NEW ORLEANS — The boy was 7 years old and soft, at least by the impossibly hard standards of the Iberville housing projects. His prized ponytail served only to trumpet the fact he was different, an outsider, and when the other kids teased him about it, he cried. But there was something about the kid: He was gifted of mind and body, smart and fast. It was time to put him on a football field.
The boy’s father, an Army sergeant deployed to South Korea, had been bugging the folks back home to make sure his son got signed up for some sports while his parents were overseas. And in Louisiana, sports meant football. So the job fell to Uncle Shane Griffin, who, one Saturday morning in 1997, dutifully loaded his nephew, young Robert, in the back seat of his car and pointed it toward a nearby rec center.
But halfway there, suddenly fearful of what might happen out there on the inner-city gridiron to little Robert Griffin III, the youngest of Jacqueline and Robert Griffin Jr.’s three children, Uncle Shane turned the car around. The boy, skinny and quiet, with big innocent eyes, was staying with his Louisiana relatives only temporarily, while his mom and dad were doing their tour in South Korea.
Uncle Shane figured it would be a good idea if he were returned to them in one piece.
“I said to myself, ‘Man, these project kids are gonna tear him up, and Jackie would never forgive me if something happened to him,’ ” Shane Griffin recalled. “So I didn’t even sign him up. We went and got some snowballs instead.
“And I look back now — I was driving around with the future Heisman Trophy winner. And I didn’t even sign him up! Can you imagine that?”
Some 15 years later after destiny was delayed by the conscience of a loyal uncle, Robert Lee Griffin III will finally make his football debut in the city he calls “my true home town.” Home, Griffin has said, is where you go for Christmas every year, and for the Griffins that was — and to a certain extent still is — New Orleans, where both his parents were born and raised, and where dozens of family members still reside.
Griffin returns to New Orleans on Sunday as the rookie quarterback of the Washington Redskins, and the No. 2 overall pick of the NFL draft. Shortly after 1 p.m., he will make perhaps the most anticipated regular season debut in Redskins history, against the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome.
Now 22, Griffin is already a man in full, with a $21.1 million contract, a ubiquitous nickname (RGIII) and the hopes of a franchise resting on his shoulders. The Heisman Trophy, earned as a junior at Baylor in 2011, sits on the mantel of his suburban Virginia home. He has a fiancee, Rebecca Liddicoat, whose high school class ring he wears around his neck day and night, alongside a dog tag with a Bible quote from Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ ”
Griffin’s time in New Orleans, which came in 1996-97 when he and his two sisters were forced to stay behind while his parents were deployed in South Korea, instilled in him an appreciation for family, a tolerance for humidity, a foolproof recipe for beignets and a healthy dose of street-smarts.
But mostly, what New Orleans gave him was a toughness he didn’t have before he arrived there. He saw rats for the first time in New Orleans. He had an achy tooth pulled via a string tied to a doorknob that a cousin subsequently slammed shut. Eventually, he even learned to tune out the teasing.
The elder Robert Griffin Jr. remembers picking his kids up from New Orleans at the end of the deployment, and taking them to Copperas Cove, Tex., near Fort Hood, where the family settled for good. In the younger Robert, there was something new, something different. His boy was tougher and stronger. He was ready to be an athlete.
“I think it was a good experience for Robert, because he got to see a side of life he had no idea about,” Jacqueline Griffin said. “Because of that, he could appreciate — and all my kids could appreciate — what we, his mother and father, sacrificed so they would never have to see that type of lifestyle.”
Born in Okinawa, Japan and raised primarily in Texas, Griffin nonetheless — because of his deep roots and his name — is as much a product of New Orleans as of anywhere. And it is worth pondering, as his parents sometimes do, whether Robert Griffin III would have grown up to be the man he is today without that time in New Orleans.
“I looked around, and all I saw were skyscrapers,” Robert Griffin Jr. said of his own New Orleans youth. “I read about mountains in a book once. I wanted to see mountains. I wanted to see the world.”
The Iberville projects, where Robert Griffin Jr. and his seven siblings were raised, sit in central New Orleans, just off the western edge of the French Quarter and about eight blocks from the Superdome, where all four Griffin boys worked as teenagers, selling popcorn at Saints games.
Every Mardi Gras, the Griffins staked out the same spot on the corner of Bienville and Basin for the Zulu parade, the kids shrieking when the first costumed paraders bent off Canal Street and headed down Basin.
It was here that Robert Griffin Jr. and his younger brother Rodney became playground legends in football and basketball — until their dreams of athletic glory petered out, and they joined the Army on their 18th birthdays, roughly a year apart.
“If these walls could talk,” Rodney Griffin, a sergeant first class who is now an Army recruiter, said one recent morning, standing in the grassy courtyard between brick houses, beneath the shade of a Southern live oak, “they’d still be talking about the battles we had on those playgrounds.”
And it was here, years later, that little Robert Griffin III, along with his older sisters Jihan and De’Jon, lived for the last six months of their 14-month stay in New Orleans.
To family members, 7-year-old Robert was known as Lil’ Rob, just as his father had been a generation before. But for everyone else, it was far easier to remember a striking physical feature than a common name, so he became known as Ponytail. His objections to the unwanted nickname only made it stick firmer.
“When he started gaining notoriety at Baylor, all my buddies were like, ‘Wait — that’s not Ponytail, is it?’” Shane Griffin said. “And I’m like, ‘Yep, that’s him.’ ”
Ponytail was the kid who bounced his basketball all day and slept with it all night, who dreamed of being the next Michael Jordan, who soaked up family stories about his father’s own hoops exploits.
“I used to tell him, ‘You ain’t as good as your daddy was,’ ” Shane Griffin said.
Though the circumstances were far from ideal, Jacqueline and Robert Jr. were comfortable sending their children to stay in Iberville because of who was running the household. Irene Griffin, known as “Mami” to all her grandchildren, had raised eight kids in the projects — largely on her own, because her husband, Robert Griffin Sr., had gone blind from glaucoma in his 30s before passing away at the age of 43 from a brain aneurysm.
On Sundays, the Griffins would all pile into the parents’ bed — “Everyone had their assigned spot on the bed,” Rodney Griffin said — to watch football on the only working TV in the house. They were all Saints fans, of course, but in those days the Saints were so bad, everyone had a secondary team they rooted for.
Irene Griffin’s team was the Redskins.
“There was something about the way they were called the ‘Over the Hill Gang’ that I liked,” she said.
This March, when the Redskins traded four draft picks to the St. Louis Rams for the rights to the No. 2 overall pick in the April draft — with the intent of picking Robert Griffin III — Shane Griffin called his mom and said, “Guess who might get drafted by your team?”
“She said, ‘I remember when Vince Lombardi coached that team,’ ” Shane Griffin said. “And I said, ‘Vince Lombardi? He never coached the Redskins.’ So I Googled it, and sure enough the last year he coached was with the Redskins.”
To get to the final resting place of Robert Griffin Sr., head east out of town to Resthaven Memorial Park, and park alongside Old Gentilly Road. Walk along the northern edge of the cemetery, through marshy grass that sucks at your shoes, and start looking carefully. There’s not much to give away its presence.
Some of New Orleans’s cemeteries are popular tourist attractions, famed for their above-ground tombs with ornate headstones, and for the legends of voodoo queens and ghosts said to inhabit them. Resthaven is not one of those cemeteries.
Robert Griffin Sr.’s gravestone is a simple plaque, partially covered in a layer of dust and grass clippings: “IN LOVING MEMORY / HUSBAND AND FATHER / ROBERT L. GRIFFIN / SEPT. 17, 1941 / SEPT. 27, 1984,” it says simply.
He was a hard man, a tough man, with big hands that could seemingly put together or tear down anything. Asked if his father gave preferential treatment to Robert Jr., by virtue of his being his namesake, Rodney Griffin said, “No, he was equally hard on all of us.”
Until the glaucoma forced him to stop working, his mood varied according to how close it was to payday. “When he told us he was going to the bank,” Robert Jr. said, “that was a great day for us.”
Robert Griffin Sr. never asked for much of anything. But before he died, he made one firm request of his oldest son: Name your first-born son Robert. Keep the line going.
“He wanted to have a bunch of Robert Griffins, a whole line of them, for generations,” Robert Jr. said. “So our first boy was going to be named Robert. That was never any question, never any regrets.”
This much is clear: Though he never knew his third-generation namesake, RGI would have loved RGIII.
“He would have been extraordinarily proud of what this young man is doing,” said Irene Griffin, his widow. “Even though he couldn’t see, he’d be there watching and having people telling him what Robert is doing.”
Robert Jr.’s own relationship with his father’s name was complicated by the fact that the suffix — “Junior” — gnawed at him, making him feel less of a man.
“My mom or dad, and my oldest sister, they could get away with it,” he said, “but anybody else referring to me like that? I didn’t like it.”
For the same reason, Griffin corrected anyone who tried to refer to his son as Trey. He also wasn’t crazy about “Lil’ Rob.” “I only saw negative connotations to that,” he said. “I wanted him to be called Robert.”
Nor did anyone ever think to call the boy “the third” — until the day the younger Griffin, then 18, suited up for his first game at Baylor in 2008. In the stands that day, Robert Griffin Jr. was stunned to see “GRIFFIN III” across his son’s back. The gesture, the younger Griffin would say later, was intended to honor his grandfather’s memory and his father’s sacrifices.
He has been Robert Griffin III ever since — except when he is RGIII, a nickname coined by a Waco, Tex., sportscaster — and he will have GRIFFIN III across his back today when he takes the field for the first time in his ancestral home. The symbolism is not lost on the young quarterback.
“It will be special for me to have my whole family there, to be able to watch the Griffin name on the back of a jersey in the NFL for the first time,” he told reporters Wednesday. “For my family, it will be huge.”
Seven years after Hurricane Katrina blew through and put his first floor under six feet of water, John Ross is just now getting around to rebuilding the house he has owned for the last 36 years, where he raised his children, including the former Jacqueline Ross.
That’s how it is with the most sought-after contractors in New Orleans: They rebuild everyone else’s homes before they get around to their own.
“I’ve probably done 40, maybe 50, maybe more,” Ross said, standing outside the gutted shell of his house on Desaix Boulevard in the City Park neighborhood of New Orleans. “I helped mostly elderly people, because after the storm, these contractors were ripping off people. It made me sick.”
Like most folks in New Orleans, the Griffins and Rosses can divide their lives into two periods: pre-Katrina and post-Katrina. When the storm hit, it scattered members of the extended family in all directions — to Shreveport, Nacogdoches, Birmingham, Houston.
In Copperas Cove, where Robert Griffin III was then 15 and a rising star in track and field, Jacqueline and Robert Griffin Jr. opened their doors to a dozen family members who had been forced to evacuate. Some of them, their houses destroyed, stayed for a year, and one, Jacqueline’s grandmother, Evelyn B. Thomas, never went back. Now 86, she lives in California with her oldest son.
“She just couldn’t go back,” Jacqueline Griffin said. “It was just more than she could bear. To see her house in ruins like that — it was too hurtful to her.”
For Robert Griffin III, Katrina marks a different sort of dividing line in his relationship with his ancestral home. After Katrina, the trips to New Orleans became less frequent, as Robert and his sisters rose through high school and college, and eventually went their own ways.
“I remember New Orleans after Katrina, and just the devastation that occurred and how many of my family members . . . lost their houses and had to start over,” the younger Griffin said Wednesday. “I do have great memories of it from my childhood, but as of lately, I haven’t been back as much. The last image in my head is from Katrina.”
The young man moves so effortlessly between worlds now, between roles, between seemingly opposite traits. He deftly straddles the line between confidence and humility that defines a successful rookie. He veers seamlessly from irreverent goofball to playbook scholar, from the darling of media members and marketers to the trusted leader of his teammates.
There is never a false note, never a hint of artifice. If you don’t know anything else about Robert Griffin III, you know he was raised right.
How much of that adaptability stems from those 14 months in New Orleans while his parents were overseas, when he and his sisters lived in four different houses, with four different sets of relatives, changing schools with each move?
“I think the experience in New Orleans helped prepare them for life,” Jacqueline Griffin said of her children. “They can thrive in any environment they’re in.”
Sunday, Griffins and Rosses all over New Orleans will be doing their own type of shifting between worlds.
Shane Griffin paints his face black and gold for Saints games. Rodney Griffin has season tickets in Section 344. John Ross dresses in Saints paraphernalia every fall Sunday and watches games at Smokin’ Jo’s tavern on Frenchman Street.
But at least for today, they are all Redskins fans.
“Yes, we are Saints fans — of course we are. We are from New Orleans, born and raised and went to school here,” Rodney Griffin said. “But that’s a Griffin [on the Redskins]. This is one of ours. It’s a win-win situation. We’ve got the Saints, and Robert Griffin. In New Orleans.”
Imagine that. Opening day in New Orleans, and there will be one Robert Griffin on the field, another in the stands, and yet another watching from above, clear-eyed and smiling. If it’s true that Robert L. Griffin Sr. never dreamed of a day like this during his days on earth, that’s only because he never had a chance to meet the young man.
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