“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.