studied all of Briles’s passing plays and receiver routes. During his rehab, he sat in a chair in a field and threw passes to his father, who stood in the spots where the receivers were supposed to be. The result was that he returned more accurate.

“People said he came back better,” Robert Jr. said. “But he never stopped.”

The exploits that won him the Heisman Trophy this season are well-known, but fun to repeat: He posted a stunning 72 percent completion rate for 3,998 yards and 36 touchdowns to lead the nation in efficiency and Baylor to a 10-3 season. And he did it for a downtrodden program that hadn’t won nine games in a quarter-century. At the start of his Baylor career, the team had been a joke.

“It’s not the experience everybody wants to go through,” he observed, “When you walk into class and teachers are making fun of you.”

Griffin’s determination to put an entire program on his shoulders and carry it back to prominence is just one more facet that makes him so attractive to the Redskins, who are seeking a similar turnaround after a decade of mediocrity.

“The rebuilding of a foundation and expectations of excellence at Baylor University has never been an easy job, and I say job but it was really our duty as a team to do that,” Griffin said after the season.

The job of headlining a team seeking a return to prominence is one he’s familiar with. What won’t be familiar is the pressure that comes with being the subject of one of the most expensive trades in draft history. The Redskins gave up their first- and second-round picks in this year’s draft, plus their first-round selections in 2013 and 2014 to the St. Louis Rams in hopes of procuring his talents. But those who know Griffin predict he will carry the weight easily.

“What he sets his mind to, he’s going to get done,” Harbour said.

It’s the nature of the league, of course, that rookie quarterbacks, no matter how gifted, struggle to live up to their pre-draft hype. If the Redskins indeed get RGIII, what should they realistically expect?

“A very determined young man who has worked really hard in his craft,” said his father. If Griffin continues to marry determination and craft with talent and pure speed, there is the possibility of a transcendently great player. Perhaps the best epigram for Griffin came from his Baylor coach, Briles, when informed him he was leaving school for the draft.

“Don’t go chase that dream,” Briles told him approvingly. “Go catch it.”

For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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