Robert Griffin III: Post-racial superstar or The One? Answer depends on who you are.

October 26, 2012

What do you see when you look at Robert Griffin III? 

Above all, you probably see the brilliance on the field, a quarterback capable of one day leading the Washington Redskins back to glory. Or, if the bigger picture matters, you probably note as well his commanding presence, his polish, the confident, charming smile. You can sense his character. He gets it, you figure. He’s special.

But if you are African American, and have lived in Washington a good long while, long enough to have internalized the complexities of being a Redskins fan in this city, you see so much more in Griffin. Chances are, you have gone beyond wondering if he is merely the franchise quarterback you’ve been craving, or simply the city’s newest superstar.

Chances are, after seeing what Griffin has done these past seven Sundays — after seeing him shred defenses, gain the admiration of everyone he encounters and navigate the media minefield without a single misstep — you’re beginning to believe he may be The One.

Someday, you knew he would finally arrive, right? The One: an athlete so brilliant, so likable, so rooted over time in the region’s culture, he would lift the entire community. A transcendent figure — less a messiah than a soulmate for the populace — who would be more than this city’s champion, but its face. Theoretically, it could have been anyone, but realistically, in this city, it could only be this: an electrifying, young African American quarterback for the Redskins.

“I think he can be that guy,” Redskins veteran linebacker London Fletcher said of Griffin, 22. “He’s what this franchise and this community have been looking for, for over 20 years — a superstar quarterback. But he’s more than that. He has the persona, the charisma, the talent. There’s another dimension he brings.

“He’s someone who can relate to anyone. You see everyone’s falling in love with him. But for African Americans, it’s an even different connection. In a lot of cities it might not mean as much. But this is Washington, D.C. It means a lot.”

For Griffin himself, the injection of race into his story usually has meant only negativity and stereotyping — colleges that recruited him out of high school but that wanted him to switch positions, or analysts who unfailingly compare him only to other black quarterbacks.

He was raised in a military household, by two now-retired Army sergeants who taught him to see the world without much regard to race, and those lessons continue to inform his worldview as a young adult.

“My parents raised me to not ever look at race or color,” Griffin said recently, “so it doesn’t have a big part in my self-identity. [But] I think it has played a big part in how other people view me, just going back to when I was a kid, to even now, doing the things that I’ve been able to do. As an African American, I think other people view that in a different way than I do.”

And yet, in a city where race remains a relevant issue — where even the name “Redskins” is charged with racial tension, and where old-timers still resent the fact the franchise was the last in the NFL to integrate in the 1960s — the symbolism of Griffin’s emergence goes beyond the mere question of how many Super Bowl titles or most valuable player awards he might win.

“When we got RGIII, it breathed new life into the fan base, particularly the African American fan base,” said lifelong Redskins fan Tshaka Cunningham, a research scientist for the Department of Veterans Affairs and an assistant professor of microbiology at Howard University. “We’d been in a drought for a long time in terms of star players who were African Americans.

“As an African American male myself, he gives me a great sense of pride. He’s someone who, as a father of two sons, I would be happy for my sons to look up to. I hope the Redskins go on to win Super Bowls under him and he becomes the Peyton Manning or Brett Favre of our area. The impact some elite quarterbacks have in their area — I can see him doing the same thing.”

“Every once in a while, someone comes along like that, someone who is the full package,” said Brian Mitchell, a former all-pro kick returner for the Redskins who is an analyst for CSN Washington and a sports-talk radio host on WTEM (980 AM). “Say what you want about Michael Jordan, but he knew how to handle himself both in an interview and on the basketball court. I’m not saying this kid will be Michael Jordan, but because of his ultimate intelligence, he can be at that level.”

Indeed, so new is this feeling, so complex is this dynamic, so deep is the history, so intense is the longing, so young is this superstar — that it is possible Griffin himself doesn’t even realize how much he matters here.

‘They don’t see color’

What do Griffin’s parents see when they look at their son?

Not long after April’s NFL draft — where the Redskins chose Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner out of Baylor University, with the second overall pick — an announcer on the ESPN program the Griffins were watching in their living room in Copperas Cove, Tex., referred to Washington as “Chocolate City.” That nickname, spawned by a 1975 hit song by Parliament, still resonates in D.C., despite it not being a majority-black city any longer. In central Texas, though? Not so much.

“I said, ‘What does that mean?’” said Jacqueline Griffin, Robert’s mother. “My husband started laughing. We love our race, don’t get me wrong. We wouldn’t change it for the world. But I had no idea that Washington was called Chocolate City. I was totally oblivious to that. So was my son. We just don’t talk about race in here.”

Jackie and Robert Griffin Jr. were both New Orleans natives who enlisted in the Army as teenagers, doing tours of duty in (among other places) Okinawa, Japan — where their son, Robert III, was born — and Korea before retiring from the Army and settling in Copperas Cove, just outside Fort Hood.

From the beginning, they chose to raise their three children — Robert has two older sisters — to be largely color-blind.

“They can thrive in any environment they’re in, because they don’t see color — which is something we really strive for in our lives,” Jacqueline Griffin said. “It’s not about somebody’s race — it’s about humanity. And God wants to love everybody, no matter their background. I don’t want them to see color. It’s not about that. Any experience we had dealing with racism, we always told our kids, ‘You learn from that. Don’t do that to others.’ ”

The fact Copperas Cove was so deeply intertwined with Fort Hood’s Army culture surely made the task easier. “Race wasn’t really an issue in Copperas Cove,” Robert Griffin Jr. said.

The Griffins can recall no incidents of outward racism that confronted young Robert as a youth. What there was, however, was a subtler form of prejudice: such as the occasional whispers, as Robert blossomed as a junior-varsity quarterback, that Copperas Cove High might not be ready for an African American quarterback.

“It wasn’t an easy ride, by any means. You always have to prove yourself as an African American,” Jacqueline Griffin said. “We told him: ‘You’ve got to work hard. Nothing is going to be given to you. . . . If you work hard at everything you do, no one’s going to see your race.’ People were saying Copperas Cove would never endorse an African American quarterback. But we as an African American family who didn’t believe in race, and didn’t raise our kids that way, didn’t want him to have that mind-set.

“So we continued to instill in him that it’s not about race. It’s about performance on the field. . . . And once they saw [how good he was], the whole community embraced it.”

A handful of colleges that recruited Griffin had designs on moving him to wide receiver or safety, but the Griffins focused on the ones who wanted him as a quarterback, eventually choosing the University of Houston and Coach Art Briles. When Briles subsequently accepted the top job at Baylor, Griffin went with him.

At Baylor, as at many private universities in the South, there were prevailing stereotypes of what African American athletes were like, and Griffin blew them all away. His appearance began to show a growing sense of individualism: He began styling his hair in his distinctive braids, and he wore crazy, colorful, cartoon-character socks. He decided to major in political science — then finished his bachelor’s degree in three years. He was as comfortable hanging out with white kids as with blacks.

“His personality just fit in with everybody, black or white,” said Baylor wide receiver Lanear Sampson, who came to Waco in the same recruiting class as Griffin, and who is now a senior. “It wasn’t hard for him to deal with people. He wasn’t your average African American quarterback. He was far from the stereotype.”

But some stereotypes die hard, and so when Griffin blossomed into a Heisman Trophy candidate his junior year, the Baylor athletic department went to great lengths to depict him first as a skillful passer, knowing that the media and public were conditioned to think of black quarterbacks as run-first athletes who could also throw.

“We never showed him running the ball,” said Heath Nielsen, Baylor’s assistant athletic director for communications. “We had great pictures of him running the ball — in one of them he looked exactly like the Heisman pose. But we always showed him throwing the ball, because we were trying to fight that perception.”

In Joseph Brown’s upper-level class on minority and ethnic-group politics, Griffin encountered African American students with more militant views on race than his, but Griffin was assertive in defending his more race-neutral outlook.

“If he disagreed with something — an author, a fellow student, or even me — he would give his perspective,” Brown said. “He made the class lively, in an intellectual way.” As Brown recalled it, Griffin struck a comfortable harmony between recognizing his heritage and refusing to be defined by it.

“He knows his heritage and his history,” Brown said. “But he didn’t view his heritage in such a way that it would restrict his perceptions of other people and his relationships with other individuals.”

Also at Baylor, he fell in love with a young woman from Colorado, Rebecca Liddicoat. On Oct. 23, 2010, a couple of hours after he had passed for 404 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Kansas State, Griffin proposed to her during a candlelit ceremony — complete with a love song Griffin himself had written for the occasion — in the Baylor indoor practice facility.

The fact Liddicoat was white scarcely mattered to Griffin’s immediate family.

“Their mind-set is, they love each other,” Jacqueline Griffin said. “Like she says to me, she doesn’t see him as African American; she sees him as a man. He doesn’t see her as a Caucasian woman; he sees her as a woman. My husband and I, and her parents, we all felt we did good — because they see each other as equal in every way.”

‘A post-racial athlete’

What does Robert Griffin III see when he looks at himself?

“I try to associate myself as just being myself — and being a person, an American citizen, going out there every day and just trying to be successful,” he said.

He is of no particular place: born in Japan, shuttled around as an Army brat early in his life, raised primarily in Texas — but without any outward traits that would peg him as a Texan. He calls New Orleans “home” because that is where his family has its roots and went for Christmas.

“Cultures are different wherever you go,” Griffin said in April, “and I try not to go in and [impose] my culture on anything. I think that’s a reflection of my military background. Having lived in so many places, you just go in it, see what’s going on and . . . try to make your niche [and remain] who you are.”

Some superstar athletes work hard to cultivate the sort of universal appeal that Griffin seems to come by naturally.

“I find myself wondering if he isn’t an example of what a post-racial athlete is,” said longtime Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon, now at ESPN. “When people thought Michael Jordan did that, it was a construct: ‘I’m going to try to be this.’ I don’t think RGIII has to try. He might just be the guy.”

It was Jordan — Griffin’s idol as a youngster — who famously said in 1990, when defending his refusal to endorse an African American Democratic Senate candidate in his home state of North Carolina, “Republicans buy shoes, too.” It was a backhand reference to his profitable Nike sneaker line, but the backlash against Jordan from the black community was strong.

You can already see a growing social awareness in Griffin, from his current involvement with the “Rock the Vote” movement (though he refuses to reveal whether he votes Republican or Democrat) to his visit to a Broad Run High School football game in Virginia earlier this month after being beckoned by students on Twitter.

“I grew up in the military,” Griffin told the Associated Press during a recent interview tied to a video-game promotion. “I’ve lived that life. I know that our soldiers are out there fighting for our right to vote, and they’re out there fighting for other countries’ rights to vote. . . . Guys have been dying for it, and we have to go out and exercise it.”

Still, for those with long memories, Griffin’s first steps in the community are a far cry from the days when Redskins players lived in the District and it was no big deal to see Darrell Green, the team’s longtime cornerback, walking down Georgia Avenue mingling with the people. Griffin and his fiancee live in a rented house just north of Leesburg.

“It’s not possible for [Griffin] to understand the angst [of being an African American Redskins fan in D.C], the pride, the whole nine yards,” Wilbon said. “And living in Ashburn is not going to get you there. It’s not his fault.”

He is also, remember, just 22 years old, still a rookie, and on a tight leash held by the Redskins, who severely limit his media and community-relations appearances.

“Give him time,” Mitchell said. “He has to be responsible to himself first. Once he understands the whole aspect of being a professional, everything he needs to know to be the best football player he can be, he can do other things.”

Stereotypes die slowly in the NFL, as well. It is fashionable to believe the league has moved beyond questions about prejudice toward black quarterbacks, but the fact remains, while more than 70 percent of the players in the NFL are African American, only 16 percent of starting quarterbacks (5 of 32) and only 17 percent of all quarterbacks on active rosters (14 of 81) are.

“The legacy we want our child to leave behind,” Jacqueline Griffin said, “is that he was a great quarterback in the NFL. Not about his race.”

‘Here in Chocolate City’

What does Washington see when it looks at Griffin?

“In reality, he’s an easy person to stereotype, from his appearance — he’s got the braids, he’s dark-skinned,” said former Redskins all-pro linebacker LaVar Arrington, now a Washington Post football analyst and sports-talk host on WJFK (106.7 FM). “But you just see the kid, not his race. You don’t say, ‘I’m proud he’s a black quarterback.’ You’re like, ‘Man, that’s RGIII.’ He transcends race — easily.”

But in pockets of Washington, not everyone wants him to transcend race.

“It’s extra-special to have him here in Chocolate City,” said Curtis Hughes of Capitol Heights, wearing a Griffin No. 10 Redskins jersey and sitting in a lawn chair at a tailgate before a recent game. “I have two sons, and to show them that your franchise quarterback can be black, and hold himself with so much dignity, it’s huge for me as a father.”

Here is what Washington does not see in RGIII: It does not see a post-racial superstar. For many District residents, there is no such thing as post-racial.

“I think that terminology, post-racial, in the black community is seen as being based on a false premise,” said Neville Waters, a spokesman for the D.C. Taxicab Commission and lifelong District resident and Redskins fan.

“It’s a wonderful thing to aspire to, but I’m just not sure it’s embraced here as reality. . . . I think people want to be beyond race, and I feel as if he’s a good representative of that. But I think there’s always going to be within the black community almost a protectiveness, because he is, quote-unquote, one of ours.”

Amy Alexander, a D.C.-based journalist and author of “Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention,” said, “If someone says that Griffin ‘transcends race,’ I look first at that speaker’s point of view and background.”

The last time an African American man arrived in Washington with such an overwhelming sense of hope, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the nation’s 44th president. As with Griffin, Obama’s appeal cut across racial divides, although, understandably, African Americans felt a deeper connection with the country’s first black president.

“We’ve got a president who has broken through some barriers, and now we have Robert doing the same thing,” said Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson, a Prince George’s County native who attended DeMatha High School and the University of Maryland. “He’s breaking through a lot of stigmas that come with being an African American quarterback. Hopefully, as more barriers are broken, people can start looking at everybody not in terms of what they look like, but who they are.”

The complexities of being both black and a Redskins fan in this city are well-known and well-examined. There was the failure to integrate until 1962 — after every other NFL team had already done so — and only then under pressure from the federal government.

There was the soaring high of seeing Doug Williams lead the Redskins to the Super Bowl title in the 1987 season — still the only African American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. And there was the sense of abandonment felt in parts of the District when the Redskins moved out of RFK Stadium and into FedEx Field in Landover in 1997.

More recently, there were the ugly endings to the tenures of Jason Campbell and Donovan McNabb, black quarterbacks who preceded Griffin with the Redskins in the past half-decade.

“The black quarterback in this area hasn’t had a long history and what seems like a fair shake,” Mitchell said.

Neither truly had a chance to become The One. Campbell, a former first-round pick, didn’t have the personality, and McNabb, who came to D.C. on the downside of his career, never had the time. Even Williams, who will always be a legend here because of the Super Bowl title in January 1988, was gone by 1989.

Griffin, though, has all the ingredients. Already being mentioned as a possible MVP candidate, he has the game. He has the youth. He has the personality. He has the character. And evidently, he has the desire.

“My job,” he said on an appearance on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” on Tuesday, “is to unite people. I try to unite this team, try to unite this city.”

Williams, now the head coach at Grambling State University, believes Griffin can do exactly that. “He’s exactly what the people of that city have been waiting on,” he said. “He’s what’s been missing. You don’t want to put the race card in it, but as a young black man, he handles himself as professionally as anyone possibly can, no matter what race they are.”

Williams, 57, hadn’t put on an NFL jersey in more than 20 years before asking someone at the Redskins to send him a Griffin III No. 10 jersey this summer. Now, he wears it while watching Redskins games on Sundays.

“I spoke to him by phone after the draft,” Williams said, “and what I told him was [that] he’s in one of the greatest cities in the league, in terms of putting their arms around a quarterback. I told him to be yourself, and they’ll love you to death.”

If Griffin is to be The One — and he has a long way to go — the trick eventually may be to bridge the gap between his own worldview, where race is not an important factor, and that of D.C.’s black community, where it is. Judging from the way Griffin has handled everything else in his life, it shouldn’t be hard for him to figure out. Just win some Super Bowls. Be yourself. Embrace the job of being a role model. Understand the city’s history.

“He doesn’t have to be marching for racial equality,” said Waters, the D.C. Taxicab Commission spokesman. “[Just be] a representative role model serving as an unspoken example of a fine, young, proud black man.”

“I really do hope he embraces the town and engages with these kids here,” said Cunningham, the Department of Veterans Affairs researcher. “The kids here definitely need these types of role models. The intelligence he brings, it’s so huge for the kids in the D.C. public school system.”

What do you see when you look at Robert Griffin III? Whatever it is you see — whether it’s The One, or just a good football player, or something in between — it almost certainly says more about yourself than about him.

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