‘The man of God placed his hand on the boy’s head and suddenly felt something — a surge, an energy. It could only have been the holy spirit. . . . Bishop Holcomb pulled him aside and told him what the prophecy meant: that young Robert was now bound by the responsibility that came with it.”
A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend of mine, recently retired NFL linebacker Scott Fujita, about the contrast between the actual NFL — the one that he and I and thousands of others have experienced — and the way the story of the NFL is told. What would the fans see, we wondered, if they watched the game with no commentators? With no sportswriters? Without being told what it all means?
This hypothetical is fun to discuss, but it dies immediately. The popularity of football is largely due to the men and women who tell us about it. In “RG3,” Dave Sheinin’s biography of the Washington Redskins’ second-year quarterback, we are told what others have dared to say about Robert Griffin III over the years, and it’s enough to stir the heavens.
“RG3” begins in the final moments of Griffin’s record-breaking 2012 season, when his knee gave out on the beaten sod of FedEx Field in a playoff game against Seattle. Sheinin, a sportswriter for The Washington Post, describes the play as “the last moment when everything was still uncomplicated, when the story of Robert Griffin III was still a legend — growing richer and deeper by the week, by the day, and here, as he hobbled valiantly on a wounded leg toward the line of scrimmage, by the second.”
Whether Griffin’s hobbling was valiant or foolish is a matter of dispute; after all, he was wearing a bulky brace to protect a knee injured during those uncomplicated times. But Sheinin’s breathless prose sets the tone for a heroic narrative. “RG3” bounces between vivid transcriptions of Griffin’s rookie year in D.C. and the athletic childhood that led him there: his upbringing as the son of two Army sergeants; the six months he spent in New Orleans’s Iberville housing projects that made him street tough; his glory days as a high school athlete in Texas, pulling SUV tires up inclined streets; his difficult decision to turn away from his first love, basketball, and his budding love, track, to focus on the more glorious game of football.
Then comes Baylor, where Griffin served as de facto ambassador between the student body and the city of Waco and raked in an estimated $250 million for the school in “extra donations, increased ticket sales, licensing fees, sponsorship deals [and] an unexpected deal with Fox Sports Southwest,” all stemming from his Heisman Award-winning 2011 season. And, finally, the NFL draft, in which the Redskins traded a fortune in draft picks to take him at No. 2.
Once in the NFL, Griffin’s rare combination of talents — world-class runner and accurate gunslinger — caused such a stir that, Sheinin posits, “someday historians may look back at the Redskins second play from scrimmage in their win over the Saints and pinpoint it as the moment offensive football changed forever in the NFL.” Between only two covers, Sheinin portrays Griffin as, variously, Black Jesus (a nickname Sheinin overheard in the locker room), post-racial, presidential and transcendent. Chapter titles include “The Perfect Quarterback,” “The Child Prodigy,” “The Savior Arrives,” “The Leader of Men,” “The Superstar Ascendant,” “The QB Revolution” and “The Race Question.” Sheinin seems to believe that Griffin can unite the racially divided Chocolate City, change the racially offensive Redskins team name and help President Obama push his political agenda.
But this mountain of superlatives helps explain the vertiginous momentum building around Griffin that, as the brutal season wore on, reached a breaking point. Beneath the superhuman praise stirred the fragility of Griffin’s human body. With three weeks left in the regular season, he sustained a knee injury that threatened to undermine the messianic fable, but all parties played it down, knowing that it would make the climax that much sweeter if he could overcome it. Griffin played his part and limped through the last month, somehow leading his team on a seven-game win streak.
His success validated every tough-guy football bromide: Real men push through the pain. Had he taken himself out, he would have been ridiculed. He knew that, so it wasn’t an option. That’s how NFL players think: I am a warrior, and this is my war. Forge ahead until I’m dead. So he pushed and pushed, and when it mattered most, his knee collapsed. The next day, everyone in the industry jumped into their chairs to point the big finger. He was obviously injured! Why was he playing? Who is to blame? Who is responsible? No one in particular, Sheinin accurately points out. The waters are muddy. Everyone is complicit, all the time.
Sheinin lays out the conflicts of interest and the high stakes that preclude a level-headed approach to injury management in the NFL: The coaches under pressure to succeed at all costs. The players who are dealing with injuries of their own and who don’t respond well to teammates who can’t handle the pain. The fans and their lofty expectations. The former players turned analysts who crucify perceived indiscretions. The teams’ confounded medical professionals, sworn to protect the health of their patients but unable to separate their professional opinions from the adrenaline-fueled NFL sideline, where the moment feels so important. And finally, Griffin’s relationship with his concerned family members and the lifelong struggles they, particularly his mother, have had with the inherent violence of his chosen path.
All of this is done tactfully by Sheinin, who paints a vivid portrait of Griffin — by all accounts a thoughtful, intelligent young man — and the strange world of superstardom that has engulfed him. But he stops just short of closing the circle, failing to turn the pen on himself and question the source of or reasons for such lofty praise. Griffin is just 23 years old, and now he has a 300-page book about his first season as a pro, jam-packed with every city-saving-superhero-athlete cliche that’s ever been uttered, along with a few new ones.
Sheinin delivers them all with a straight face and rarely shows us the other side. Like so many others in the stands and in the press box, he is holding out hope that there is no other side, that the fairy tale will come true in the end. Maybe RG3 is Black Jesus. But like every other player in the NFL, he is only human, a revelation that many seem reluctant to accept.
Nate Jackson played six years for the Denver Broncos. His memoir about life in the NFL, “Slow Getting Up,” will be published in September.
RG3: The Promise
By Dave Sheinin. Blue Rider. 354 pp. $27.95