“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.