At the end of last season, John Wall privately unearthed a little gem: While taking his recruiting trip to Baylor in 2009 prior to signing with Kentucky, Wall was shepherded around the Waco campus by a quarterback of some renown, a down-to-earth guy whom he got to know a little.
“That’s crazy, right?” Wall said last April. “Now RGIII and me are going to be doing our thing here together, ballin’ out, trying to bring D.C. teams back to respectability.”
Told that was a lot to ask given their ages and their respective franchises struggles, Wall replied, “Naw, we’re up to it. We gotta do it — who else if not us?”
Maybe that’s the problem: The kids get tasked with the jobs the adults failed to do. You don’t get drafted by a Washington sports franchise as much you get anointed.
Sometimes I don’t think we have Pro Bowl quarterbacks, star point guards and all-star right-handers in Washington as much as sacrificial lambs to atone for what hell hath come before them. Or at least sacrificial limbs, because after the exhilaration, that’s what Robert Griffin III, Wall and youngsters such as Stephen Strasburg keep donating: the use of their tendons and ligaments until they have to be either replaced, totally reconstructed or need half a season to heal.
As Griffin convalesces after surgery, he figuratively hands the young-gun baton off to Wall, who Saturday night is supposed to suit up for the Wizards for the first time this season after a stress injury to his left patella kept him out the first 33 games. Soon, a more-than-rested Strasburg will take a mound in Florida to test his golden, if rusty, right arm.
When Strasburg made his 14-strikeout debut in 2010, when Griffin sent New Orleans into a tizzy with two touchdown passes last September, hosannas ensued, a literal outpouring of do-you-believe-how-good-this-kid-is euphoria. And then the other shoe dropped, where we were forced to realize how fragile that package is, that moment of, “Oh my God, he’s hurt. So it’s true: He is of this earth.”
Whether we bubble-wrap them or throw them to the wolves, they all eventually wind up on the injured list, trying to do too much for the teams that weren’t very good before they got there.
The disastrous end of a rookie quarterback’s first playoff game in Washington featured so many disturbing images this past week. Griffin’s knee violently twisting, surgeon James Andrews’s backpedaling, Mike Shanahan obfuscating.
But the one that really gave me pause, in hindsight, was the familiar chant that rose up on the south side of FedEx Field, in the stands near the end zone.
When Griffin went down and the doctors were summoned to the patch of dirt where his right knee exploded, the stadium went dead quiet. Nervous seconds passed until the silence was broken by one solemn voice — and then another. And then another.
“R-G-III, R-G-III,” they whispered, before 85,000 joined in and the refrain grew louder, more ominous.
For the first time, Griffin’s initials were not chanted because he had romped for a touchdown or the public-address announcer had howled his name to the heavens as pyrotechnics went off.
They were chanted almost in memoriam.
Viewed in that moment’s prism, that’s a heart-warming scene. But Griffin lying there as the chants grew today feels more like Russell Crowe’s character dying at the end of “Gladiator” or William Wallace disemboweled in the final scene of “Braveheart” — the martyred protagonist, fighting the good fight but eventually succumbing to forces beyond his control, lauded one last time.
We don’t merely have great young players in this town; we have messiahs.
Because they dress in immaculate wool blazers or grow facial hair or put up the numbers of 10-time all-stars, because they sound so incredibly convincing and mature, we instantly ascribe labels like “mature” to them. We make some captains before they are ready to be captains. (Hello Alex.)
Yet after the commercial shoots and the pithy, cool answer that makes us all wish we had the same cocksureness of Bryce Harper at 19 or the apparent serenity of Griffin at 22, we forget they are still . . . kids.
When Sonny Jurgensen suggested to Griffin after Sunday’s game that he needed to think more of “the whole” when he’s not 100 percent, Griffin shot back, “I don’t feel that way. I’m the quarterback, doesn’t matter what percentage I am. I took myself out of the game because I knew I couldn’t do it.”
“They know I’m going to play no matter what. I don’t feel like me playing out there hurt the team in any way.”
Think about that statement: “I’m the quarterback, doesn’t matter what percentage I am.” That’s not a warrior or a captain soldiering on — that’s a guy who feels such a burden of responsibility he would subjugate his own health for what he feels is his obligation to his city and his teammates.
Why should he feel that obligation at 22?
In other places and towns, young athletes often get to be young athletes. Blake Griffin didn’t have to be the franchise player for the Clippers for too long before they brought someone older and better to help him in Chris Paul. Andrew Luck is an exception in Indianapolis. In most NFL cities, a young quarterback such as Andy Dalton has a nails defense and a receiving corps to help with his adjustment.
They grow up, learn the ways of becoming a professional and learn to win at the highest level. In Washington: You’re it, kid. Now go out there and win because the guy you replaced can’t.
“We gotta do it — who else if not us?” Wall said tellingly.
We’re not just fans in this town; we’re elevated Little League parents here, living vicariously through our young athletes. Sad, no? For millions of dollars and flashbulbs of adoration, we expect miracles of redemption from 22-year-olds with the same frail tendons and ligaments as the rest of us.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.