WACO, Texas – The holy man raised his hands over the children that night. And he closed his eyes and prayed for them until at last Bishop Nate Holcomb reached the 10-year-old boy whose parents had joined the church three years before. And as Holcomb placed his palm on the head of young Robert Griffin III, he felt a surge he's never been able to adequately describe.
"The hand of God is upon him," he told the boy's parents. "And God wants to shoot him as an arrow from his quiver."
Then the pastor, who didn't much follow sports, had a vision.
"He will do it through athletics," he said.
Jacqueline Griffin saw this as a prophecy. Her youngest child and only son was already a better basketball player than the other kids in their central Texas town of Copperas Cove. Soon he would thrive at track, running hurdles in a way no one around them had ever seen. Something in Holcomb's words in their church that night confirmed a sensation she already had. Standing beside her husband, Robert II, the one who was already training their son to be an athlete, she felt the same power as the pastor.
"I knew he was going to revolutionize and change the world of sports," she says. Robert Griffin III was taught to be his own man, a hard thing to become in a sport that demands conformity. Robert II and Jacqueline raised a son comfortable enough with himself that he can wear pink socks or sit for hours while his mother braids his hair and prays over him in a bonding routine they call "mommy time." They let him believe enough in his abilities that, as a teenager, he could eliminate colleges that didn't see him as a quarterback. They told him to not be afraid to be smart and so he graduated a semester early from high school and earned a degree at Baylor in three years.
And they allowed him to become so confident that he could eventually say no to playing with Andrew Luck at Stanford and could consider quitting football for track.
When NFL scouts anonymously say they find Griffin "selfish" or "entitled," they might really be struggling with the idea of how a player largely unknown only a few months ago can seem this assured, as if he expected to win the Heisman Trophy. And when he says that he did – not in a boastful or arrogant way, but with a cold-eyed calm – the tendency is to doubt his sincerity. That is until you realize he has met every target he ever set for himself – running hurdles in the Olympic trials, playing quarterback in college, winning the Heisman, graduating early and being a projected high pick in the NFL draft – that he figures there's nothing he can't do.
"I don't think he's ever going to change," says Eastern Illinois head football coach Dino Babers, who was the receivers coach at Baylor the past four years. "He bends a little bit with who he is with, but his personality is so straight and the path he is going is non-winding. He sets a goal and meets a goal, sets a goal and meets a goal, sets a goal and meets a goal."
Griffin has a story about his father he loves to repeat. He thinks it summarizes the man's devotion and obsession. It happened when Griffin was 7 and he told Robert II he wanted to play basketball like Michael Jordan. The next day Robert II took Robert III to a basketball court behind a local junior high school and made him dribble left-handed for three hours until Robert III finally went home in tears.
Asked about this, Robert II chuckles.
"I think he's exaggerating that," he says.
The real story, Robert II continues, is that there were six baskets behind the school and he had his son move clockwise between them, making left-handed layups until he got to 120.
"I think he went through it pretty quickly," Robert II says. "It didn't take three hours."
Which is what it is like having an Army sergeant for a father.
Robert II controlled much of Robert III's athletic life from elementary school through high school and sometimes after that. The father believed in the power of video and showed his son endless tapes of Jordan, imploring him to emulate the moves until he had them right. And when Robert III showed an interest in football, Robert II told him he had to be a quarterback and pulled tapes of passers for every situation: Fran Tarkenton and Ken Stabler for elusiveness; Jim Kelly and Warren Moon for passing and his favorite of all – John Elway of his beloved Broncos for overall brilliance.
But just watching professional highlight tapes wasn't enough. Neither was the 2006 Michigan-Ohio State game Robert II recorded and had his son watch over and over before his high school games because he believed it the perfect example of two teams refusing to bend. He wanted video of his son that he could watch and critique. Since he worked during the days at nearby Fort Hood, he had Jacqueline – herself a retired Army sergeant – sit in a car outside football practices videotaping every play, providing fresh footage for the after-dinner film discussion.
Robert II scouted his son like a defensive coordinator would. Often he'd stare at Robert III's cleats as they bounced on the grass, trying to predict if the boy would run or pass. If he guessed right, an adjustment needed to be made. And with Robert II, adjustments always needed to be made. He was forever scouring the tape, looking for flaws, mistakes, anything to be fixed.
Other families didn't understand. Parents made comments. They said the Griffins were getting in the way. They wondered why Robert II or Jacqueline had to be at all the practices as well as the games. They wondered why Jacqueline kept videotaping her son. They thought this strange and weird and more than a little monomaniacal.
But those parents didn't know what was being said when the Griffins were alone. They didn't know what Robert III was asking of his own family. They didn't know, for instance, that the day after being forced to take 120 layups left-handed and leaving the court in tears, he told his father he was ready to do it again.
"I wanted to be the best," Griffin says. "Maybe I didn't have the drive back then that I do now, but I definitely wanted to be the best. He pushed me because I wanted to be the best. He pushed me because I wanted to be pushed."
Maybe, too, there was this: Robert II didn't play organized sports as a child. Growing up in a housing project in New Orleans, he didn't have youth football leagues and youth basketball leagues. Like his son now, he too was his own man. A left-handed thrower, he longed to be a quarterback like his boyhood hero Stabler, but his high school coach didn't believe in left-handed quarterbacks and told Robert II if he wanted to play he would have to be a linebacker or running back or wide receiver. So Robert II chose not to play.
He went into the Army as an enlisted man and rose to sergeant. He worked supply jobs in the Army and played countless hours of basketball, which gave him a foundation in coaching fundamentals. On the first day of the second Iraq war, he was over the Kuwaiti border by dusk and saw things no one should ever have to see, things he doesn't want to talk about, things he has never told his children.
So, yes, let the other parents complain. Let them ask their questions. Let them demand something less than the A's and B's Robert II and Jacqueline expected of their children's report cards. Robert III and his two older sisters were going to have a different life. They were going to have everything their parents wished they could.
Robert III nearly went to Stanford, and how would that have changed everything? The battle of Luck vs. Griffin wouldn't have been waged at the top of the draft but rather in a remote practice field under a Northern California sun. Luck had already committed to the school and yet the new coach, Jim Harbaugh, seemed intrigued with Griffin's potential. Robert II remembers Harbaugh promoting a dual quarterback system in which Luck played some downs as a traditional passer and Griffin came in as a mobile contrast.
Robert III hated the idea. He didn't want to share time with anyone. But he questioned a verbal commitment he'd given to Houston at the start of his senior year of high school. Houston didn't seem to have the academic heft he wanted. His dream was to go to law school, and Stanford, of course, has a law school. Robert II loved the thought of his son at a school like Stanford, and so, as Harbaugh kept calling, Robert II gently encouraged Robert III to accept the coach's offer of a visit.
Eventually Griffin agreed and it would become the only official visit he took to any school. He fell in love with the lush campus, the soft breezes and the professors he met. Harbaugh pulled him into an office and showed him tape of Josh Johnson, an NFL-bound quarterback he'd coached, and told Griffin he could be better than Johnson.
There was a point when Griffin felt close to committing: "It all sounded great. Jim Harbaugh is a great recruiter," he recalls.
But he also wanted a school where his high school teammates could follow him to college, and he couldn't envision many kids from Copperas Cove going to Stanford. Plus there was the issue of Luck. He didn't see how they could co-exist.
"I'm not saying who would have left because there's no telling who would have left," Griffin says. "I'm glad I trusted myself and decided not to go down that path and then be stubborn. Respect talent. Get respect where respect is due, but don't be caught up in yourself where you do things obliviously and not pay attention to what is going on."
In the end, he told Harbaugh no.
Griffin did not meet Luck until last December at the college football awards in Orlando, Fla., two days before the Heisman Trophy announcement. Already the Luck vs. Griffin debate was simmering and Griffin says he walked up to the Stanford quarterback and said: "I don't want to be your enemy." When Griffin was awarded the trophy that Luck presumably stayed an extra year in college to win, he asked the other finalists to join him in one of the two limousines the Downtown Athletic club provides the winner.
Griffin and Luck still talk even as Griffin has climbed from a possible first-round selection to close to a draw with Luck for the No. 1 pick. Griffin texts Luck his continued desire that they not be "enemies." He says the media is trying to portray them as foes and he doesn't like it. Nonetheless, the relationship is complicated. When Griffin talks about Luck, he calls the quarterback "my counterpart" as in: "Contrary to popular belief, I actually threw for more yards than my counterpart the last two seasons."
Looking back, there are so many connections, so many coincidences that Jacqueline believes Baylor and the Heisman were meant to be for her son. Before Griffin visited Stanford, he gave the verbal commitment to Houston because the coach there, Art Briles, had seen him enough as a passer to believe in him the way so many other colleges didn't. But Griffin didn't want to go to Houston, he wanted Baylor, which was closer and had a law school.
Later that fall, Briles landed the job as Baylor's head coach. Griffin – who felt ignored by the previous Baylor staff – changed his commitment. This freed Houston's redshirt freshman quarterback Case Keenum to start for four years, breaking several school records and become a finalist for the Davey O'Brien award as the best college quarterback in addition to being a later-round prospect in this week's draft.
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Keenum still texts Griffin, jokingly thanking him for not going to Houston.
"It's funny," Griffin says, "All three of us were finalists for the Dave O'Brien and two of us could have been on the same team."
There was also a time when Griffin wasn't sure he was going to remain a football player. It came in the summer of 2008, which was between his first and second semesters at Baylor and he had spent most of the spring – in what should have been his last months in high school – running track and playing football. Then at 18, he stood on the track at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., surrounded by Tyson Gay and Allen Johnson and Terrence Trammell and he wondered if maybe this should be his future.
Already, though, he had gone through a spring of football practice, putting on 25 pounds, absorbing hits and missing the months of endurance-building the other runners had done. They were lighter, more experienced and better conditioned than Griffin. He wasn't ready for that level of competition. It frustrated him. When he lost the 400 hurdles at Baylor's own Michael Johnson classic, by the tiniest of margins, he was devastated.
"You don't understand," he told Babers, who came to watch the race. "I've never lost a hurdles race before."
"That's Robert Griffin," he says.
A month later, he won the same race at the Big 12 Conference championships in Boulder, Colo. The month after that he was in Eugene, where he missed the final of the 400 meters by one spot.
"It was an eye-opener to go out and not just compete but to win against some of the best in the world," Griffin says. "It showed me how world class I actually was. It showed me my future was bright at that time, not just in track [but] school, football, whatever it is I wanted to do. That showed me I could go out there and compete at the next level."
He returned that fall to football, determined to win the starting quarterback job as a freshman, play a season and see how he felt about football and track. He got the job and Baylor went 4-8. But it was "a good 4-8," he says, with several losses coming in games the Bears led and should have won. This gave him hope they could be really good really soon. "When I came back it hooked me," he says. "There's something about football that's exciting. The defense is trying to shut you down and you're trying to blow people up."
But, how close was he to quitting football for track?
"If it wasn't the type of 4-8 season we had, I probably wouldn't have come back," he says.
Baylor track coach, Todd Harbour, who talked a great deal with Griffin about the subject, agrees.
"I think it was right down the middle," Harbour says. "He loved track."
In spring 2011, Griffin tried to run track again. It was late in the season and he had only gotten bigger and stronger from football. He had good times, even with the football weight, but he came out too late to get into optimum track shape. Still, he speaks cryptically about track as if his fascination with the Olympics, or even a track career, isn't over.
"As long as I can run fast, track will always be an option," he says. "But right now I'm focused on football because the NFL is knocking on my door and I'm not going to slam it in its face."
And yet the moment that might have defined Griffin most, that brought him to the door of the Washington Redskins, came not on the field or the NFL scouting combine or the Downtown Athletic club in New York where they handed him the Heisman. Instead, it was early in his sophomore season at Baylor when he tore the ACL in his right knee. As the doctors told him how badly he was injured, he remembers staring into the eyes of his parents and his girlfriend, Rebecca Liddicoat, seeing their worry for him and being hit with this horrible feeling of having let everyone down.
Before, he had been a runner who could also throw. Right then he knew he was going to be something more, something bigger. He would be a great passing quarterback who could run as fast as men in the Olympics. There had never been anyone quite like that. He would be the first.
"I wanted to be my own breed of quarterback," he says.
He is sitting in a Baylor conference room as he says this. It is the same room where four months ago he met each prospective agent: from Drew Rosenhaus, who plastered the room with signs, to his actual selection, Ben Dogra, who simply handed him a book describing the agency. He smiles slightly because, more than anything else, the decision to go from a runner who could throw to a thrower who could run was what brought him to this point.
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In the weeks after the surgery, Robert II drove the 45 minutes from Copperas Cove to Waco, took a stool from Robert III's apartment and drove his son, still on crutches, to the parking lot behind Baylor's basketball arena. There he had Robert III sit on the stool and throw a football over and over: 20, 30, 40, 50 yards. The leg might be damaged, but the arm was fine. Robert III still couldn't walk, but it was never too soon to begin his reinvention.
"You don't have to go out there and fit the mold of what a quarterback is supposed to be," says Griffin, who passed for more than 10,000 yards and rushed for more than 2,000 in college. "Make your own mold and do the best at each role. If you can run with the best and throw with the best, you can be the best quarterback in your own version of the position." But he is about more than just football, which given his sudden rise to the Heisman and top of the draft, is something people don't realize. He used to write poetry and still wants to go to law school. He doesn't talk much about his faith because he believes that is private, but one Baylor coach says: "He's as much like Tim Tebow as Tim Tebow, he just isn't public about it."
Griffin and Liddicoat became engaged last fall after the Kansas State game when he nervously asked her to a team function at Baylor's indoor practice facility. Inside the building was dark, candles had been set around the field, a friend played the guitar and Griffin sang a song he had written for her three years earlier. Then he dropped to a knee on the center of the field. She said yes before she even saw the ring.
Now he is in that very indoor field, doing a photo shoot for yet another endorsement as a group of Baylor football players run wind sprints nearby. "Remember us, Robert?" one shouts. "We used to be your teammates."
Griffin smiles and shakes his head. No, he hasn't forgotten. He doesn't want to be like that. Outside in the parking lot is the same blue Chrysler Pacifica that he's been driving for years. He seems uninterested in anything new and shrugs when asked if he will buy a new car once he gets to the NFL.
It's not that important, he says.
He'd rather be his own man.
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