Adapted from the author’s upcoming book, “RG3: The Promise,” from Blue Rider Press.
Early in the morning on January 9, 2013, three days after the playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks that ended the Washington Redskins’ season, Robert Griffin III sent a message to his Twitter followers: “Thank you for your prayers and support. I love God, my family, my team, the fans & I love this game. See you guys next season.” At around 7:00 a.m., a team of surgeons at the Andrews Institute Ambulatory Surgery Center in Gulf Breeze, Florida, made incisions in both of Griffin’s knees. From his left knee, the doctors cut away part of the patellar tendon, as well as a portion of the connected bone, which were then grafted to his right knee, where the tendon would become his new anterior cruciate ligament.
The doctors had to take the tendon and bone from Griffin’s otherwise healthy left knee because the same tissue in his right knee had already been used as a graft during his 2009 ACL reconstruction, which this surgery would be revising. The doctors also reattached Griffin’s torn lateral collateral ligament and repaired a tear in the medial meniscus. From beginning to end, the entire surgery took nearly five hours.
Griffin had traveled to Florida from Virginia the day before on Redskins owner Daniel Snyder’s private plane, along with some family members and team officials, including Snyder himself. Once the tests were taken, the options discussed, and the strategy plotted, the surgery was scheduled for as soon as possible. Every day that passed was precious if Griffin hoped to be ready for the 2013 season.
“You won’t see the same Robert Griffin. You’ll see a better Robert Griffin.”
Robert Griffin III
Griffin had a pretty good idea of what lay ahead of him over the coming weeks and months, having rehabbed the same knee three and a half years earlier while at Baylor, but this surgery was more complex and invasive, and estimates for the recovery time he would need before playing football again ranged from eight months to twelve. It didn’t take a math degree to figure out that even the midpoint of that estimate would cost him a sizable portion of the 2013 NFL season. Nobody dared question Griffin’s commitment to the rehab process. Just the opposite — those who recalled the way he had thrown himself headlong into his 2009 rehab, like a man possessed, predicted a speedy and complete return.
“Frankly, he was so much better on the mental side of things when he came back from his ACL [in 2009], I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw an even better Robert Griffin,” said Houston-based surgeon Mark Adickes, who happens to be a former Baylor and Redskins lineman and who performed Griffin’s 2009 surgery. “I’m very confident that when he gets back on the field he’ll be the same guy we saw [in 2012], and from a mental side we’ll see an even more mature and accurate passing quarterback.”
But here in the Florida Panhandle — where Griffin would stay for another month, taking the first steps in his rehab — he was isolated, far away from his teammates, his fans, and the media, which gave him plenty of time and space to consider all that had transpired. What could he have done differently to prevent this? What did he need to do in the future? What about the coaches and doctors? What were their responsibilities? These were not easy questions, and the answers, he knew, might be impossible to find without some similar soul-searching by the other involved parties and some honest conversations among them all.
The next time the public got a glimpse of Griffin, nearly a month after the surgery, it was the night before the Super Bowl, back in New Orleans, and he was walking — with a slight limp, but without crutches — down the red carpet prior to the NFL honors ceremony, where he would soon be announced as the winner of the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. In several perfunctory interviews along the way, he said he was already ahead of schedule in his rehab and his goal was to be ready for Week 1 in 2013.
“You won’t see the same Robert Griffin. You’ll see a better Robert Griffin,” he told one interviewer.
But the most revealing interview was carried on the Redskins’ own video channel. There he said, “There’s a few things in that [playoff] game that we wish we had done differently, and I’ll talk to Coach [Mike Shanahan] about that when I get back [to Virginia]. We’ll have that conversation. It’s a conversation that needs to be had. ... I’ll do my part to make sure that I stay healthy and keep myself out of harm’s way, while at the same time making sure the coaches do the same.”
Griffin’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Award that night, which he won by a significant margin over runner-up Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts, was an opportunity to ponder, one more time, everything Griffin had accomplished in 2012. That there had been any debate at all over who deserved the award — Griffin, Luck and Seattle’s Russell Wilson were the front-runners — was stunning. Really, when you lead the entire NFL in both yards per pass attempt and yards per rush attempt, becoming the first player in history to lead the league in both, in your rookie year, what more is there to say?
When Griffin’s name was called for the award, he climbed the steps to the stage, looked out at the crowd, and put the moment in the sort of context that only an NFL player/warrior could provide: “Sometimes,” he said, “it’s not what you get for your team, it’s what you’re willing to give for them.”
Griffin had given plenty for the Redskins, as the scars beneath his suit-pants would attest, and now he would be justified in wondering — even if he was too loyal and discreet to say so publicly — what the Redskins were willing to give for him.
As the NFL off-season crept by, Griffin remained largely underground, at least in terms of media availability. His thoughts about his injury and his recovery remained mostly a mystery. But on every side of the question, the early part of spring in 2013 seemed to be a time for some subtle jostling for position on the issue, in advance of the media crush that was certain to greet the beginning of off-season workouts at Redskins Park in April and May.
In an ESPN.com interview in late March, James Andrews, the Redskins’ team orthopedist who had overseen Griffin’s surgery, said that Griffin’s recovery “has been unbelievable so far” and that Griffin “is one of those superhumans” for whom normal recovery timetables don’t apply. He compared Griffin to Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings’ great running back, whose ACL surgery Andrews had performed in December 2011 and who not only made it back for the 2012 season but wound up being the league’s MVP. It would have been easy to accuse Andrews of unfairly raising expectations for Griffin’s return, except that Griffin himself had been doing the same thing for some time, via an Adidas advertising campaign titled “All in for Week 1.”
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, too, appeared to be staking out his position when he told reporters at the NFL’s annual owners’ meetings in Phoenix in late March that Griffin would need to learn how to slide and get out of bounds better than he had in 2012 if he wanted to avoid injury.
“You go from the collegiate level to the professional level, [and] you don’t realize the speed of these guys, and he took a lot of unnecessary hits,” Shanahan told reporters. “But he’ll look at film and protect himself, and I think it will be a drastic change from one year to the next.” Shanahan also reaffirmed the Redskins’ commitment to running the zone-read option with Griffin in 2013, arguing, as he had before, that it actually kept him safer by slowing down the pass rush.
“My first NFL season and my injury that ended it showed me a lot about the league, my team and myself. I know where my responsibility is within the dilemma that led to me having surgery to repair my knee and all parties involved know their responsibilities as well.”
Robert Griffin III
That was the context for the statement Griffin released through the Redskins on March 27, reiterating his hope to be ready for Week 1, but vowing not to return until he was healthy. Within the same statement, however, he also made a cryptic reference to what happened in the Seattle game and what it would mean going forward.
“My first NFL season and my injury that ended it showed me a lot about the league, my team and myself,” he said. “I know where my responsibility is within the dilemma that led to me having surgery to repair my knee and all parties involved know their responsibilities as well.”
It was difficult to read Griffin’s statement and not see some sort of disconnect between the player and the team. But where was the disconnect? Griffin had already absolved everyone of responsibility for keeping him in the fateful Seattle game, and people close to him, well after the fact, had said he still harbored no regrets over staying on the field.
By early May, Griffin was sounding like someone who yearned to speak out but was muzzled by something or somebody — and could only hint at what he was feeling. In a cover-story interview with ESPN The Magazine, Griffin went right up to the edge of the canyon that separated his perspective from that of the Redskins, but didn’t take the final step.
Asked by writer J.R. Moehringer about the Seahawks game, Griffin said: “I don’t feel like playing against the Seahawks was a mistake. But I see the mistake in it.” Asked by Moehringer to explain what he meant, Griffin replied, “With what happened and how everything was running — you take me out.”
Parsing those words required a scalpel and a microscope, but the phrase “you take me out” certainly lent itself to one interpretation: That while it was impossible for Griffin to pull himself out of the game, because of how that would have been perceived by teammates and the media, someone in a position of authority (“you”) needed to do it.
That was about as far as Griffin was willing to go, at least publicly, in discussing the events of January 2013. He and Shanahan had discussed the Seattle game several times in private by that point, and in the ESPN The Magazine piece, Griffin said his coach had impressed on him the importance of closing rank. “One thing [Shanahan] stressed to me,” he said, “is we have to be a close group. We can’t let people outside penetrate that and create a rift.”
So, too, would it go with another source of potential discord: the offensive play-calling, which may have been the “dilemma” to which Griffin referred in his March statement. “Dilemma” was the right word: Some of the very talents that made Griffin such a great NFL quarterback also made him more vulnerable to serious injury. But Griffin, who had been on a quest to rise above the stereotype of the run-first African American quarterback, may have figured there was an obvious solution.
Given the courtesy of having input on the Redskins’ play-calling as the 2012 season wore on, Griffin occasionally tried to steer the offense away from the zone-read option — particularly after his original knee injury in December — while Mike and Kyle Shanahan, who had spent months devising and installing their offensive blueprint, insisted it remain a significant element of that plan. And the facts suggested the offense had been wildly successful. Did it put Griffin in jeopardy? Perhaps, but the fact remained that it was a pair of scrambles out of the pocket — not designed runs — that had resulted in Griffin’s two major injuries in 2012: the concussion against Atlanta and the knee sprain against Baltimore. Either could have been avoided by a well-timed slide or a quick duck out of bounds.
Still, how difficult could it be to reach some sort of middle ground on the direction of the Redskins’ offense, perhaps with some sort of quota on how many zone-read plays they would run and a moratorium on flea-flicker passes that make Griffin a receiver?
Shanahan would be wise not to alienate his quarterback. If some sort of Machiavellian power struggle arises at Redskins Park in 2013, there is every reason to think Griffin could win it. Not only does he have the longer contract — through 2015, as opposed to 2014 for Shanahan — and a far greater degree of public support, but Griffin also seems to have an unusually close player-owner relationship with Snyder. (Snyder, as well as Shanahan, declined through a Redskins spokesman to be interviewed.)
Griffin, with his military upbringing and respect for authority, isn’t the type to attempt a bold-faced power play, but people can sometimes surprise even themselves in the cause of their own self-preservation.
The biggest variable for 2013, of course, is the condition of Griffin’s knee, and there is unlikely to be any definitive answer on that until deep into the summer, at the earliest. Griffin and his doctors can say all they want about how far ahead of schedule he has been in his rehab, but nobody will know anything until he is on the field.
There is no reason to doubt Griffin — on the contrary, there is every reason to believe him — but even under a best-case scenario, he seems likely to miss some of the on-field part of training camp that begins Thursday in Richmond and possibly the preseason.
The truth is, as long as Griffin returns as a reasonable facsimile of his 2012 self, the Redskins’ 2013 offense ought to be a juggernaut. When the team re-signed top tight end Fred Davis in March, Griffin had his entire cadre of 2012 play-makers back for another year, and (at least for now) at full health. This is an offense, remember, that led the NFL in rushing yards and was second in overall yards per play in 2012 — despite top talents Griffin, Davis and Pierre Garcon missing parts of the season.
But there is also some question about what sort of quarterback Griffin will be when he returns. Most orthopedists believe that, while it is possible to get back on the field in six to eight months after a reconstructive knee surgery, it takes more like eighteen to twenty-four months before an athlete is back to 100 percent health. It seems fully possible that it will be 2014, and not 2013, when we get the full RG3 experience again.
There is an argument to be made that Griffin could actually stand to benefit from losing a step or two from his legendary speed and quickness when he comes back — because, presumably, such a reduction would limit his penchant for taking off on scrambles and also make the Redskins a little less inclined to run him around the corners so often. He would always retain enough speed and elusiveness to escape sacks and pick up an occasional first down with his legs, but it might not be such a bad thing if he doesn’t feel compelled to do so at every opportunity.
“The silver lining is, this may ultimately be a good thing for RG3,” said Neal ElAttrache, a Los Angeles–based orthopedist who performed Tom Brady’s knee reconstruction in 2009. “I think this is going to change the way he plays when he gets back. He’s going to evolve into the position, and their offense is going to evolve.”
The model could be someone like Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who is one of the best passers in the game but who also rushes for three hundred or so yards each season. The transition into more of a drop-back passer was likely to happen anyway over time, as part of a quarterback’s natural evolution.
And if the 2012 knee injury sped up the evolution process, so be it.
During the course of my reporting, I sometimes asked people close to Griffin what they thought he would be doing in twenty years. The answers were mostly predictable, given his interests and background: law, politics, broadcasting, even acting. It was only later that I realized I had the question wrong — it should have been: What will he be doing in ten years?
Griffin has dropped enough clues about his future to make you wonder if he will stick with football long enough to go down in its annals as one of the best to play the game — as his talent suggests he might someday be regarded. Back in April 2012, when I spent some time with him in Texas prior to the draft, he said this about the difficult time he had giving up other sports for football:
People close to Griffin take it as a given that he will make good on his vow to go to law school and become a lawyer, and many of them also believe he will eventually run for office.
“It was tough having to close those doors — and I always say ‘temporarily,’ because I feel like it is temporary. [Playing] basketball may be a little more far-fetched than track right now, just because of everything that goes into it. But I know some basketball coaches that would take me right now, and I know some track coaches that would take me right now.”
In June 2012, when the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials were taking place — four years after his own near-miss in attempting to qualify for Beijing — Griffin watched the results closely and counted the number of hurdlers he had beaten over the years. It was a sizable number, and he made no attempt to hide how much he missed the sport at that moment.
“It does suck,” he told the NFL Network. “I mean, that’s the only way to say it. It sucks. But I’m definitely fortunate to be in the situation that I am, being in the NFL, being a franchise quarterback for a team, with the opportunity to go out and do an infinite amount of things. If I wake up one day and it’s 2016 and I say I want to go run the hurdles again, I can do that.”
Basketball, too, sometimes still tugged at his heartstrings. On the night he went to the Verizon Center in downtown D.C. to watch the Wizards play the Miami Heat, he called his father afterward, and the first thing he said had nothing to do with the fact that LeBron James had come over to hug him after the final buzzer. It was the fact that Griffin himself was as tall as Dwyane Wade (who is listed as six-four) and all the other guards on the floor.
“I had courtside seats — I was right next to some of them,” he told his father excitedly. “I’m telling you — they’re not any taller than me.”
A second knee reconstruction in four years presumably puts at least a small dent in whatever aspirations he still has to run track or play basketball. But Griffin, it should be clear by now, is someone who doesn’t want to be boxed in. You get the feeling that, in his perfect world, he would play in both the NFL and NBA, run the hurdles in the Olympics every four years — and practice law, run for public office, design augmented-reality worlds, make hit records, and star in movies on the side.
“The very word ‘alternatives’ bobs in and out of his speech with noticeable frequency,” John McPhee wrote in 1965 of Bill Bradley, another young athlete with similarly varied interests. “Before his Rhodes Scholarship came along and eased things, he appeared to be worrying about dozens of alternatives for next year. And he still fills his days with alternatives. He apparently always needs to have eight ways to jump, not because he is excessively prudent but because that is what makes the game interesting.”
People close to Griffin take it as a given that he will make good on his vow to go to law school and become a lawyer, and many of them also believe he will eventually run for office. In March 2013, when Griffin was honored by the Texas State Legislature, Rep. Sarah Davis of Houston revealed that she had met privately with Griffin that morning and told reporters, “I think we will see RG3 run for office very soon — when he’s ready to retire.”
None of this speculation about Griffin’s future is going to be of much comfort to Redskins fans, or to his fans across the country, who simply want to see him back on the field at 100 percent health as soon — and for as long — as possible. And it is hard to blame them. What a show it was.
To have seen Robert Griffin III turning the corner with the football and a head of steam in one of those first twelve games of the 2012 NFL season — before the knee injury changed everything — was to remember a young Michael Jordan with the ball in the open court, a young Rickey Henderson rounding second on a ball in the gap, a young Tiger Woods in the fairway with 285 to the pin, a lake to carry, and a 3-wood in his hands. At that moment, you were watching the only human on the planet capable of doing this very thing this well.
It’s the whole reason we watch. It’s the force that moves us to the edge of our seats. It’s the life-affirming thing — this possibility of transcendence signaling its arrival — that draws us toward any elite expression of human brilliance, whether in the arts or in sports.
But therein lay the central paradox within Griffin, within the game of football, and within those of us who watch. In none of those other sports does the athlete’s brilliance itself correlate with danger; only in football could you say that it is because of Griffin’s brilliance that his health is risked on every play; if he were a lesser athlete, or a lesser quarterback, or a lesser competitor, he would almost certainly be safer. When he returns to the field in 2013, we will be watching in hopes of glimpsing those same moments of transcendence we saw in 2012 — but we will also implore him to be safer, more cautious this time. We want him to change, but we want him to stay the same.
A man deserves to do what makes him happy, as long as that thing is achievable, and Robert Griffin III has every opportunity to find happiness, now and forever. He married Rebecca Liddicoat earlier this month. Presumably, Griffin will be a father someday. He might practice law, enter politics and achieve great things as a statesman.
But the game of football, in my experience, rarely seems to make the ones who play it happy in the same way as, say, the game of baseball itself makes baseball players happy. Football players, either current or retired, might be satisfied, or content, or proud to have played, and they are often rich from having played — which might have the effect of making them happy. They might even genuinely love the game. But the game of football itself doesn’t make them happy.
Only surviving it does.
Dave Sheinin is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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