Robert Griffin III’s triumphant return to Texas

November 25, 2012

He stood on the iconic blue star at the 50-yard line at Cowboys Stadium, expressionless, looking around in all directions. It was early afternoon, some three hours before kickoff, and Robert Griffin III was still in a sport coat and slacks, wearing headphones, absently mouthing the lyrics to a song.

All around, the stadium was starting to come to life for the Thanksgiving Day game between the Washington Redskins and the host Dallas Cowboys. Workers were prepping the field. A giant American flag lay rolled up on the turf behind him. Fresh off the Redskins team bus, Griffin didn’t notice any of it. He appeared lost in thought.

Barely 48 hours later, Griffin, now wearing a green, long-sleeved Baylor University T-shirt, rushed out to nearly the exact same spot on the Cowboys Stadium field, celebrating his alma mater’s overtime victory along with his ex-teammates. He hugged them, told them he loved them, and finally left when no one needed any more pictures with him.

In between those midfield moments, Griffin, 22, floated through what was one of the most satisfying weekends of his life. On Thursday, in his professional debut in his home state of Texas, he led the Redskins to a 38-31 win over the Cowboys that put his team back in playoff contention and had analysts wondering whether he was the most valuable player of the NFL.

On Saturday, with Baylor playing Texas Tech, he walked around the same stadium like Elvis in Memphis — the Homecoming King — his superstardom somehow dialed up to yet another level. If he posed for one picture over the course of the weekend, he posed for a thousand. If he dispensed one hug, he dispensed a hundred. If he hugged one baby, he hugged a dozen.

And if he broke one Cowboys fan’s heart, he broke a million. For that matter, he also may have stolen a few, judging by the audible chants of “R-G-3! R-G-3!” that broke out across Cowboys Stadium during the Redskins’ win.

“It’s hard to put into words,” he said before departing the stadium Saturday evening, “but I definitely appreciate this weekend. It was just very gratifying.”

Thanksgiving: Redskins-Cowboys

In the freezer of Jackie and Robert Griffin Jr.’s home in Gaithersburg — where they moved this fall to be closer to their son — is a fully cooked, reheatable, ready-to-eat, New Orleans-style Thanksgiving dinner: Turkey, gumbo, dressing, sweet potato pies.

Jackie Griffin had cooked it all over the preceding weekend, a labor of love, intending for it to be eaten by her son, Robert III, his fiancee, Rebecca Liddicoat, and a few family members the day after Thanksgiving, after the Redskins returned home from Texas.

“I have to make about 20 pies,” she had said the week before, “because Robert will eat half of them.”

But Griffin had long ago circled this weekend on his calendar. What were the chances his Redskins and his Baylor Bears, the team for which he won the Heisman Trophy a year ago, would play on the same field two days apart? He began bugging Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan about the possibility of staying in Texas for the weekend some two weeks ago, and Shanahan finally relented on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, giving the entire team the weekend off.

“Well,” Jackie Griffin said, “I guess we’ll all have Thanksgiving dinner a week late.”

Robert Griffin III grew up in Copperas Cove, Tex., about 170 miles from Cowboys Stadium, and played collegiately at Baylor, about 100 miles away. So large is his influence in this part of Texas that ESPN 1660, a Cowboys Radio Network affiliate in Waco, now broadcasts Redskins games as long as they don’t conflict with the Cowboys.

Griffin’s father estimated the family knew more than 1,000 of the 90,166 fans who ultimately attended the Cowboys game, and sure enough, as the younger Griffin did his traditional pregame lap around the field, he had to stop every 20 feet or so to greet another familiar face.

One of them was David Windham, a former football player who appeared in three games as a replacement player for the Redskins during the strike-shortened 1987 season, and a family friend of the Griffins whose daughters ran for Robert Griffin Jr.’s youth track team in Copperas Cove.

“I remember the first time I met Robert,” Windham said of the younger Griffin. “He was 12 years old, and it was at a track meet. I immediately called up all my friends and my brothers and said, ‘I just saw the next world’s greatest athlete.’ This kid was destined for stardom. He was doing all the events back then — high jump, long jump, hurdles — and was winning all of them.

“I asked him, ‘Son, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ He said, ‘It’s not about what I want to be, sir — it’s what I will be. I will be an NFL quarterback, and I will be a lawyer.’ ”

On the sideline during warmups, Griffin’s family soaked in the atmosphere.

There was little Jania, his 4-year-old niece, wearing a Redskins cheerleader skirt and buttons bearing her uncle’s likeness. There was his mother, Jackie, sitting on the turf with Jania in her lap. There was his father, Robert Jr., studying his son’s mechanics as he unleashed practice throws and checking his own cellphone, which was blowing up with text messages from friends inside the building and out. For a while, Robert Jr. was toting around Jania’s Dora the Explorer stuffed doll, itself clad in a tiny Redskins hoodie.

Before departing the field, Robert came over for a kiss (from Mom), a hug (from Dad) and a fist-bump (from Jania). Jania wanted more time with her uncle, and ran crying into her grandmother’s arms when Griffin ran off toward the tunnel leading to the Redskins’ locker room.

“Go out there,” Shanahan told Griffin just before kickoff, “and be you.”

Later, in their seats as the first half played out, with the Redskins surging to a 28-3 lead, Griffin’s parents looked at each other in amazement as the boos of disgruntled Cowboys fans melted into chants of “R-G-3!” Had a visiting player ever heard his name chanted at Jerry Jones’s football palace? No one could recall another example.

After the game, with the Redskins holding on for the victory, Griffin emerged from the Redskins’ locker room and hustled down a corridor toward a group of hundreds of fans, signing their autographs with astonishing efficiency.

He brushed off attempts at small talk in the interest of signing as many ticket stubs, jerseys and programs as possible — “Robert Griffin III #10,” he wrote — until he came to a Dallas fan wearing a blue-on-white Cowboys replica No. 82 jersey of tight end Jason Witten. The fan, 22-year-old Connor Farquharson of Fort Worth, was pointing to his chest. Griffin suddenly looked up.

“You want me to sign it right here?” he asked incredulously.

Farquharson nodded, and Griffin smiled as he ran his Sharpie across the young man’s jersey — directly above his Cowboys-loving heart — with a flourish, each pillar in “III” growing longer than the last until the signature took up the entire top half of the jersey.

“I love the Cowboys,” Farquharson explained a few moments later, “but I don’t know — this guy is from here, and I’ve never seen anybody throw the deep ball like him. He’s just different. It’s impossible for me to hate him.”

Friday: Visiting former teammates

Griffin doesn’t like to watch NFL analysis during the season, but had he turned on ESPN’s “First Take” on Friday morning in his hotel room, following his four-touchdown performance against the Cowboys the day before, he would have heard the talking heads debating whether he was a legitimate MVP candidate. Had he switched to the NFL Network, he would have heard the analysts pondering whether Griffin was in the process of putting up the best rookie season in league history.

He doesn’t like to read the sports pages during the season, but had he picked up a copy of the Dallas Morning News at the gift shop, he would have seen a photo of himself, both index fingers raised to the sky after another touchdown, dominating the front page of the sports section, under a headline reading, “Power of III.”

The USA Today on the doorstep also featured his photo on the front of the sports section, and Liddicoat, unburdened by the same need to avoid media praise and hype at all costs, grabbed that one and stuck it in her suitcase.

“He tries not to look at any of it, which means I rarely see any of it either,” said Liddicoat, herself a Baylor alum. “But I saved that one.”

While most of the team had flown back east after the game, Griffin and Liddicoat kept their room at the Four Seasons and had a late Thanksgiving dinner at the hotel with their families — Liddicoat’s parents, Ed and Laura, had come in from Boulder, Colo. — and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and his family.

“That was one of the best parts of the weekend,” Liddicoat said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to do that with both our families.”

Now, on Friday, with everyone else gone, Griffin and Liddicoat’s mission was to lay low. Their biggest outing all day was a visit to the hotel spa for massages and mani-pedis.

But early Friday evening, Griffin had an appointment to keep. He had been asked by Baylor Coach Art Briles to address the Bears on Friday night at the team hotel, and Griffin was happy to oblige.

Griffin’s place in Baylor’s history is secure, having brought the program more glory during his 3½ seasons there than it had enjoyed in the previous quarter-century. His old locker at Floyd Casey Stadium is now encased in Plexiglas, a museum piece, and Baylor officials say the school’s new football stadium (sometimes called “The House That RGIII Built”), due to open in 2014, will almost certainly feature a statue of him out front.

When he went to speak to his old teammates — as a well as a handful of freshmen who had never played with him — he used no notes. He spoke for only a few minutes, but Bears players said later it was powerful.

“I just told them to cherish where they were, because the NFL is a different monster,” Griffin recalled the next day. “It’s not four or five years with the same group of guys, getting to build and grow and know each other. Just to cherish where they were, make the most of it, and then for those who get a chance go to the next level, to do it. I wanted to let them know I missed them, I loved them, and I was going to be there for them no matter what.”

Jerod Monk, a Baylor senior tight end, said Griffin underscored that last point. “He said, ‘If you have any issue, or need any kind of advice, feel free to call me,’ ” Monk said. “That shows you what kind of person he is.”

Saturday: Baylor’s game day

It was late morning on Baylor’s game day, and Griffin and Liddicoat were getting ready to leave for the stadium when the phone in their hotel room rang. There was a package for Griffin at the front desk. Could someone bring it up to them?

A few minutes later, a bellman knocked at the door and handed over the package. Griffin opened it, reached in and pulled out a DVD of “Cool Hand Luke.” It was a fitting conclusion to a running joke between Griffin and Shanahan that started after Thursday’s win, when Shanahan had compared Griffin to Paul Newman’s title character in the 1967 film. After Griffin admitted he had never heard of the movie, Shanahan vowed to send him a copy.

And here it was. Griffin immediately tweeted a picture of himself holding it up to his 500,000-plus followers.

“It’s too bad we don’t have a [DVD] player with us,” Griffin said later. “We’ll have to watch it when we get home.”

Griffin’s first stop when he reached the stadium, some 90 minutes before kickoff, was to the Baylor locker room, where he visited individually with his old friends. Then he headed down the tunnel toward the field, steeling himself for what was about to come.

No sooner had he stepped onto the turf, it started. Cries of “Robert!” from people who know him, and “RG3!” from people who don’t. All of them wanted a picture with him, and he obliged them all, in groups or individually, putting his arm around each subject and smiling into the camera.

He posed with the Baylor cheerleaders, the Bears’ training staff, and a group of Texas Tech male cheerleaders called the Saddle Tramps, each of them dressed in red and holding a cowbell. He took pictures with the referees, the chain gang and a quartet of Texas highway patrolmen.

Griffin stayed outside the Baylor locker room as Briles gave the players his final pep talk, then stood at the door as they emerged, slapping high-fives with each one, saying: “C’mon! Time to go to work! I love you guys!”

It was a typical Baylor shootout — the kind Griffin had trademarked a year ago — with the scores climbing into the 40s, and Griffin watched most of it while seated on an equipment trunk behind the bench, with Liddicoat by his side. Only a few times did he venture toward the bench or the sideline to provide some encouragement.

But as the minutes ticked down, Griffin stood on the trunk and motioned with his arms for the fans to get loud. In overtime, with Baylor up 52-45 and its defense facing a fourth and five to clinch the win, Griffin crept up toward the sideline. And when Texas Tech’s last-chance pass fell incomplete, he sprinted out toward midfield to join the celebration.

“Having him around was huge for us,” said senior wide receiver Lanear Sampson, one of Griffin’s closest friends at Baylor. “Any time he’s in the room, you can feel the energy.”

A few dozen more pictures, a few dozen more hugs, and Griffin and Liddicoat were in a car in the bowels of the stadium, headed back to the hotel. The plan was to work out together at the hotel, get to bed early and catch the first flight to Dulles on Sunday morning. On Monday, Griffin starts another work week as the quarterback of the Redskins, with the first-place New York Giants visiting FedEx Field the following Monday night.

What more could he have asked from the weekend? It played out as if scripted by Griffin himself: The wins came in pairs, the touchdowns came in bunches, the love came in bushels, and even the hatred of Cowboys Nation felt clean and full of more awe than bile.

“To play the way we played on Thursday,” Griffin said, “and then get to come to this game and watch the Bears become bowl eligible for the third straight year – it’s just been an amazing few days.”

But then Griffin’s phone started chirping. Some more people were looking to get pictures taken with him. Was he still around? Could he come to the field?

Griffin climbed out of the car and walked back through the tunnel. He draped his arms around a few more shoulders, smiled into a few more cameras, shook a few more hands. After the last one, he paused for a few seconds to make sure everyone was good.

And then he walked back to the car, his arm around Liddicoat, disappearing around a bend.

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