Commentary

Baylor's Griffin gets his chance

Originally Published: December 10, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The next time someone tells you that college football is run by a handful of schools that swap the trophies among themselves, tell him about Robert Griffin III winning the 2011 Heisman Trophy.

Griffin is a redshirt junior quarterback from Baylor, a double-wide among the traditional mansions in Corsoville. Baylor last won an outright conference championship in 1980 (RIP, Southwest Conference) and, until Griffin arrived, last had a winning season in 1995.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Kelly Kline/Getty ImagesRobert Griffin III said he's still getting used to the demands that come with winning the Heisman Trophy. "I don't think it's hit me yet," he said.

Griffin took the Bears to a 7-6 record and a bowl game last season. This year, No. 12 Baylor is 9-3 with victories over three ranked teams. In his three-plus seasons, Griffin has set 52 school records in passing, rushing and total offense. He has thrown for 3,998 yards and 36 touchdowns this season, and is on pace (192.31) to set an NCAA single-season record in passing efficiency.

And as of Saturday night, the university has its first winner of the most recognized trophy in American sports.

"It's unbelievable and believable," Griffin said as he accepted the award. "It's unbelievable because in the moment, we're all amazed when great things happen. But it's believable because great things don't happen without hard work. The great [Baylor] coach Art Briles always says great things only come with great effort. We've certainly worked for this. That's right -- everybody associated with Baylor University has a reason to celebrate tonight."

"Hopefully, it will inspire people to chase their dreams," Griffin said later. "I made my dream a reality."

Griffin is a model citizen, an outstanding student who talks of law school, an NFL prospect and a collector of outlandish socks. (On Saturday, he wore Superman blue socks with the Man of Steel's insignia and, of course, red capes.) And as the voters indicated, he can play some ball.

Griffin received 405 first-place votes among the 927 ballots. His point total (on a 3-2-1 basis) of 1,687 easily defeated redshirt junior quarterback and season-long Heisman favorite Andrew Luck of Stanford, who finished second with 1,407 points. Griffin appeared on 80 percent of the ballots; Luck, 75 percent. Alabama tailback Trent Richardson, who finished third with 978 points, appeared on 56 percent.

Luck joins running backs Charlie Justice of North Carolina (1948-1949) and Darren McFadden of Arkansas (2006-2007) as the only players to finished second in consecutive seasons. However, when combined with Cardinal running back Toby Gerhart's second-place finish in 2009, Stanford becomes the first school with three consecutive runner-up finishes.

Griffin entered the Best Buy Theater in Times Square to the cheers of plenty of Bears fans, including Brittney Griner and the No. 1 Lady Bears basketball team, which will play St. John's on Sunday in the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden.

Times Square is a long way from Copperas Cove (Texas) High. Griffin signed with Baylor because Briles believed in his ability to play quarterback. Other coaches did not.

"You can't make a slow person fast," Briles said Saturday night. "He was already fast. When I saw he could throw the ball with accuracy and velocity, I told the coaches, 'We got to hide him. We got something special here.'"

Briles needn't have worried. Griffin committed to Houston to play for Briles. When Briles went to Baylor, Griffin went with him.

"I had just signed my letter of intent, so he could say whatever he wanted then," Griffin recalled Saturday night. "He told me ... with my abilities to run the ball, and he was going to help me develop as a passer, it would be something that college football has never seen and something that the NFL has never seen. And all those things are coming true. But it only comes true with hard work. We had a lot of trials and tribulations. When I tore my ACL my sophomore year, things could have [gone] haywire."

That Griffin received an invitation to New York, much less won the Heisman, is a tribute to modern medicine. He isn't the first player to return from an ACL tear to win the trophy. Oklahoma quarterback Jason White did so in 2003 after missing most of the previous two years with knee injuries.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Jerome Miron/US PresswireRG3 delivered many Heisman moments against Texas in Baylor's regular-season finale.

But White returned to football without his speed and quickness. Griffin, who hurt his knee against Northwestern (La.) State in the third game of the 2009 season, returned to the Baylor starting lineup in 2010. Forget what you might have seen of him early last season. Griffin said he had regained every bit of his speed and lateral movement when he stepped on the practice field in August.

Whether he had or not.

"It's a mental thing," Griffin said. "You have to make sure your mental side of the game is right. I wanted to make sure when I stepped on the field, I thought nothing was wrong with me. Now, some would say, third game of the season, fourth game of the season ..."

"We were real cautious with him early," Briles said. "We really didn't turn him loose completely until midway through the season."

The injury made him realize how much football meant to him.

"I didn't love the game of football before I got hurt," he said. "I played it because I was good at it. Now I truly appreciate it. When you can't go to practice, can't walk, can't go to the bathroom by yourself, it teaches you to appreciate all those little things."

By the time Griffin stepped on the field for the 2011 opener against defending Rose Bowl champion TCU, he made it clear that he had rehabbed every bit of his God-given ability. He completed 21 of 27 passes for 359 yards and five touchdowns in a 50-48 upset of the Horned Frogs. And he proved that he again could embarrass a defender in open space. He rushed for 644 yards and nine touchdowns this season.

"After we beat TCU, and he goes and gets on 'College GameDay' in Dallas, and people saw what kind of person he was, [besides] the player, I knew his stock would skyrocket," Briles said, "because what everybody saw is what we'd known for four years."

Griffin finished the season in spectacular fashion. He led Baylor to a 45-38 upset of No. 5 Oklahoma, the Bears' first victory ever over the Sooners, with a 34-yard pass to Terrance Williams with 8 seconds to play. That might have been his Heisman moment, unless it was the 87-yard pass he bounced off the helmet of Baylor receiver Tevin Reese into the hands of teammate Kendall Wright.

Unless it was his 320-yard, three-touchdown performance in Baylor's 48-24 rout of Texas on Dec. 3. Luck won an overwhelming majority of the 20 percent of the votes that came in prior to the victory over the Longhorns. Griffin won the majority of the 80 percent that came in after the game. Baylor has its first Heisman. Score one for the little guys.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com