- Tom Friend, ESPN.com Senior writer
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LONG BEFORE HE was known as a Roman numeral, 16-year-old Robby Griffin sat at the hospital bed of his terminally ill great-grandmother, 83-year-old Mattie Wright, who refused to let go of Robby's palm. She kept murmuring, "Robert Griffin ... Robert Griffin ... Robert Griffin." Out of respect, the teenager didn't pull away until she fell asleep.
On his way out of the hospital, Robby seemed pensive and asked his father why she had squeezed his hand so long. "She lost her son young -- my daddy, your grandfather -- and you remind her of him. You know who I'm talking about, right?"
Robert Griffin I.
Robby asked questions about the original Robert Griffin and heard about his toothy smile, about how he slapped almost everyone he met on the back. But
it never came up again until Robby took the field for his first game as a Baylor Bear two years later, wearing Griffin III on the back of his jersey.
From his seat in the stadium that day, Robert Griffin II was stunned. No one had ever called his son "Robert Griffin the third," and he wasn't sure he was in favor of it. He'd named him Robert at his father's request and regretted it for years. He didn't want his son to feel the burden he had felt, of living up to his father's name. But the moment Robby showed up for that first game proudly wearing his Roman numeral, Robert Jr. realized his son -- soon to be known as RG3 -- had become his own man.
He thought about Robby's life. At 2, he was living in Japan, and at 6, he was living in a slum. At 9, Robby was singing solos in church, and at 11, his principal thought he'd someday be U.S. president. He had finished high school in three and a half years. He irreverently wore SpongeBob socks and composed songs. His goal in life was to be a lawyer. So the III on his back wasn't a burden at all; it was the symbol of one family's journey. "My dad always promised me he'd give me more than he ever had," Robby says. "The least I could do was pay him back, pay my great-grandmother back, pay my grandfather back."
ROBERT GRIFFIN I used to strut. He was a foreman for a New Orleans construction company, and his favorite day was payday. He'd swing by the local bank to deposit a portion of his check and then head home with the rest for a group outing to the grocery store.
One particular day, he rounded up his eight children, including Robert Jr., and marched them single file to that market and bought everything under the sun, including all their favorite cereals and sweets. On the way home, Griffin noticed a disheveled neighborhood family down on its luck. He handed the family his entire batch of groceries, including the sweets, which made Junior want to cry. "I'm 9 years old, and I'm hurt," Griffin II says. "But then he said,
'Come on, let's go back to the store.' So we go back and get even more than we got the first time."
Griffin was always trying to fix the neighborhood, and by building houses he felt he was also building families. But the family he wanted to build most was his own. He would harp on Robert Jr. about school, about being disciplined, about the importance of smiling. Robert Jr. was the serious one, whereas Griffin was a pied piper, the one who nodded at every citizen he ever saw. "My dad was a galvanizing figure," Griffin II says. "Everybody liked him. When he came around, people wanted to know his thoughts, his plans. It was hard to follow that."
Griffin was clearly a man of vision, but then he lost his own. At the age of 40, his eyesight grew progressively worse, and he was eventually diagnosed with glaucoma. He could work only sporadically, and there were fewer trips to the bank. The family he cherished so much had to move to the projects of New Orleans, not far from the Superdome, and Robert Jr. needed to come up with his own plan for the future.
As a lefthanded quarterback who could hurl the ball 50 yards, Robert Jr. would have loved to play college football. He had seen lefthanded Ken Stabler play for the Raiders and liked how Stabler would move, extend plays and rifle balls downfield. Robert Jr. modeled himself after the lefty, as well as righthanded quarterbacks Fran Tarkenton, Roger Staubach and the local Saints QB, Archie Manning. Like them, he was athletic; he could scoot around and make a play last forever. But he never got the chance. He says his high school coach thought lefty QBs were too unorthodox.
He focused on basketball but never received a scholarship offer and didn't have the money to walk on to a college. "After my older sister went to college and it bankrupted us, I chose something different and pursued the military as a jump start," he says. His father -- who could see only shadows by then -- gave his blessing, telling him to stay safe. A year later, Robert I was dead at
43 of a brain aneurysm. "It floored me," says Griffin II, who was 19 at the time. "This guy was the strongest guy I knew."
Robert Jr. dedicated himself to his military service, and three years later, it paid off. He married Jacqueline Ross—also an Army sergeant. He wanted to build a family the way his father had, to provide an environment conducive to growth. They had two daughters, Jihan and De'Jon, and on Feb. 12, 1990, Jacqueline gave birth in Okinawa, Japan, to a son who'd eventually walk at 9 months and run a full-on sprint at 12 months.
THE KID NEVER gave much thought to his suffix. His father would call him Rob or Robert, and his mother called him Robby. They made it a point to never refer to him as Trey or The Third. The idea was to let him evolve on his own, and what they soon had was a kid who would tease his sisters and sprint away -- too fast to be caught. He would also never let them cut his hair. He liked it long and in braids, and at the military bases where they lived -- in Japan and Fort Lewis, Wash. -- he would have it tied into a ponytail.
The insulated world of the military suited the family. The bases were diverse, and Robby particularly enjoyed taking karate lessons. But when he was 6 years old, the Army sent his parents to separate bases in Korea for a year, forcing the children to stay with Robert Jr.'s family in New Orleans.
Robby had never seen a roach or a rat before and was squeamish about the living conditions. He vividly recalls having a toothache one day, and rather than taking him to a dentist, his relatives tied one end of a string to his tooth and the other end to a doorknob. They then slammed the door to remove the tooth. School made Robby want out of the projects only more. At the military base, his long hair had been a novelty, but in New Orleans, the kids teased him mercilessly. They said he looked like a girl and nicknamed him Ponytail. "He went into a shell," Jacqueline says. "We had always taught them not to
speak about other people, to be mindful of people's feelings, so for him to go to school and be teased, it was culture shock."
But when the year was up and the family moved permanently to Fort Hood, Texas, Robert Jr. noticed a new toughness in his son, as well as a growing athleticism. When the 7-year-old aspiring point guard told his father he wanted to be the next Michael Jordan, Robert Jr. made him dribble for an hour with his left hand to the point that Robby cried. "I was mad," Robby says. "Then I realized what it was going to take. My dad would say, 'If you're going to do something, why not be the best?'" He told his father he wanted to be the fastest kid on the base, so Robert Jr. made him run hills with a spare tire tied around his back. "My parents were huge on discipline. It was yes sir, no ma'am," Robby says. "And if you say you're going to start something, you finish it."
But Robert Jr. was careful, never domineering or loud. He simply had his son's ear -- and respect. "Too many times, people will stifle a kid's growth by saying, 'Well, I'm going to beat him,'" Griffin II says. "He watched me, and I'd play with him, but I never won. I was always on the brink of the last shot, and I would never make that shot. He'd go back and tell everyone, 'My dad never beat me,' and that was by design. But at some point, he started running faster than me, jumping higher than me and shooting better than me. He was winning legitimately."
The family took that same tack with academics. Jacqueline would tutor him on his writing, and Robert Jr. was in charge of math. They offered Robby and his sisters two toys for every A on their report card, and when they reached middle school, the offer improved to $100 per A. Robby was a straight-A student. If he ever got a B, which rarely happened, he'd race back to his teacher asking if he could do extra credit. It got to the point that his father withdrew the $100 offer.
But Robby's next test wasn't one that could be aced. The morning of his 13th birthday, Feb. 12, 2003, about 5 a.m., his father woke him with news that he would be leaving to serve in Iraq, in charge of refueling tanks and helicopters. He was due to leave in an hour. Robby wept. Robert Jr. gave him a workout regimen to follow and said: "You the man now. You're going to have to take care of your sisters and your mom. I do not want them watching CNN all the time, worrying about me. Daddy's going to be okay."
During that time, Robby and his sisters slept in Jacqueline's bed every night. On the evening of March 19, 2003 -- when the U.S. attacked Iraq -- Robby caught Jacqueline watching the news. "Dad said not to watch that!" he howled. He turned off the TV. "A lot of kids in that area had parents who didn't come back," Robby says. "I didn't want to be one of those kids. But I knew if he didn't come back, I was going to have to take care of my family."
He was a different kid now; he was independent. He ran hills on his own, with that old tire attached to his belt. "I grew up," Robby says.
Six months later, when his father returned home safely, they ran into each other's arms. Robert Jr. never told his son that Iraqi soldiers came inches from blowing up a fuel truck he was in. Instead, they talked about a new sport Robby wanted to try: football.
The old lefty quarterback regaled his son with stories of Stabler and Tarkenton and urged Robby to play the position -- but to play it the Griffin way. Just because he was the fastest kid in school didn't mean he had to be solely an option quarterback. He could throw first, run second. He could scramble and look downfield like Roger the Dodger.
At Copperas Cove High School, Robby wasn't the typical macho quarterback. He would write songs and unashamedly wear his braids. He rejected the latest designer gear. One day in 10th grade, Robby couldn't find matching blue socks, so he wore one blue sock and one red one (with shorts, no less).
His buddies laughed, the cheerleaders giggled, the geeks nodded -- and he smiled that toothy grin. "Eventually, I would wear all kinds of socks," Robby says. "I wear polka dot, striped, argyle, Scooby-Doo, Elmo, Cookie Monster. I got penguins, I've got holiday socks, snowflakes, Christmas, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, snowmen, Santa Claus, Snoopy, Mickey Mouse, Tinkerbell, the Grinch, Winnie the Pooh and Kermit the Frog."
It was the Robert Griffin I in him, but Robert Jr.'s work ethic was in him too. In Robby's junior year, he was starting point guard, starting quarterback, a track standout and class president. His GPA was just south of 4.0. He didn't have his driver's license and never went to one postgame party. "No way," says Robert Jr. "Alcohol this, alcohol that. We weren't going to risk it. His coaches always knew he was home icing, stretching, getting prepared for the next day."
When colleges started calling, LSU and Oklahoma recruited him to be a receiver or defensive back. But Robby followed his plan, which meant committing to coach Art Briles and Baylor so he could play quarterback.
THE DAY he wore Griffin III on his jersey for the first time, there were 20,000 empty seats at Baylor's Floyd Casey Stadium. A year later, the crowds were chanting, "Robeeeerrt Griffiiiin" -- clap, clap ... clap, clap, clap. Before long, a Waco anchorman gave Robby the nickname that would stick for good: RG3. Just when Baylor was thinking the unthinkable -- a bowl game -- RG3 hurt his knee in September 2009 against Northwestern State. It happened on a fourth-and-two option play on the game's first series, yet he played the rest of the first half, throwing for 226 yards and three scores and running for 16 yards. When he heard the next day that his ACL was torn, he wept—not for himself, he says, but for his team. "It sucked," he says. "That was the year we were supposed to end the bowl drought. I actually wanted to play without having surgery."
The 15-year drought would last one more year. His father made sure the operation was done, enlisting Houston surgeon Mark Adickes -- a former Washington Redskin -- to do the reconstruction. The Baylor staff was thankful to have RG2 (Robert Jr. got a moniker upgrade as well) running interference with all of the media attention, and Robby was grateful too. RG3's inner circle was his parents and his girlfriend, Rebecca Liddicoat, but immediately after surgery he needed his father more than ever. He was despondent after the injury, skipping classes for weeks and in dire need of counsel.
RG2's plan was to rehab his son's mind as much as his body. He asked Leroy Burrell, who had overcome a torn ACL to set a 100-meter world record, to give RG3 a pep talk. To keep his son's arm sharp, RG2 had Robby throw passes from his couch. Later, he had him throwing passes from a chair in a parking lot.
In 2010, a healthy and focused RG3 took Baylor to the Texas Bowl, its first postseason game since 1994. He was such a campus phenomenon now that whenever he walked to class, Baylor students would tweet: "RG3 smiled at me." Yet nothing could top what was to follow in 2011. In one calendar year, Robby earned his degree in political science (in just three years), enrolled in graduate school (studying film and digital media), contemplated law school (Baylor being his first choice), got engaged to Liddicoat (singing his proposal by candlelight at the team's practice facility) and became a finalist for the Heisman Trophy (intending to wear Superman socks to the ceremony).
A few days before flying to New York, he sat in a Waco dress shop while Rebecca picked out something to wear for Heisman night. He had time to kill, so he started writing an acceptance speech in case he won. He thought of his father and grandfather, and the phrase "unbelievably believable" popped into his head. Unbelievable because he used to be just a small kid in a ponytail. Believable because he ran hills for 15 years to get where he was.
When he accepted the trophy, he got to read the speech out loud in those Superman socks. But RG2 had researched Heisman flops (see Andre Ware, Gino Torretta, Eric Crouch, Danny Wuerffel) and decided many had gotten fat and happy. So hours later, RG2 and RG3 were working out at the hotel fitness center at 2 a.m. "I told him, '10 years down the road, you're the Heisman Trophy winner,'" RG2 explains. "'But right now you can't act like that. You've got to act the way you acted before you won the award.'"
After the season, RG3 spent five weeks training in Phoenix, taking only one day off each week. Then at the combine he ran a 4.41 40 and showed off his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles socks afterward. Scouts were trying to compare him to Cam Newton and Tim Tebow, but RG3 says, "People would say I'm more polished as a passer than Tebow and Cam, but I'm not as physical a runner. But I am 6'2", 223, and I can throw with the best of them."
RG2 had raised his son to be Stabler-Tarkenton-Staubach, not Michael Vick. The Redskins were the team that ultimately bought in, and coach Mike Shanahan promised RG3 at the combine they would try to trade up for him. Two weeks later, on March 9, the Redskins swung their monstrous deal to move up to No. 2 in the draft. With the Colts apparently sold on Andrew Luck with the overall No. 1 pick, RG3 to the Redskins seemed a fait accompli. The nation's capital went bananas.
Washington hasn't had a reliable quarterback since Mark Rypien in 1991, and right away fans began singing a revitalized version of their fight song:
Hail to the Redskins
Braves on the warpath
Block for RG3
The prevailing opinion is that if he can turn Baylor around, RG3 can do the same for Washington. All he asks is for the franchise to "grind it out" with him until he gets it right. In the meantime, he's about to go to the bank, like RG1 did, and about to get married young like RG2. He and Rebecca want to eventually start a family, and they already have a name picked out for their son:
Robert Griffin IV.
Robert Griffin III is no ordinary QB -- he's a legacy who embodies the traits of his predecessors, both one and two. In ESPN The Magazine, Tom Friend explores the life of RG3 in this definitive profile on the draft's most important player.