Facing the biggest obstacle in his football career, RG3 turned to a former Olympian for help

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports

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Robert Griffin III emerges victorious after his first career start as a professional. (Reuters)

It is as much a part of the Robert Griffin III package as the dreads, the RG3 abbreviation or the witty intelligence that charms and disarms all who meet the Washington Redskins quarterback.

It is … the injury.

Griffin's torn anterior cruciate ligament at the start of his sophomore season at Baylor and the way he rebounded from it to become a Heisman Trophy winner and the No.2 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft is held up as the ultimate proof of his champion's character.

Griffin tore his ACL during a game in 2009, but a crucial part of the tale that helped him rebound from the injury has remained largely unknown, one that saw Griffin seek counsel from an Olympic track star in the rare moments when his belief started to waver.

As Griffin prepares for Sunday's visit to the St Louis Rams, where he will attempt to repeat his superb debut performance in a 40-32 road victory over Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, his father revealed how 1992 relay gold medalist and former world record holder Leroy Burrell had helped keep the clouds of self-doubt at bay when it mattered most.

"When Robert got that injury, I was not going to leave any stone unturned and I wanted to know everything I could about it," Robert Griffin Jr. told Yahoo! Sports. "I looked all across the spectrum to see what athletes had come back from it and been successful.

"It really came down to Jerry Rice and Leroy Burrell, they were the guys who had done it, come back and been great again. I didn't have access to Jerry Rice, but I did have access to Coach Burrell."

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Leroy Burrell (Getty Images)

Leroy Burrell became Coach Burrell in 1998, taking control of the University of Houston track program that once boasted himself and a certain Carl Lewis on its squad. Griffin, a 400-meter hurdler of such repute that he finished 11th in the 2008 Olympic trials as an 18-year-old, was originally destined to become a Cougar on a joint football and track scholarship.

That all changed when Houston football coach Art Briles left to join Baylor before Griffin's freshman season, meaning RG3's college destiny would be clad in deep green not red and white. But Griffin and his father had both felt a connection with Burrell during campus visits and the lines of communication were reopened when injury struck with a combination of terrible timing and a torn ligament.

Griffin had enjoyed a productive freshman season at Baylor, starting 11 of 12 games and earning Big 12 freshman of the year honors. The torn ACL, sustained in the third game of his sophomore year, was a huge roadblock and through those long months of rehab the NFL seemed a long ways away. His father, a proud man with a military background who raised his children with strict discipline yet unwavering love, was not prepared to let RG3's mindset become clouded by the dual agonies of treatment and months on the sidelines. So he picked up the phone.

"We had to make sure we were careful not to break any NCAA rules as [Burrell] was coach at a different program," Griffin Jr. said. "I would call him while Robert was in my presence, as he was not allowed to call us.

"Robert was very determined not to let the injury beat him, but it is hard when you feel there is no one who understands what you are feeling – the pain, the disappointment, wondering what the future holds for you.

"It was such a huge benefit to have someone that had instant credibility with us, able to talk and help him see some things with a new perspective, to see that this could be recovered from and you could still be great.

"I could identify with Robert, I am his father. Anyone who has been injured could identify with him. But he and Leroy had an emotional connection on that issue because of the respect and the understanding of what battles need to be overcome."

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For Burrell, the parallels between his own story and that of the impressive young man who he spoke to were uncanny. Burrell also tore his ACL, also after a stellar freshman season, also putting his career in jeopardy.

His left knee buckled during a triple jump attempt at the Southwest Conference outdoors in 1986, forcing a frustrating season on the sidelines. But if anything, the setback added fresh impetus to his career and within five years Burrell broke the 100-meter world record with a 9.90 seconds. He went on to win gold in the relay at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

"I wanted Robert to see that what happened to me was possible for him," Burrell told Yahoo! Sports. "I tore my ACL and came back to reach the highest level. Once you injure your knee it is just a really dark time. You think your whole world is caving in.

"I told his father to look out for certain things – to tell him that Robert would feel certain things and that he should not worry about it."

While Griffin seems to be as grounded as they come, Burrell warned of the difficulty in adapting to life outside the glare of public attention and without a direct outlet for his competitive spirit.

"It is really tough to go from performing at the best level of your life to not being able to move properly," Burrell explained. "It is immediately a stark contrast in your life. From the world being at your doorstep, everything you've dreamed of, then it is gone and you don't know if it is coming back.

"I said there would be times when he would wonder whether it was worth all the effort it would take to get back there. I wanted him to realize that the rewards were worth that struggle, that he had to go in fully and make it back."

Make it back Griffin did, and the pattern of over-achievement that would lead him to graduate both high school and college a year early translated to the football field once more.

Life is pretty darn good for Griffin right now as the RG3 show prepares for its second episode this weekend. But as much as his father reflects on the work ethic and dedication that have propelled him towards stardom, he does not underestimate the impact of a former track star who became a friend and mentor.

"We will always be grateful to Leroy Burrell," Griffin Jr. said. "Any time you take a journey like Robert's there will be people who help you along the way, and he has been a really important one."

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