If I told you that Robert Griffin III surprised a senior elephant handler for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus by immediately understanding the technique needed to complete a forward pass to a 9,000-pound pachyderm, connecting on his second attempt, and finishing with a 60 percent completion percentage to a receiver boasting only four legs and a trunk, you’d probably say “duh.”
But to the uninitiated, for whom RGIII’s automatic greatness at every life task is not yet assumed, Griffin still put on a show at the circus.
“I thought it would take him three or four times, but the professional quarterback showed me up pretty good,” Joey Frisco III, a third-generation elephant handler, told me this week. “I pointed out to him one time what to do, and [on his second try] he threw it up and she caught it. I was like really? Cmon…In between throws, when I was talking to him, it was like he had just missed a pass to one of his receivers — too high! too low! He was already saying in his head what he had to do next time….Usually it takes time for elephants to get used to how someone’s gonna throw, but an NFL superstar quarterback, he knew exactly what to do.”
Frisco grew up playing football around Peoria, Ill., nearly playing in college before he tore up his knee during a high school all-star game. And Kelly Ann — the Asian elephant with whom Griffin palled around on Sunday — has always been “a pretty sporty elephant,” according to the 29-year old handler. She dunks basketballs, kicks soccer balls and catches batons, so about a year ago, Frisco began working with her on catching footballs.
Until this week, Frisco was the only one to play football with the nearly 17-year old elephant. The Falcons fan often jokes with audiences that if the elephant is Julio Jones, he’s a scrubby, bench-warming QB. So when Griffin and his family went to the show at Verizon Center on Sunday, and stayed afterward to meet the performers and pose for publicity photos, it seemed like an appropriate time to introduce a second thrower.
Griffin and his father talked to Frisco and the other performers and fed Kelly Ann bread, and eventually the quarterback got to tossing some passes.
“I told RGIII, it’s not like throwing to Pierre Garcon or Santana Moss, but I don’t think anyone could tackle her if you want to hire her,” Frisco noted. “Kelly Ann’s the lucky one, to me. I’ve been playing football since I was 11 or 12 years old and I’ve never got a chance to catch a football from an NFL star, and within a year she gets to catch a football from one of the greatest quarterbacks in the world.”
The circus is in Baltimore now before continuing on to Patriot Center, so Frisco joked that he should ask Ray Lewis to try to tackle Kelly Ann, or hold a skills competition between RGIII and Joe Flacco. But between jokes, the elephant handler said what everyone else in the world says about Griffin.
“If I wasn’t a sports guy — if I was somebody who didn’t watch football — you wouldn’t know that he was an NFL superstar,” the handler told me. “He was probably one of the nicest athlete/celebrities I’ve ever met — just like a regular person, very genuine, very humble. It was pretty amazing. It was just kind of like hanging out with another really cool guy…
“I keep going back to the genuine thing,” he later said, “but I’m just not used to it. I’ve met a lot of celebrities over the past six years, quite a few sports people, and not too many I’ve ever met have been as genuine as RGIII. Superstar status doesn’t mean nothing to him.”
Frisco’s mother is a lifelong Redskins fan, so Griffin signed a jersey for her. He signed two footballs for the handler. He asked them if they’d want to be his guests at a Skins game sometime. He hung out with the performers for 15 or 20 minutes, asking questions and even joking about the concussion he suffered against Atlanta.
“The interaction ‘s going on, and it seems so regular, and he’s so nice; then after you see pictures and video and it hits you, wow, that was RGIII hanging out with Kelly Ann and I and playing football,” Frisco said. “He got to play the sport he loves with an endangered Asian elephant. I don’t know how much cooler it could get.”
And whether or not there are other football-catching elephants in the world, Frisco is convinced that this was a unique life experience, for everyone involved.
“I’ve never seen an elephant that catches a football; I know there’s none that have had an NFL quarterback throw a ball to them,” he said. “I guess I’m gonna have to let Kelly Ann watch some Redskins games now.”