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ROBERT GRIFFIN III
ATHLETE, LEADER, BELIEVER
By TED KLUCK
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Ted Arnold Kluck a/k/a Ted Kluck
All rights reserved.
NOBODY GETS FAMOUS BY ACCIDENT: CREATING ROBERT GRIFFIN III
Being a military kid, I was blessed to live a life that's hard to put into words," Griffin Tweeted about his parents. "Discipline. Perseverance. Respect are a start ...," the Tweets continued. "Yet those words are so much more than words in the lives of those who serve & their children. More than an inspirational quote on the wall.... They are life. Life [b]ecause it takes a life of discipline, perseverance & respect to have the willingness to dedicate your life to serve.... As a kid I experienced this dedication, as many friends saw their parents come back from war ... and many didn't.... Those who serve, both past and present, change lives forever. They risk changing the lives of their wives and children to protect us all.... So as a kid I thought my Heroes were fictional characters or professional athletes, but now I realize who my real heroes are.... The men and women who have stood, are still standing, and have fallen so that we may live our lives free are my heroes.... Heroes for what they do for us all & what they did for me. They brought my true hero back from war. My dad."
* * *
In 2011, an installment of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary series, The Marinovich Project, chronicled the rise and fall of former USC and Los Angeles Raiders quarterback Todd Marinovich. The film paints a picture of a burned-out Marinovich—burned out on heroin and pot, and burned out on the pressure of living up to his father Marv's outlandish expectations. There were images and stories of a young boy who was groomed, from the cradle, to be an NFL quarterback. There were images of the pale, skinny, floppy-haired boy being pushed to the absolute limit in the weight room and on the track. Hours and hours were spent throwing the football and then watching video to analyze the thrown football. All with the goal of an NFL career.
Todd Marinovich, at the time in his early forties, spoke into a camera while sitting on the beach—his tired body looking at least fifty, and his wary eyes looking out over the water. Marinovich fills his days now with surfing, art, and music, having left every vestige of the football life behind after one last failed tryout with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL; a tryout in which he tore his ACL on the first snap of the first day of practice. "That was fate telling me to get out of the game," said Marinovich.
Marv Marinovich, the father, was largely vilified in the press and in the first half of the piece, looked like the Monster Who Ruined His Son. The elder Marinovich became the poster child for everything bad about the Little League Dad mentality, and Todd was nicknamed "The Robo QB." The Robo QB was groomed to play the position, publicized in local and national media, positioned at the best southern California high school for playing the position, and then ultimately signed by one of college football's glamour programs—the University of Southern California. The Robo QB burned his bridges at USC in favor of partying, and had a short, disappointing NFL career. The family became a very public cautionary tale. Todd equated his father's workout obsessions with his own addictions to drugs.
In the end the two have reunited, with Todd Marinovich getting clean and pursuing a promising career in visual art, and his father, Marv, (also an art major in college) partnering with him on art projects and supporting his son. But what the public doesn't see is that it was Marv at Todd's bedside as he detoxed, cold turkey, from heroin. And what the public also doesn't often see is the humility that comes from hitting personal and professional rock bottoms. This is what is redemptive about films like The Marinovich Project.
The Marinovich narrative is interesting in light of the slate of complimentary stories recently published in the Washington Times concerning the relationship between Griffin and his father. The Little League Dad appears to be making a bit of a cultural comeback, if the multimillions spent annually on crafting young athletes is any indication. There are strength and conditioning camps, booming private training businesses, college-run camps, websites for college recruitment, and lots of very involved fathers. I witness this firsthand as both a father of young boys and a youth football coach in a suburb where every dad stays for the entire practice, watching along a fence with their arms folded, frowns permanently etched on their faces. My players are fourth graders.
That said, the tone of the Times series is curious. It tells of a Robert Griffin childhood spent hurdling on a track, racing up the side of a hill with a tire strapped around his waist, having every practice videotaped by mom and then critiqued by dad. Father and son would study videotapes of mobile quarterbacks like Roger Staubach and sprinters like Michael Johnson. And at midnight, after traffic had thinned, they would run a half-mile incline—coined "Griffin Hill"—near their home.
If this were written a certain way, and/or if Robert Griffin were to experience even the slightest of public flake-outs, the articles would lose the aw-shucks, homespun, "Isn't this great!" breathlessness and be replaced by a cynical, "See how little league dads are ruining sports?" sort of tone. The pieces work, largely, because Robert Griffin is working so far. If Todd Marinovich had played in a couple of Pro Bowls and taken the Raiders to a Super Bowl win, we'd be hailing Marv as a genius and shaper of young men. He'd probably be making five figures per appearance on the banquet circuit and have his own book deal.
Wrote Times reporter Rich Campbell, "The coach-athlete element of Robert's relationship with his dad fascinates me. I'm reluctant to use the word 'abnormal' because that implies connotations that, frankly, I don't care to apply, but the intensity of their training was extraordinary.... I asked myself why Robert Jr.'s strictness, oversight and intensity worked for Robert III when it hasn't worked for so many other father-son relationships.... The answer to the question, it turns out, tells us the most important thing about Robert III: He wants to be great. He deeply wants it. His relationship with his dad worked because he wanted to be pushed in ways that wouldn't work for many others."
"Now I look back on it and can't believe I did some of that stuff," Griffin III says in the same piece. "If you asked me to do some of that stuff today I probably wouldn't just because of where I am. But the only reason I'm where I am today is because I did that stuff back then. It created my foundation to be the athlete that I am today, whether it's running, [or] jumping."
Robert Griffin III encouraged his parents to move with him to Washington DC after he was drafted by the Redskins, and they rent a townhouse in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Griffin Jr. works a bureaucratic government job, and Griffin's mother, Jackie, touches up his trademark braids every two weeks.
The rising celebrity star of Griffin's parents is indicative of where our culture has come. Allen Iverson's mother—a courtside fixture wearing her son's jersey—made the celebrity NBA mother a mainstream entity. In the Times, there are photographs of Griffin's father by his son's side in the ubiquitous NFL draft holding-up-the-jersey photograph, and there are pictures aplenty of the elder Griffins, decked out in jerseys and RG3 gear at FedExField. Bob and Pam Tebow were an integral part of the Tebow public brand, leading up to the draft and even as a part of his NFL career. Family values, as a concept, appears to be making a comeback.
Griffin's parents are savvy enough to know that their über-involvement and unorthodox training methods may be a turnoff to some, and that they have to work to mitigate "Little League Parent" accusations. But the jury on their son is still out. If he becomes the next Steve Young, they'll look like geniuses. If he becomes the next Vince Young (a Rookie of the Year recipient and a subsequent NFL washout, currently unemployed), they'll look ... well ... like something else.
"You know how some of the time you have parents who live through their kids?" Jackie Griffin said in the piece. "That wasn't our goal."
* * *
As far as I can tell, Griffin worked like an animal and engineered his life so that it would turn out pretty much exactly the way that it's turned out so far. Few people would be willing to put in the work that Griffin put in along the way. He was also, clearly, blessed with an outsized portion of God-given raw talent and has been allowed by God to thus far navigate the puzzle of high school, recruitment, injury, coaching, and other outside factors almost perfectly.
These are the things you already know if you're a Redskins/RG3 follower: He was born in Okinawa, Japan, to army sergeants. The family lived for a time near Tacoma, Washington, and in New Orleans, Louisiana, before settling in Copperas Cove, Texas, which happened to be home to the kind of Texas high school football powerhouse that makes shows like Friday Night Lights interesting. I don't know how the Griffins settled in Copperas Cove. The fact is, we now live in a world where parents move their families to make more strategic high school football and recruitment decisions. Gone are the days of a kid growing up in a small town in Indiana, then just playing football for the high school in that small town in Indiana. If the kid has potential, chances are his father finagles a job transfer so that his son can play for the big high school in the well-heeled suburb so as to better his chances for a college scholarship. It's a new era, for better or worse.
The most impressive collection of high school game film I've ever personally viewed belonged to Mississippi legend Marcus Dupree, whose Philadelphia (MS) high school film had a "man amongst boys" quality to it, as the 6-foot-2-inch, 230-pound Dupree ran over, around, and away from high school kids on grainy, black-and-white Super 8 stock. Griffin's Copperas Cove film has a completely different quality. In it, we see Griffin displaying much of the same fluidity and polish we now see on Sunday afternoons. The same smooth drops. The same eyes perpetually upfield, where they're supposed to be. The same slick play-action fakes. The same well-timed, athletic scrambles. We see Griffin doing these things with talented teammates, many of whom went on to college careers, in college-quality high school stadiums. There is a polish and quality to Texas high school football that is indeed unparalleled. Urban Meyer once called it "Grown Man Football." I played small-college football and am convinced that Griffin's high school team would have mopped the field with any college team I was a part of. They looked like grown men.
Perennially ranked in the state standings, Copperas Cove's dedicated football website boasts District Championships in 2004, 2005, 2008, and 2011. It shows big, glossy photos of the school's state-of-the-art football facilities and boasts long lists of players, by graduating class, who went on to play college football. Griffin's graduating class, 2007, was relatively light on college talent, sending only eleven players to the next level, but the 2008 class put twenty-four players on college rosters. The Cove's weight room measures ten thousand square feet, making it roughly three times bigger than that of the Washington Redskins'.
While at Copperas Cove, Griffin was a three-sport star (football, basketball, track). In two seasons as a starting quarterback, Griffin rushed for a total of 2,161 yards and 32 touchdowns while passing for 3,357 yards and 41 touchdowns with 9 interceptions. As a senior, Copperas Cove was 13-2 but lost in the 4A state championship game. In track, Griffin broke state records for the 110-meter and 300-meter hurdles, and as a junior he was named to the USA Today All-USA track-and-field team. He also received the Gatorade Boys Texas Track and Field Athlete of the Year Award.
To add to the mythic quality of all this, Griffin was also class president and ranked seventh in his graduating class. Truth be told, it's an experience that few mere mortals can understand, much less relate to.
* * *
For the sake of perspective, consider that before Robert Griffin arrived, Baylor University football hadn't appeared in a bowl game since 1994. They hadn't made a Top 25 rankings appearance since 1986. Baylor's last non-kicker consensus All-American was defensive lineman Santana Dotson in 1991. In 2009, when Griffin was injured in Week 3, they struggled to a 4-8 overall record. It's not much of a stretch, then, to say that Robert Griffin III put Baylor football on the map; and it also goes without saying that carrying the hopes of a program on one's shoulders comes with a great deal of pressure.
I interviewed Michigan high school football legend and former Notre Dame quarterback Evan Sharpley about the pressures that come with being the starting quarterback at a high profile program. Sharpley played quarterback at Notre Dame between megastars Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen, and just a few years postgraduation, now eats unnoticed in a Michigan diner as we talk.
"I think the toughest part about playing that position at that level is the potential for letting down your friends and family," he said. "You've got the entire program on your shoulders, and you can't help but think, 'What if I fail? Or what if I don't succeed?' I think with Robert his background prepared him ... and his commitment to the process each week has allowed him to rise above that. For me, I immersed myself in a lot of different things ... things that kept me sane. I threw myself into my classroom studies, I got involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and I fell in love with working out and getting the most out of my body. I really lost myself in those things, and it helped me to deal with the pressure."
A four-star recruit with 4.4 speed and a rocket arm, Griffin was the biggest deal on campus the moment he arrived, much like he was the biggest deal in Washington even before he officially arrived as the team's first-round draft choice. Griffin was being pursued by higher-profile schools like Tennessee, Stanford, Nebraska, and Oregon, where he would have been a perfect choice to pilot Chip Kelly's high-octane offense. He ended up being the perfect player to pilot Art Briles's own high-octane, record-setting offense—brought over from the University of Houston where he coached prior to taking the Baylor job. So why did Griffin choose Baylor? We may never know, but it's clear that he has left an indelible mark on the university.
Griffin arrived at Baylor after graduating high school early, in the spring of 2008. He immediately won a Big 12 track-and-field title in the 400-meter hurdles and, oh yeah, was a semifinalist in hurdles at the 2008 Olympic Trials. Not bad for a college freshman.
As a true freshman, Griffin started and guided the Bears to a 4-8 record, grabbing Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors. In a 41-21 upset over Texas A&M, the eighteen-year-old Griffin showed the poise and confidence that would mark his tenure at Baylor, throwing for 2 long touchdowns and adding 56 rushing yards. The die had been cast and optimism ran high, but Griffin missed most of the 2009 season, sustaining a torn ACL in the third game of the season. Without him, the team struggled to another disappointing 4-8 record.
Perhaps the most impressive showpieces in Griffin's college career were back-to-back victories over the University of Texas, which has long been the king of college football programs in the state. In 2011, Texas visited Baylor on Senior Day in a game in which the Heisman Trophy may have hung in the balance.
"We thought if we came out with a victory, we could win the Heisman. It's not just about me, it's about all of Baylor Nation," Griffin said. "I don't know if you can say we deserve it, but [it] would definitely be warranted."
Wearing their all-green uniforms, and after a rousing introduction complete with what are now major college football staples—bigger-than-life images of each player on a Jumbotron—Griffin came out and gave a signature performance that sealed Baylor's first 9-win season since 1986. Griffin had to have a big day to cover for a Baylor defense that had already given up 30 or more points eight times in the 2011 season.
On the second play from scrimmage, Griffin eluded the rush, set himself, and threw a deep scoring strike to Kendall Wright, now a member of the Tennessee Titans. They would never look back. Griffin would pass for 320 yards with touchdown strikes of 59 and 39 yards. His first touchdown run, just before the half, gave Baylor the lead; and his second scoring run in the second half salted the game away.
"He's the most dynamic player in the NCAA," said senior running back Terrance Ganaway, who set a Baylor record for rushing yards in a season during the game.
"Not too many years ago, they said Baylor would never be 9-3, would never beat Texas, would never beat Oklahoma," Griffin told the media. "Why not [win the Heisman]?"
It's hard to measure the impact of a win like this on a program like Baylor's. All the major conferences have schools like these—the Baylors, the Purdues, the Northwesterns, the Iowa States—programs that toil in obscurity for years until a signature player or coach arrives to lead them to the Promised Land and a few moments in the sun. Baylor's moment was 2011.
Griffin's final college game, the 2011 Alamo Bowl versus Washington, was the second highest-scoring college bowl game ever and may in many ways captured the spirit of the Griffin era at Baylor. Though he was only average that evening—Griffin was 24-33 for 259 yards and a scoring strike that came on the first drive of the game—the ending was a memorable one for Baylor fans and the perfect note on which to exit the college stage.
Excerpted from ROBERT GRIFFIN III by TED KLUCK. Copyright © 2013 Ted Arnold Kluck a/k/a Ted Kluck. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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