D.C.'s fascination with Redskins rookie QB Robert Griffin III not all about race
WASHINGTON – Yes, the Mayor for Life understands RG3.
It is late on a Friday afternoon in the summer of the Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and Marion Barry, once the four-term mayor of this city, smiles in the back of his district council office suite. Something is happening around town, something big with the football team that abandoned the district almost two decades ago, something that has the people believing in hope.
"Everybody is excited," Barry says. His voice is soft and graveled. He seems all of his 76 years. But as he talks, his eyes start to dance. He chuckles. "He's got that flair about him. Even that name itself: RG3, you know?"
Barry chuckles again.
"Robert Griffin III has flair too," he says.
The relationship between the Redskins and the city that carries their name has always been complicated. Washington was the last NFL club to integrate, only doing so in the early 1960s with intense pressure from the government. Then during the 1987 season, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead a team to a Super Bowl title. Less than a decade later the Redskins abandoned the city for a new stadium in the Maryland suburbs. Their practice facility is in Ashburn, Va., 40 minutes away.
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There is little of the actual city, Washington, in the Washington Redskins. Yet the lust for the playoffs is alive here. Washingtonians long for winning. They long for a great star. And in a city where African-Americans make up exactly 50 percent of the population, it is hard not to notice that that the anointed savior is a black quarterback.
"They call it the Chocolate City," says LaVar Arrington, a former Redskins star linebacker, who now hosts an afternoon sports radio show in the Washington area. "I think ever since Doug Williams there's something that's been clear: this city has enjoyed and loved having a great African-American quarterback."
It's a subject Griffin is uncomfortable addressing. When asked about it in the spring he said: "There are two things you don't talk about: politics and race."
And, really, does it matter anymore? The Redskins have had other black quarterbacks besides Williams. Washington had Jason Campbell. It had Donovan McNabb. And even though neither worked out, it seems much of Washington has moved on from fighting the idiotic notion that African-American quarterbacks can't thrive in the NFL.
If Griffin, who arrives as the second overall pick in the NFL draft, wins, Washington will love him forever. If he doesn't, he too will become a footnote in a once-proud franchise that unsuccessfully re-invents itself every few years.
"I did have a chance to speak to Robert Griffin and what I told him is: 'This city will embrace you,' " says Williams who is the head coach at Grambling in Louisiana. "I think they will have a little patience with him and if he does what I think he will do they will wrap their arms around him. It's hard to describe what it's like to win there," he finally says of Washington. "The city of D.C. just embraces you as one of its own."
For a time, Campbell looked to be the Redskins' future. His ascension to the starting quarterback job in 2006 excited the city. He wore the same number as Williams, 17, and could throw long downfield. But Campbell never fit the franchise and its constant turmoil. He was too quiet and reserved for the Redskins and was damaged by a series of new offensive coordinators that came nearly every year, each with a new system.
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Campbell was quickly forgotten in 2010 when Donovan McNabb came in a trade with the Eagles. But then coach Mike Shanahan benched McNabb in a move that angered many in the black community when Shanahan said McNabb had fitness issues and team sources said he struggled to learn the offense.
RG3, however, feels different. RG3 feels real, not a project like Williams or broken down like McNabb. He has a combination of speed and power that no Redskins quarterback has ever possessed. And unlike the reticent Williams and calculated McNabb, he has a gregariousness about him. Everywhere you look in Washington, he's there: on magazine covers, the sides of buildings and on so many television commercials it's hard to keep track.
"Flair," as Barry calls it.
Still, Washington has seen a lot of flair in disastrous signings like Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith late in their careers or bringing back Joe Gibbs as head coach 12 years after he retired or the acquisitions of Campbell, McNabb and Albert Haynesworth. Washington doesn't care as much about flair or race or anything as much as it does victories. It's been 13 years since the Redskins won an NFC East championship – so long ago, now, that the division then included the Arizona Cardinals, who have since gone to the Super Bowl as NFC West champions.
"D.C. wants a winner," says D.C. resident Rob Washington, who lives in the Ward 8 that Barry now represents on the district council. "We want any quarterback that's a winner. We wanted Peyton Manning. We wanted [Andrew] Luck. If someone's not winning it's not going to matter who they are, the fans are going to boo them."
About a mile away, in the middle of Anacostia, Duane Russell wears a Redskins cap as he waits for a haircut. He too wants a winner. He too does not care if Griffin is black or hyped to no end. The Redskins' freak show has gone on for so long he just wants sanity.
"It doesn't matter," Russell said when asked if it was important that Griffin is black. "We just need a quarterback, that's all that matters. Back when they were in the Super Bowl with Doug Williams it proved that an African-American quarterback can break through and win the Super Bowl. But that doesn't matter now."
Perhaps no one understands what Griffin faces in reviving the Redskins quite like Arrington. He too was the second overall pick when he left Penn State in 2000. And like Griffin, he came to the Redskins amid a parade of euphoria. It was that winter and spring in which the team signed an aging Sanders and Smith in hopes of making a Super Bowl run in what would be the first of many roster follies from owner Daniel Snyder.
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The 'Skins also drafted left tackle Chris Samuels in the first round. But the biggest piece was Arrington. And because the Redskins had failed to win much of anything since their last Super Bowl title in 1992, Arrington was seen as a savior, the missing piece in a defense that was going to rule the NFL for the next decade. His star, he thought, would rise just as the team soared back into prominence.
"This is a storied and fabled franchise where there is so much tradition involved," Arrington says. "As a No. 2 pick in the draft it felt that I was in the perfect storm. I felt that way in 2000 and now it's 2012. [Fans] desire it that much more. How can you not feel that as the No. 2 pick and the No. 2 pick as a quarterback?
"It's the perfect storm for him to be a legend."
The hype is everywhere. Even on Arrington's own show, which runs from 2-7 p.m., there is a daily feature an hour in called "RG3 at 3." One would think there are only so many RG3 things to discuss. Eventually the well would run dry. Only it hasn't. The hunger for anything RG3 churns. The machine hums, spitting out anything related to the Redskins' newest anointed savior because this is what everyone seems to want.
Over the phone Arrington goes quiet. He has been thinking about RG3 and race. As an African-American man with a popular radio show that appeals to a mostly black audience, he can understand why race might matter with RG3. But he thinks something else is at work here, something bigger than race, something you don't see in an NFL often skittish about the bond between black players and white corporate sponsors.
"You're talking about a kid who transcends race and he wears braids," Arrington says. "Think about that. He. Wears. Braids."
There is worry too in Washington about Griffin. Fans have been deceived so many times they almost expect something disastrous to happen even as they hold hope that RG3 does save the franchise. They wonder if the offensive line, a weakness in recent years, will be sturdy enough to protect Griffin. They fret about the receivers who are not acclaimed as a group. They wonder if Shanahan will stifle Griffin's creativity by forcing his system over the quarterback's talents.
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They worry this all might blow up, just as it has before.
But Griffin is also the biggest thing to happen in years. And so optimism trumps despair.
"We're at a point now where people are clamoring over RG3 hoping he'll bring some life and success to the team," Barry says. "He'll do very well."
And a city desperate for the winning again waits for its new savior.
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