LOS ANGELES – When Robert Griffin III flashes back to his first college game, he remembers each toxic moment in vivid detail. As loathsome as it was for the young quarterback to be part of Baylor's 41-13 home defeat to Wake Forest in the 2008 season opener, the way some of his teammates behaved afterward brought RG3 even more misery.
Griffin, then a true freshman, looked forward to sparking a turnaround at a program that was about to experience its 13th consecutive losing season. On that hot August night in Waco four years ago, the eventual Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft realized the endeavor would be tougher than he'd imagined.
"We got blasted," Griffin recalled Tuesday night in Hollywood, after attending the Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year Awards. "I didn't start the game, but I came in during the second quarter and played the rest of the way, and we got beat really bad. And there was nobody in the stands by the last whistle.
"My roommate at that time was a [freshman wide receiver] by the name of Romie Blaylock, and he was an accomplished track athlete as well. We'd both competed for championships at the [Texas high school] state meet. We're sitting on the bench looking at the scoreboard and looking at each other like, 'Man, this has never happened.' And then you go on throughout the season – we ended up going 4-8 that year – and after every loss the guys are cracking jokes and laughing on the bus. The mindset had to change."
Helping to effect that change was perhaps Griffin's greatest accomplishment, and it's a major reason why I believe he has a legitimate chance to thrive as the Washington Redskins' rookie starter and designated franchise savior. While some 22-year-olds might be daunted by the immediate task at hand – RG3 arguably has as much pressure on him as any rookie in recent memory, given the steep price the 'Skins paid to trade up in the draft to land him – Griffin has already been part of a transformation hardly anyone could have envisioned.
The breakthrough came in 2010, when Griffin quarterbacked Baylor to its first bowl appearance in 16 years. He ended his college career last December by leading the Bears to a 67-56 Alamo Bowl victory over Washington, completing a 10-3 season that was the team's most successful since 1980.
By comparison, reviving a storied NFL franchise that hasn't had a winning season since 2007 and can boast a mere three playoff victories over the past two decades should be a stress-free undertaking.
Griffin certainly doesn't seem anxious. While hard work and attention to detail have helped provide the foundation for his success, RG3 is not short on confidence, in part because he understands the power of positive thought.
"There were some talented guys at Baylor when I got there," Griffin said. "It wasn't the talent [that held us back]; it was more about the mindset. You can't just lose and say, 'Well, it was Texas, it was Oklahoma …' And you can't be laughing and giggling after you lost a game. Everybody copes with it in their own way, but I think the determination and the seriousness of the situation definitely changed as the years went on, and guys truly started to buy in."
Griffin, named the Redskins' starter by coach Mike Shanahan 10 days after being drafted, insisted he isn't worried about having to combat a similar strain of defeatism in the Washington locker room.
"The difference is: in the NFL, it is a business and these guys, they're working to put food on their family's table," Griffin said. "So there is none of that. They know if they go out and they're not doing a great job, that they don't have a job the next day. From what I've heard it's all been positive stuff about what we can do, not, 'We can't do that.' "
A cynic would caution Griffin, who has yet to play a game with his new team, that he may soon receive a dose of harsh reality which compels him to revise his opinion. Yet I do think there's something to be said for choosing a difficult collegiate path and making it a memorable journey. Griffin confronted a significant challenge at a young age and conquered rampant resignation and pessimism, and I believe that attitude can carry over to the professional level.
I addressed this subject with Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh at a Subway-sponsored event Wednesday at the Home Depot Center. Suh, who was the NFL's 2010 defensive rookie of the year after being selected second overall out of Nebraska, absolutely agreed that his collegiate experience provided a foundation for helping the Lions lose their laughingstock label.
"That psychology was huge," Suh said. "Nebraska had a great tradition, but when I got there they were down. Everything really relied on our recruiting class, and we were the ones that changed the program, getting us back to form.
"That made it easier when I got to Detroit. I just really tuned in and fell back on that experience that I'd had in Nebraska and allowed that to pave the way. The morale of the team really changed, and some of the guys the new coaching staff brought in – young guys through the draft and veterans in free agency – really drove that change through hard work and attitude. From 2-14 before I got there to 6-10 my rookie year to 10-6 and the playoffs last year, we're continuing to progress. We're not where we want to be, but we're starting to create a different culture there now, with different expectations."
[ Fantasy spin: Patriots' Wes Welker vs. Brandon Lloyd]
This is not to say that culture change is a smooth or simple process. Uplifting a program's standard and performance level isn't merely the product of a fiery speech in the locker room or a cold stare in the huddle; it comes from faithfully and resolutely putting in work on a daily basis and instilling an atmosphere of trust and accountability.
No 22-year-old, at least in theory, is fully prepared to step into an NFL setting and accomplish all of that seamlessly, from the get-go. Griffin, however, seems to sense the pressure points and communicate the mission with a comprehension beyond his years.
I asked RG3 on Tuesday about wide receiver Josh Gordon, his former college teammate who was selected in Thursday's supplemental draft by the Cleveland Browns. A talented wideout who was kicked off the Baylor team last July following a second marijuana-related violation, Gordon is an enticing but risky prospect who drew a reported 20 teams to his pro day workout earlier that afternoon.
Griffin, who says he and Gordon are friends, could easily have pumped up his ex-teammate's prospects. Instead, he gave a pointed and honest assessment of Gordon's past struggles and the wafer-thin margin of error the receiver will carry into someone's training camp.
"He's been a kid that's been in a bunch of unfortunate situations," Griffin said, "and he knows that he was the reason that those [situations] happened. So I think any team that gets him, of course they're gonna feel like they're rolling the dice on the kid. I think that in the end, he'll be successful if he wants to be successful. That's all on him. And he knows that. He knows he's used up all his chances and everybody's watching him."
When Griffin's new teammates see quotes like that – and, more important, if the young quarterback consistently backs up his words by demonstrating a sincere and exacting commitment to his craft – they'll be eager to follow. It's not a perfect science, but if Griffin's tone-setting skills are similar to what they were in Waco, the nation's capital could be in for a rollicking and fulfilling ride.
"I think the guys have definitely bought into what Coach [Shanahan] is talking about," Griffin said, "and into me being their starting quarterback and their leader."
We're going to learn a lot about RG3 in the months and years ahead, but this much we already know: He isn't intimidated by the task at hand, and given his history, he has no reason to be.
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