By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 14, 2006
Cornelius Griffin spoke quietly into his cell phone the other day, his wife, Kimberly, on the opposite end of the line. "I'm at work, baby," he said. "I'll be home in three or four hours. Got to watch some film. Got to finish the work."
He drew the blue phone from his ear, pushed a button to hang up, and tucked it onto a shelf in his locker at Redskins Park. He pulled his hand back, but his gaze turned to the three photos he has taped up on the left side of his locker, the pictures of his baby girl Mikalah, just seven months old. Mikalah in a crib, a newborn. Mikalah wearing a smart, checked hat. Mikalah smiling, making her daddy smile right back at her.
"That's my girl," the Washington Redskins defensive tackle said. "That's who I have to bring up right. And I know I can, because I know how I was brought up."
Work and family, family and work. When Griffin and the Redskins take the field today in Seattle to face the Seahawks in the NFC playoffs, Griffin will be an embodiment of those forces, of work and family, because that is what shaped him from the days he ran across the Little League diamonds in tiny Brundidge, Ala., the kid who was always bigger than the others. He is 29 now. He stands 6 feet 3. He weighs 300 pounds.
He is one of the Redskins' most important defensive players, teammates and coaches say, and his presence in the middle of Washington's defense could go a long way toward determining the outcome of today's game, because Redskins' opponents gain 90 fewer yards per game when Griffin is on the field and healthy, getting that push through the opponents' line.
"Just the physical presence he brings makes a huge difference," said Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach-defense.
Griffin acknowledges all that, relishes it. But as he said, "No one knows what you go through." And it's possible, even as the Redskins preach togetherness and commitment as they try to win their seventh straight game, that very few of the men who see Griffin at his locker, who see him on the field, who see the way he looks at those pictures of Mikalah -- very few of them know what he went through that June night in Brundidge, when he came home from church and his daddy was dead.
Football? "What's football?" Griffin said.
Sure, his teammates know about his other struggles, his injuries, because they watched them happen and then saw the impact on Washington's defense. Two plays into the Redskins' worst game of the year, a 36-0 loss to the New York Giants on Oct. 30, Griffin sustained a painful injury to his hip flexor. He sat out the rest of the Giants game. He didn't play the next three weeks, not in a win over Philadelphia, not in narrow losses to Tampa Bay and Oakland. He barely played the next week, a crushing overtime loss to San Diego when the Chargers gained 397 yards, the most the Redskins allowed all year.
"It wasn't the same without him in there," linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "Cornelius is a crafty veteran. He's going to get out there and do things because he knows the tricks of the trade. After playing with him for two years, you get a feel for what he's going to do, and when someone else is in there, maybe they're not as quick or not as strong, and you react different, and it affects the whole defense."
The statistics argue exactly that. Maybe it's just coincidence. Maybe Griffin's absence came in the midst of a defensive swoon and wasn't, in fact, a primary cause. But the numbers are stark: In the 12 games, playoff and regular season, in which Griffin has played more than sparingly, the Redskins allowed an average of 267.9 yards. In the five games in which he barely appeared or did not play, they gave up an average of 359 yards.
Can one man in 11 -- and, mind you, Griffin isn't a playmaking linebacker or a shut-down cornerback -- make such a difference? Yes, said Williams.
"Just occupying more than one person," Williams said. "He's the kind of person that can take on two people and still win. He has a presence in his pass rush. Sometimes, maybe your defensive tackles aren't maybe some of the solid pass rushers in the league. But we think he's one of the better pass-rushing defensive tackles around."
Witness his four sacks, a total that places him third on the team behind Marcus Washington, a linebacker, and Phillip Daniels, a defensive end, positions from which sacks are supposed to come.
So while Griffin sat out the bulk of those five games, his teammates knew what he was going through because he was right there, chiming in about what they should try to do or what might happen next. "I was encouraging those guys," he said, and the calls were predictable. Third down! Step it up! Get off the field! Let's go.
But all the while, he was thinking the defensive struggles might have been limited if he had been out there.
"Sometimes," he said, "you don't know why things happen."
So it was that night in Brundidge, the little burg southeast of Troy, the kind of place that's small enough that the mayor lists his phone numbers -- business and home -- on the town's Web site. It is there now, where the signs on the way into town say, "Welcome to Brundidge, Home of Cornelius Griffin, No. 96, Washington Redskins."
It was the late spring of 1998, the time that was supposed to be the happiest in Griffin's life. After two years of failing to qualify academically to play Division I-A football, of competing at Pearl River Community College in Mississippi, he was finally going to the University of Alabama, finally getting the opportunity to pursue the dream his father, Willie "Buck" Griffin, had always told him he could achieve. Cornelius's father, known in Brundidge as "Willie Buck" as if the phrase was all one word, "was a workaholic," said Griffin's older brother, Willis. He'd work at a local condiment factory making mayonnaise and mustard from, say, 6 in the morning till 2:30 in the afternoon. He'd come home and work for eight or 10 more hours as a mechanic at his own business, Griffin's Garage. Later, he had his own trucking company.
"He was just real hard-working people," said Jimmy Ramage, the mayor of Brundidge. "His word was his bond. Bible Belt. That type of good folk."
"If one of his customers needed something done, he would work till he got it completed," Willis Griffin said. "If someone broke down somewhere, he'd go get them and fix the car and get them going again. He didn't want anyone to be stranded."
Least of all his family. Willie Buck Griffin was also a pastor, and he raised his seven kids in a Pentecostal background that provided simple and powerful guidelines. One of his favorite phrases resonates with the Griffin children now. If things were going a bit astray in school, Willie Buck would say, "Tighten up." If any of the kids showed signs of not following through on a commitment, they'd hear it again. "Tighten up," he'd say. Willie Buck Griffin never went to college. All of his children did. His three oldest daughters have master's degrees. His wife, Martha, the mother of his children, is on the verge of completing a degree in psychology at nearby Troy State.
"You were taught there's some things you just don't do," Cornelius said. "Your faith has got to be a lot stronger than the next person's. One person may give up, but you may not."
On Sunday, June 7, Willie Buck Griffin preached his sermon at Lily White Church of the Living God. "It was," Willis Griffin said, "like he preached his own funeral." Except they couldn't know it at that point. The next night, Willis Griffin got a call at 10:40, maybe 11 p.m. There had been an accident. Come quick. He raced to the site. He saw the police cars.
"The first thing, I smelled alcohol," Willis said, "and I thought, 'I can't believe a drunk driver killed my dad.' "
Cornelius Griffin arrived home that night with Kimberly, then his girlfriend, to find a slew of cars near his family's home. "What's going on?" he remembers wondering.
The news of Willie Buck's death spread quickly through the fewer than 2,500 residents of Brundidge.
"Everybody knew Willie Buck," Ramage said. "He was just the type person, you just knew him. He had a radiant personality. He was a real big fella, like Cornelius. He always had a good laugh, and this was just real, real sad. He's the kind of guy you have in your community, and you never expect him to be gone."
He was gone. Cornelius Griffin, then 21, was to head to Alabama later in the summer. When he got in the car to begin the drive to Tuscaloosa, he so mourned his father's death that he turned around, turned back toward Brundidge. And then he heard Willie Buck's words: "Tighten up." He pointed the car back toward Tuscaloosa. He was, admittedly, "in a big fog" that first year. But his father's lessons drove him to complete his career, to develop into a second-round pick of the New York Giants in 2000. He had five sacks as a rookie, played in the Super Bowl following that season, and signed a seven-year, $30.8 million contract with the Redskins prior to 2004.
Those things -- sacks, Super Bowls, contracts -- tend to be the items that define football players. For Griffin, football has been the vocation through which he carries on Willie Buck's values, even though Willie Buck isn't around.
"I definitely think it made me who I am today," he said of his father's death. But how? "Because football's like life. You quit on a play in football, you might quit on things in life. You got to have great mental toughness to play football. [You have] got to do the same thing in life. If things aren't going your way, you can't feel sorry for yourself. You got to fight to get things turned around."
If Qwest Field gets to rocking this afternoon, if the Seahawks -- and Griffin's old teammate at Alabama, NFL MVP Shaun Alexander -- are moving the ball, there's a good chance Griffin, once again, will hear the words of Willie Buck. They are the words that help him fight through a block, the words that will help him raise little Mikalah. Tighten up .