The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

RGIII had a shot at the Olympics. But when Ravens called, it was ‘a message from God.’

Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III was down to 193 pounds and close to contending for an Olympics spot when Baltimore called to offer him a contract. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Robert Griffin III stepped to the microphone and grinned at the reporters as if he’d missed this. It was late morning at Under Armour Performance Center and the Baltimore Ravens, his third team in four years, had just finished practice. As Griffin started to respond to a reporter who greeted him, he realized how close the mic was to his mouth.

“This is awkward,” he said, flashing his familiar, gaptoothed smile.

The grin had rarely been seen since Griffin, the No. 2 overall draft pick of the Redskins in 2012, carried Washington to its first playoff appearance in five seasons as a rookie. That year, Griffin’s jersey sold more than any other in the league, and a brand was born: “RG3.”

Just a few years later, Griffin had all but vanished from the realm of NFL relevancy. Injuries and a building tension between Griffin and Washington set up an ugly end, and after an injury-shortened season in Cleveland, he was out of the league.

At the mic, Griffin tried to distance himself from what happened down I-95 while facing questions about how he would dig himself out of the rubble of once-great expectations. Ravens Coach John Harbaugh told reporters Griffin’s absence from the game for a year didn’t worry him, that it “wasn’t a very hard” call to sign him and General Manager Ozzie Newsome had decided “pretty quickly.”

Griffin, 28, answered with a similar earnestness. He compared being away from football to “someone taking your girl, it gives you an appreciation,” joked about staying in shape by throwing footballs at palm trees, and asserted he was faster than rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, another speedy Heisman winner who was drafted No. 32 overall in April as the heir apparent to starting quarterback Joe Flacco.

In discussing that year away, Griffin never mentioned how much he prepared for life after football — or how the 2020 Olympic Games had come to mind.

Griffin, who won the Heisman Trophy while at Baylor, understands it will take more than his natural talent for him to make the team. The Ravens have not carried three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster since 2009. He will have his first chance to show everyone what can still do on Thursday, as Baltimore faces Chicago in the Hall of Fame Game at 8 p.m.

“Everyone laughs about the sayings I had when I first came into the league, but ‘No pressure, no diamonds’ is one that stuck with me,” Griffin said in an interview following his news conference. “That’s what we said in college. I’ve been under a lot of pressure in my life. I’ve been under a lot of pressure in my NFL career. I’m ready to shine. I think God’s prepared me for it.”

To listen to Griffin tell it, leaving football “never crossed my mind.” Those around him got a different impression.

In the summer of 2017, he was living in Orlando with his second wife, Estonian heptathlete Grete Sadeiko. He received contract offers from Arizona and Baltimore, but neither situation seemed right because of personnel or timing, so he turned them down. Still, though, he trained.

“Anyone going through something hard has doubts,” Griffin said, quickly clarifying that he never doubted himself throughout this process. He meant those around him. “My wife would say, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you running these hills? Why are you throwing these footballs, studying this film? You’re not getting that call. Why keep doing that?’”

Last winter, Griffin cold-called a training facility he’d heard of near home and, within a week, he walked into the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The facility appealed to Griffin because it had football and a track-and-field program, helmed by coach Brooks Johnson, who also trained Sadeiko. At Baylor, Griffin ran the 400-meter hurdles all the way to the 2008 Olympic Trials semifinals but left track — even though “at heart, I’m a track guy” — to focus on football. He started to consider a comeback.

Griffin split time between the football and track workouts, where he trained alongside Olympians, including Justin Gatlin, who last year outran Usain Bolt for the gold in the 100-meter dash at the world championships. Griffin, who once weighed more than 225 pounds, had slimmed down to 193. He spoke with Johnson about preparing for the decathlon or the 110-meter hurdles.

“He didn’t look at himself as RGIII,” Gatlin said. “He looked at himself as Robert. He was hungry, and he had another a shot to get back out there.”

For about 10 weeks, Griffin arrived at the facility four days per week at 8:30 a.m. and, over the next five hours, stretched, lifted weights, honed footwork and threw to receivers. Whenever workouts called for speed, he sidled over to Johnson.

When asked if track was a plan B, Griffin said he didn’t think so, citing one of his favorite quotes from actor Will Smith: “There’s no reason to have a plan B because it distracts from plan A.”

But the track group watched Griffin chip away at his rusty technique. At first, his body launched wide and splayed over the hurdles, but it quickly became tighter. Griffin is 6-foot-2, but Gatlin said football’s emphasis on low centers of gravity conditioned Griffin to run as if he were 5-foot-2. His short strides generated less power. Slowly, Griffin ran straighter, lengthening his legs. The knee injury that hampered his football career seemed to have no effect. Within a year, Gatlin and Johnson said, Griffin would have seriously contended for a spot at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“He is an Olympic-level talent,” Johnson said. “It didn’t take a lot to get him technically sound.”

Then Baltimore called.

It was late March, at the beginning of free agency, and Griffin considered it “a message from God” and that “things don’t just happen by accident.” He inked a one-year, $1.1 million deal. In the facility, during stretches and cool-downs, Griffin started bringing index cards made from the Ravens playbook. While they worked out together, Sadeiko quizzed him on the team’s formations and he listed off the personnel.

Some people around Griffin attribute his shelving of track, again, to the money at stake in the NFL. For others, it’s deeper. Griffin’s life has seemingly been governed by the same purpose since his uncle signed him up for youth football two decades ago. He was recently told by two global track powers that he’s still got it, and he still returned to the sport where he’s torn his right anterior cruciate ligament twice, dislocated his left ankle once, snapped a bone in his left shoulder and sustained at least two documented concussions.

He spent one season as a third-string quarterback, appearing at safety on the practice squad, and another completely away from the game and still, each time, he found it harder to stay away than come back. He does not feel a biological imperative to play football. He feels a religious one.

“I know what God’s called me to do,” Griffin said. “He’s called me to play football at a high level, inspire men, lead men. That’s why I didn’t have any doubt in what I was doing.”

During a training session in the practice complex earlier this year, football coach Bert Whigham walked by Griffin, who was talking to a player preparing for the NFL Draft.

“One day football will be done with you,” Whigham heard Griffin tell the prospect, “but you’ll never be done with football.”

On the third day of training camp, Griffin ran off the field, swigged from a water bottle and sank down on his right knee next to his wife on Practice Field 1. After the final whistle blew, Griffin had spent about 20 minutes sprinting and throwing corner routes to the end zone, as he always does.

Griffin spoke for about 15 minutes with his wife, whose back rested against the goal post. The fields were otherwise empty. A couple of Ravens staffers and a group of fans stared at Griffin and his wife, then whispered to one another.

A handful of fans then walked by Griffin, and Griffin obliged the oldest man’s request for a picture and autograph. A few moments later, Flacco walked out of a team-facility door.

“Oh my God, oh my God!” one of the boys yelled at his seven friends. “Guys, look who it is!”

The boys, and everyone else, rushed to Flacco’s side. They clamored for him to stand next to them for the camera and sign their helmets, balls and jerseys. Hearing the commotion, Griffin turned and saw the mob around Flacco. He stared at the starting quarterback, playing the part that once seemed destined to be his, and his face remained blank.