Even before his first year as a pro, which was last season, Robert Griffin III was celebrated as the man who would haul the NFL’s franchise in Washington, D.C. out of ignominy. Last season, he led them to the playoffs. On a bad knee. Some have suggested that the enormous amount of attention Griffin has brought to the team might embarrass the owner into changing the team’s name. In RG3: The Promise, Washington Post writer Dave Sheinin presents the story of the man for whom he feels the NFL may be just a stepping stone to greater glory.
Highlights from Bill’s interview with Dave Sheinin
BL: Robert Griffin III’s first season in the NFL was extraordinary, but please summarizes that achievement for us.
DS: Well, you know, he came into a franchise that was at one time one of the flagship franchises in the NFL but that had fallen on really awful times in the last decade or so and completely transformed the team — remade the Redskins in his image, which is full of energy, confidence. His brilliant play on the field was almost secondary to the force of personality that he came in with and sort of just transformed the entire atmosphere, led the team to their first division title since 1999. And they had their first home playoff game since the same time frame. So it was just a hugely successful rookie year.
BL: You mention an exchange between a very young Robert Griffin and his mother when he promised her, with a pinky promise no less, that he would never get hurt playing football. Tell us a little bit about that promise, and the point at which Griffin had to back it off.
DS: He had played basketball and run track early on in his youth and was great at both, actually world-class as a track athlete. But he wanted to play football. He was growing up in Texas. He was an Army kid who had moved around a lot younger in his life. Eventually they settled in Copper’s Cove, Texas, the Griffins did. Obviously in Texas, football is king, and it’s not even close. So Robert wanted to play football and his dad was a huge football fan also wanted his son to play football. But the mom was the one holdout. She was a tough one. Eventually, she agreed. She relented, I should say. The deal was, they made a pinky promise where Robert swore to her that he would not get hurt. In fact he even said, “Mom, no one’s even going to tackle me to hurt me.’ So he played that year I believe he was 12. Obviously he did get tackled. He got his uniform dirty. He probably got a bang and a bruise. But for the most part, until he got to college he had never really experienced an injury.
BL: It struck me as I was reading your book that in one year Griffin had really embodied the whole NFL experience. He broke records, he lifted a team that had been struggling, he got hurt, he played hurt, and then proceeded from the last game of the season to surgery. Have I left anything out?
DS: Well, that’s the gist of it. But the one thing maybe you did leave out was he also became a marketing icon or a super figure in Madison Avenue. He had four nation-wide major commercial campaigns before he took his first snap in the NFL: Nissan, Gatorade, Subway and Adidas. Huge companies. It was almost unprecedented the way he came into the league with that sort of hype and marketing power behind him.
BL: Sort of the Tiger Woods of the NFL.
DS: In a sense, yes, Tiger was certainly one model for him. LeBron James was another. He’s a singular type of figure in the magnetism he has, and the way that people are drawn to him. Aside from his on-the-field brilliance, there’s just something about him that people connect with.
BL: This team in Washington has a tradition of quarterbacks who are African-American, and everybody talked about “Oh, an African-American quarterback.” Is Griffin the first that we don’t have to talk about it?
DS: In a sense, that’s exactly right. Doug Williams obviously was the most significant one. He won a Super Bowl for the Redskins. He remains the only African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. In recent years, the Redskins have had Donovan McNabb and Jason Campbell. And so the novelty is certainly gone to have an African-American quarterback leading the Redskins. But Griffin, again, I think, is a singular figure here. There’s a connection to him and that connection is even deeper in African-American D.C. Washington is very much a city where race is ever present. And so I do think Robert is a unique figure even though by this point in history we’re past the time where the Redskins having an African-American quarterback is notable on its own.
Early in RG3, Dave Sheinin tells the story of how Robert Griffin III promised his mother that he wouldn’t get hurt playing football.
It was a Pinkie Promise.
According to Sheinin, for a time, young Robert kept his word. It was easy. He was faster than the other boys. Nobody tackled him, because nobody could catch him.
By the time Robert Griffin reached the NFL last year that was no longer the case. At the end of his exceptionally productive rookie season, the quarterback was limping on a badly damaged knee. Some observers blamed Griffin’s coach for allowing him to remain in the game after he’d been injured. Others blamed Griffin himself for not asking to be removed from the game.
As RG3’s fans anticipate the beginning of the 2013-2014 season, there is some concern about how well he will perform on his surgically reconstructed knee. Sheinin quotes one spectacularly optimistic orthopedist who feels the injury and subsequent repair “may ultimately be a good thing for RG3,” because he will no longer take the chances he once took as a quarterback. He will no longer be so eager to run. He will “evolve into the position.” The Washington offense he drives will also “evolve.”
Maybe that’s the way it will work out. If not, fans of the NFL’s Washington franchise will have had one season much more exciting than the many seasons of frustration that preceded it.
Though much of RG3: The Promise is devoted to celebrating the talents of one man, Dave Sheinin also spends some time hammering the owner of the Washington franchise, Daniel Snyder, for turning the team “into a laughingstock.” More significantly, he speculates about the pro game itself. At one point in the epilogue, which is subtitled “The Reckoning,” he considers the way the league has changed some of the rules, presumably to protect the brains of its players. Sheinin wonders about the impact of the changes. He has doubts about them. He asks whether “violence is so deeply ingrained in the nature of the game that removing too much of it will be fatal to the NFL itself.”
It’s an interesting question. Another interesting question would be this: How should we all feel about a game that might die because of rule changes meant to minimally protect the men who play it from such outcomes as constant pain, drug dependence, dementia, and, in extreme cases, suicide?