“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.
‘That’s not Ponytail, is it?’
“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.’ ”