He started training to be the best basketball player of all time at age 6. As a teen, he ran alongside central Texas highways with tires lashed to ankles, set on becoming an Olympic champion hurdler. Graduating sixth in his class and a semester early at Copperas Cove High, he enrolled at Baylor with a goal of earning a degree that could help him change the world — after he had transformed the culture of a football program that struck fear in no one.
One Heisman Trophy and two bowl game appearances later, the Washington Redskins traded a king’s ransom to pick him second overall in the 2012 NFL draft.
Thinking big has never been a problem for Robert Griffin III.
But apart from his dazzling rookie season, finishing strong has. This spring finds Griffin, 25, in his third consecutive NFL offseason clouded by questions about his status.
The quarterback with the lightning-bolt legs isn’t the same athlete after three major injuries. His megawatt smile has dimmed. And his wide-open personality has grown guarded amid a torrent of criticism about his play, his leadership and his forays into social media.
“People want you to be a certain person, and it’s unfortunate for them that I’m not the person they made me out to be,” Griffin said in a recent interview. “That’s why I can smile and have fun with my family and step on that football field with no worries and play like it’s my last game that I’m ever gonna play every time that I’m out there on the field.
“But I know once we start winning again, the same people that have been saying negative things or trying to attack my character or my family will be the same ones saying, ‘Oh, they’re great people!’ That’s just the business, I would say. But it’s not a business I want to be part of. So I’ll continue to say, ‘God bless,’ and wish the best for people.”
The Redskins must decide by May 3 whether to extend Griffin’s contract for a fifth year, which would mean more than quadrupling his salary, or let him become a free agent at season’s end. A different referendum could come Thursday, opening night of the NFL draft. If Marcus Mariota is available when the Redskins pick fifth, the temptation would be strong to nab the Oregon quarterback whom Redskins Coach Jay Gruden’s brother, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, has declared a “can’t-miss” prospect.
Griffin, who arrived in Washington amid an unprecedented marketing blitz, has had a slogan for each season. “Know Your Why” conveyed his focus as a rookie, “All in for Week One” his zeal to rebound from a second knee injury and last spring’s was “This Is for Us.” After back-to-back losing seasons, Griffin’s motto heading into Year 4 is: “Talk small and play big.”
The question, as with the others, is what the slogan ultimately will amount to.
No athlete in Washington has been scrutinized more over the past four years than Griffin. Yet he is the least understood sports figure in town — a study in contradictions as stark as the Superman socks he sported the night he was drafted and the bookish Clark Kent glasses he often wears off the field.
Griffin led a sheltered childhood, steered by demanding parents and marching to a regimented training program that allowed no time to hang out with friends. It was a price he wanted to pay for athletic greatness.
A military brat, he was born in Japan and moved at a young age to Texas, where he was one of the brainy kids in high school, taking advanced-placement biology, statistics and calculus. He graduated early from Baylor and is a thesis away from a master’s in communication.
Despite signing a $21 million contract in 2012, he leads a relatively simple, sequestered life, one centered around training, movies and quiet nights at home. He and his wife, Rebecca, pregnant with their first child, live in a gated community just west of Redskins Park in Loudoun County. Jay Gruden and his family live behind the same wrought-iron fence.
Griffin is one of the brightest players on the Redskins’ roster. But he is largely shielded from spontaneous interaction with the media by the team’s senior vice president for communications, Tony Wyllie, who typically sits beside Griffin’s locker when reporters are present. It’s an unusual degree of supervision in an NFL locker room, presumably to ensure Griffin isn’t asked or doesn’t say anything potentially incendiary.
In stark contrast, Griffin exudes warmth and openness away from the cauldron of Redskins Park. He has an inspirational quality that draws children and adults like a magnet. He smiles easily, looks people in the eye and conveys genuine interest in others without airs or pretense.
During his seven-week recovery from ankle surgery last season, Griffin wasn’t permitted to field reporters’ questions at all. Veteran wide receiver Santana Moss had warned Griffin as a rookie about the danger of saying too much in interviews. Answer questions as succinctly as possible, Moss advised, explaining that reporters could take extraneous comments out of context and turn them into verbal kindling.
It was a difficult lesson for Griffin, who is outgoing by nature. But it took hold after he was accused of criticizing teammates after an ugly loss last season — a message he hadn’t intended to send. Griffin has since fortified the wall around him. He sizes up the agenda of would-be interviewers as if figuring out how a defense plans to attack him. And he calibrates the pros and cons of revealing anything personal, including his wife’s due date.
“In due time,” Griffin said, smiling at Rebecca, who shares his wariness.
“What I learned is this: It’s a simple lesson in the Bible, and it says you’re not supposed to try to defend yourself. Allow others to defend your character, who you are — this, that or the other,” Griffin explained. “It can be really hard to see that stuff and say, ‘Man! That’s not anywhere near what I said,’ but that’s how they took it, or someone took an excerpt of what you said and blew it up. If I come back and say something about it, it just makes the story that much bigger. That’s not anything I want to have to deal with any more.”
With a competitiveness that borders on bull-headedness and the drive to push his body to its limits, Griffin in many ways is best suited to an individual sport. Success in track or swimming, for example, is the product of a straightforward equation: Effort in, results out.
Yet he chose football, the ultimate team sport, in which success depends on myriad variables, most of them outside his control.
In a way, football chose Griffin. It wasn’t his first love; basketball and track were. But after leading Copperas Cove to two football state championship games, Griffin said he wondered whether God was steering him toward the sport. Still, it wasn’t until he tore his anterior cruciate ligament the first time and was forced to miss much of his sophomore season at Baylor that he realized how much he missed the camaraderie of the locker room.
“I missed it so much that it made me love the game of football,” Griffin said. “It made me realize that there is something greater about football that was so much fun — to know that it’s not all me. I can put as much effort into it as I can, but if we don’t work well together, if our coaches don’t work well together. . . . There is a mastery to that.”
On the banks of the Brazos River in Waco, Tex., Robert Griffin III stands 91/2 feet tall, immortalized in bronze at the entrance of Baylor’s McLane Stadium, his outstretched, muscular frame on tip-toe and his throwing arm cocked.
In Washington, Griffin stands in the shadow of his own heroics — struggling these past two seasons to replicate the quarterbacking feats that led the Redskins to an NFC East title and their last appearance in the playoffs.
He says he is single-minded in his drive to recapture that magic.
“That’s why I come into this year with one goal in mind: That’s to win,” Griffin said. “Not to worry about what he said or she said or what they might do or he might do. All you can do is focus on what you can do to make your team better, make yourself better and provide the best opportunities for your family.”
Family was the essential metaphor on the Baylor teams Griffin led under Coach Art Briles. They arrived in Waco together with a dream of resurrecting a once-proud football program. For Baylor players, the chip on their shoulder was a point of pride and deep as a canyon. And they forged a brotherhood around the idea, with Griffin as their leader.
“He was that impact player: Put the ball in his hands, and he’ll win the game for you,” recalled former Baylor running back Jarred Salubi, who has known Griffin since eighth grade.
It took two losing seasons before the squad clicked. With Baylor’s first bowl-game appearance in 16 years, green Bears T-shirts were suddenly the rage in Waco.
Griffin wasn’t known as “RGIII” then. He was just “Griff” or “Rob.” But he was “a different cat” by any name, as former offensive lineman Cameron Kaufhold put it. He would play music no one else liked, and teammates begged him to get earphones. He would commandeer the microphone to emcee Bears Day like a standup comic, and players rolled their eyes.
“He’ll own up to that: He is an oddball,” Kaufhold said with affection. “But when he did or said things that were just way out there, instead of running to the media and saying, ‘This guy is crazy,’ I was able to tell him to his face.”
Their friendship and mutual respect endure.
Waco is where Griffin met his wife. Next to Copperas Cove, it’s where he feels most at home. That’s why he chose it to host his “Salute to Fitness” event in March, the first fund-raiser staged by Family of 3 , the foundation he and Rebecca recently started to support families in need. It was a day-long affair attended by about 600 children and adults, with lectures on nutrition, fitness classes for adults and games for kids.
Griffin was a gregarious host, doting on children, shaking hands with military veterans and providing running commentary in Baylor’s basketball arena as youngsters raced through ladder runs, shot baskets, shimmied under limbo sticks and flung themselves over hurdles.
“It’s a different feeling when I come back here,” Griffin said that afternoon. “When I walk down the street, I’m not getting judged because I’m not walking the right way, not talking the right way or not saying the right things. So it’s real easy to come back here. My pastor said when I was growing up, ‘When you come into your kingdom, never forget where you’re from.’ This is where I came from.”
If Redskins Park represents Griffin’s kingdom, he is still finding his niche.
Tucked in a Loudoun County industrial park, the team’s nondescript headquarters is a one-story brick building with just one notable feature: the trophy case in the lobby that holds Washington’s three Super Bowl trophies.
Griffin was a toddler when Washington won its last NFL championship to cap the 1991 season. But from the day he was drafted, he wanted to help lead a culture change that would restore the team’s winning tradition, much like the one he had been part of at Baylor.
It is his goal still.
For his part, Griffin said he intends to lead by example, as he has always done, proving through his actions and performance, rather than oratory or popularity, why he has earned his job as Washington’s starting quarterback.
To that end, he has thrown his energies this offseason into polishing his quarterbacking skills, focusing on the shortcomings Gruden identified in a blistering public critique last fall.
Griffin said he’s confident he and Gruden will work together constructively going forward, likening their relationship to a marriage, and welcomes the addition of a quarterbacks coach.
And he offers no apology for ways in which his personality doesn’t jibe with the rest of the locker room — the sense of humor that’s more whimsical than raucous; the tiny action figures arrayed on the top shelf of his locker, Spider Man, the Hulk, Captain America and more, with inspirational messages such as “Sacrifice” and “Protect the City” beneath each.
“You can’t change who you are because some people don’t like who you are,” Griffin said, asked about reports that his style has alienated some. “In 2012 they liked who I was, so why wouldn’t they like who I am in 2015?
“I go back to Copperas Cove, Texas, all the time, and the one thing I never hear is, ‘Man, Rob! You’ve changed a lot!’ No. I’m still the goofy, fun-loving kid that loves to play football and do stuff for the people that he loves.”
Griffin knows that winning, of course, would silence all the sniping.
“At the end of the day, I can’t adapt my leadership style because someone doesn’t like my leadership style or they want a different kind of leader,” Griffin said.
“Well, you’re going to have to go find that guy because it has to be genuine. If what I’m saying to pump you up doesn’t sound genuine, is it going to pump you up? I don’t think so. Is it going to be believable? Probably not.”
Successful NFL quarterbacks are a rare breed. They need obvious athletic skills and a high IQ. But they need interpersonal smarts, too, to toe a fine, almost paradoxical line. There’s no mistaking that the quarterback is “the guy” on a 53-man NFL roster. Yet he needs to act as if he is one of the guys. He can’t go out of his way to draw attention to himself. He can’t isolate himself, either.
It has been a difficult line to walk for Griffin. The family-first vibe that bonded Baylor’s roster isn’t what the Redskins’ locker room is about.
For the past 15 years, no losing NFL team has produced as many national headlines as Washington.
The Redskins may not win consistently, but more often than not Redskins Park can be counted on to produce a fount of stories, most of them unsavory, about coaches on the way out, overpaid roster busts, front-office squabbles and quarterback instability.
It’s not a place where an athlete with so much at stake is eager to open up. To trust.
And that leaves Griffin on an island — a highly compensated island — trying to figure out how to be great again and finish strong.
“I can tell you this: As long as I’m here in D.C., I’m never going to be okay with mediocrity or losing,” Griffin said. “And until they tell me I’ve gotta go, I’m going to be all in for this city.
“That’s all I can honestly say, and that’s how I truly feel. It’s not lip service. And it’s not a smile and a wink. This is who I am, like it or not.”
More Redskins and NFL coverage: