Born in Flames: The Arrival of Alex Smith

The Week That Was

Jerome Miron/US Presswire Robert Griffin III

Robert Griffin III: Heisman Winner?

A visit to Waco with the future first-round pick

On Halloween in Waco, Texas, Robert Griffin III roamed the Baylor campus in a hockey mask. He’d buttoned his flannel shirt to the neck, and he wore a pair of combat boots his father had broken in while on patrol in Iraq. His jeans were stuffed with pillows, and his chest with a pair of lion-shaped slippers, so that he resembled an incarnation of Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th movies, if Jason had spent the autumn months binging on carbohydrates. In his hand was a knife; it was an actual knife, but he had wrapped it in tinfoil so as to dull the edge. After doing several television interviews in costume, alternating between whimsy and youthful sincerity — “If I’m going to dress up as Jason Voorhees,” he said to one reporter, “I’m going to be the best Jason Voorhees I can be” — he insisted we head over to campus just to see what would happen.

The truth is, nothing much did. The reaction was blasé. Griffin wore his hockey mask, and despite the dreadlocks peeking out behind it, no one recognized him as anything other than some dude who’d dressed up as a murderous sumo-wrestling lumberjack. He frightened a few coeds, and we got thrown out of the student union’s cafeteria for reasons that make little sense,1 and a girl buried in a histology textbook glared at him as if to say, Grow up already. As we passed through the union, I heard a girl randomly say to her friend, “Like I’m going to pay money to watch Baylor lose at football. Yeah, right.”

We walked outside. There is a live bear sanctuary on campus — Baylor is that kind of place, picturesque to the point of surreality — and Griffin hung out there for a moment, then burst into the gym and did calisthenics with the volleyball team, then crossed the road to the tennis courts, where he borrowed a girl’s racquet and proceeded to home-run derby a tennis ball over the chain-link fence. In the process, his mask fell off his face and cleaved into shards.

“All right,” he said. “That was fun.”

We started walking back to his car, at which point a girl across the street completely flipped out. For a moment, I worried that something had gone horribly wrong at the bear sanctuary, but she had seen Griffin without his mask and wanted a picture with him. “I recognized you from afar,” she said to the man dressed as a serial killer. “But that’s because I’m a creeper.”

I went to visit Robert Griffin at what turned out to be the low point of his season, at a time when no one — not even Griffin himself — seemed optimistic about his chances of winning the Heisman Trophy. Two days earlier, Baylor had lost by 35 points at Oklahoma State, and that loss came on the heels of a 27-point loss to Texas A&M the week before. Griffin had worn the Halloween costume to lighten the mood. It was clear that the Bears possessed one of the weakest defenses in the country, and that if they were to salvage something from this season, they would need Griffin to carry them even more than he had up to that point. This didn’t seem humanly possible, and I presumed Baylor (which had never won more than three Big 12 games in a season until last year) would fade, and perhaps slip into a third-tier bowl game, and Griffin would finish eighth in the Heisman voting, and life would go on as it always has in Waco.

But it just so happened that after I left town, Griffin did get even better. Against Missouri: 406 yards passing, three touchdowns. Against Kansas: 433 total yards, four touchdowns. Against Oklahoma: 479 passing yards, four touchdowns, and perhaps the most accidental signature moment of any Heisman candidate in history: a pass over the middle that was deflected by a defender and landed, in stride, in the arms of receiver Kendall Wright, who scored the game-tying touchdown.2 Griffin got knocked out for most of the second half against Texas Tech with a head injury, and then came back for the season finale, a blowout win over Texas in which he threw for a pair of touchdowns and ran for two more. The Bears won five straight under fourth-year coach Art Briles and finished 9-3, and it appears increasingly likely that on Saturday, Griffin will become the first Baylor football player to win the Heisman Trophy.

It is the sort of moment that could change perceptions about Baylor, and even about Waco itself, which, to those of us who hail from the faraway liberal enclaves of the Northeast, is still famous as the site of a massacre of a religious sect, not to mention one of the more horrific crimes ever associated with college sports.

I have no doubt that there are many residents of Waco who are fatigued by these associations, especially since (a) the Branch Davidian compound where David Koresh and his people hunkered down is actually several miles outside of town, (b) both the men’s and women’s basketball teams are now national powers, and (c) Waco, like many midsize American cities, has enough contemporary problems to deal with. (Mostly, when I told people I was going to/had been in Waco, they commented on how boring it was, which is never a good reputation to have: as a place that is only not dull when it is sinister.) I heard that the city has a rather excellent zoo, and that the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum is worth visiting, but the truth is that the most exciting things to happen in Waco — those rare news stories that attract national attention — have often been negative. When university president Ken Starr (yes, that Ken Starr, another odd twist in the Baylor narrative) held out the possibility of legal action against Texas A&M in order to hold the Big 12 together, there was a national outcry: How could Baylor not know its place in the college football world?

This is why Saturday’s announcement means far more to Baylor than it does to Alabama or Stanford or LSU or Wisconsin. There are five Heisman finalists,and all have legitimate cases, but only one has the potential to redefine both a university and the city that surrounds it.

There are certain things about Waco that students of Baylor quickly come to understand: The first is that Dr Pepper is to Waco as Coca-Cola is to the remainder of America.3 The second is that no one really ventures very far from campus, a phenomenon so prevalent that it’s earned a name: The Baylor Bubble.

“I don’t want to say the wrong thing, but the first thing I heard when I got here is that there’s this Baylor Bubble,” Griffin tells me. “There’s Baylor, and there’s everybody else. I’ve written many papers on it, about Baylor just having to take the initiative and realizing that Waco is its city. People walking down the street, if they walk across to the other side of the highway, they might get scared because they’re outside the bubble. It’s getting a lot better. There are more powerful people and people a lot smarter than I am who are dealing with it every day. Still, I’ve done a lot of volunteering, and it’s really sad, and you can only do so much.”

Out by the stadium, there’s a promotional billboard that reads: Baylor-Waco: Proud Partners. Even in this season of RG3 (as Griffin is known in the Twitterverse and elsewhere), the Bears had trouble attracting near-capacity crowds to home games until the very end of the year. Baylor is a Baptist school, which sets it apart from the remainder of the Big 12; walk across campus and you will see Bible verses inscribed on the sidewalks. The school newspaper, the Lariat, is not allowed to promote alcohol or drug use or sex, “though I can still say our team sucks,” says sports editor Tyler Alley. The school’s student body is largely white, and many hail from wealthy suburban schools in Dallas and Houston; the campus itself is lavish and beautiful, and there is even a picturesque parking garage with several restaurants attached that some people jokingly refer to as the “Garage Mahal.” And then you drive a few blocks away, toward downtown, and there are rows of pawn shops and strip malls and auto-parts centers. At one point, I saw a dangerously thin old man letting his dog out onto the lawn of a small house while wearing a cowboy hat and an undershirt and jeans, as if posing for a Walker Evans photograph. “There’s definitely a disconnect,” Alley told me.

Obviously, the local quarterback walking away with a trophy doesn’t heal the rift between the townspeople of Waco and the students at Baylor. But there is something truly abnormal about Griffin; he is that rare elite athlete who seems to consider his professional sports career to be a secondary pursuit. “It’s like he’s been doing this a long time,” Wright, his best receiver, told me, and I’m not sure if he was talking entirely about football.

Griffin graduated from high school early, finished college in three years, and will soon finish his graduate program in communications ahead of schedule. He’s already planning on attending law school, regardless of what happens with the NFL. He is not naïve enough to imagine that, merely by playing football, he can alter the realities of Waco itself; he lived in a project house in New Orleans for six months when he was a kid, and his father grew up in the New Orleans projects, and he’s spoken to students at several of Waco’s poorest schools and understands that the problems are far too deep for any 21-year-old to fully address.4

“You can’t totally change that perception [of Waco],” he says. “But you can shift the attention elsewhere.”

Griffin was born in Okinawa, Japan and went to school in Copperas Cove, a small town near Fort Hood. His parents, Robert Jr. and Jacqueline, were both sergeants in the Army. He was a superior athlete at a young age, winning track meets and playing quarterback, and yet most of the major colleges in the region declined to recruit him as a passer. LSU told him that he could play receiver, unless he showed up at their camp and proved himself able to throw the ball. Texas recruited him as an “athlete,” and it is hard not to at least raise the question as to whether race played a role in those assignations.

“Have I seen an African-American quarterback who wasn’t athletic, who might not be the fastest guy on the field but couldn’t run a little bit? Probably not,” he says. “Have I seen a lot of Caucasian quarterbacks who move around a lot but don’t get the label of ‘dual threat’? Yeah. I mean, Aaron Rodgers moves around a lot. Jay Cutler.

“Because I was a sprinter in track, that was the biggest thing. When you have an African-American quarterback who’s extremely athletic, a lot of times those coaches think, ‘Well, I can go get a less athletic quarterback who might not be as explosive but can still throw the ball a little bit, and move this guy to receiver because he’s got world-class speed. It’s not, ‘We’re gonna move you to a different position because you’re African-American.’ It’s, ‘You’re probably the best athlete on your team, so we need athletes at different positions.'”

And so he committed to Houston, and when coach Art Briles departed Houston for Baylor, so did Griffin. He graduated from high school early with the notion of competing in the Olympic Trials; his primary event is the 400-meter hurdles, which is considered one of the most difficult races of all, and he was a semifinalist at the trials in 2008 at the age of 17. The hurdles, Griffin says, are what keep him focused on the race itself, and he latches onto the metaphor before I can even bring it up. Griffin seems to relish his overachievement, the clearing of various obstacles, not to mention the bevy of options he now has: Between law school and a final year of eligibility at Baylor and the potential of becoming an Olympic sprinter and the NFL draft (not to mention his engagement to a girl he met at Baylor), he has, as he says, many doors, and he insists the NFL is the last of those doors.

Of course, it is also the most lucrative, and the most superficially alluring, and given the shift of the league’s paradigm toward versatile quarterbacks like Cam Newton, there may be room for Griffin to further alter it. These last few games, in which Griffin has proved both his pocket presence and his ability to throw the deep ball, have vaulted him into the first round on most draft boards. On, a scout named Bucky Brooks declared that Griffin “will be the next quarterback to revolutionize the game.”

“With the NFL, if they come knocking at your door, you’re not going to tell them no,” Griffin says. “But it’s a tough business. The NFL doesn’t like it when they have a smart guy who knows how much he’s worth. The NFL now, it’s about talent, and if you have talent, it doesn’t matter what’s going on. That’s why you get a lot of guys who get in trouble who are still playing, and things happen and they do illegal stuff and they still get to go out and play, because as long as they can get people to watch them play, the NFL’s making money. It’s just about the spectacle. That’s all it is.”

And then, in discussing the spectacle, he brought up Tim Tebow. Griffin said he’ll argue with his friends about anything other than politics or religion, but when I told him you couldn’t separate Tebow and his faith at this point, he nodded, mentioned the “Tebowing thing,” said he was rooting for Tebow, and then told me about a disagreement he had with his mom. He told her there were different kinds of Christians, and she said no, and Griffin told me she’s the type of person who will say, “Have a blessed day,” and he’s the type who might not invite you to church but will bring you with him if you ask.

“I don’t have to constantly throw it in their face,” he says. “I’m a believer.”

The Heisman Trophy is designed to go to the most outstanding college football player in America. That definition can be interpreted any way a voter chooses, and it usually is: In Griffin’s case, the question is whether enough people believe that a superlative individual season should trump the best player on a superior team. Nobody had a finer season than Griffin, but all of the other four finalists played on better teams than he did.

Off-field matters are generally not factored into Heisman voting at all, and perhaps they shouldn’t be, but there is a gravity to Griffin that seems like it should count for something; if there were an interview portion of the Heisman vote, Griffin would likely beat out even Stanford’s Andrew Luck, another hyperintelligent quarterback who came into this season as the prohibitive Heisman favorite. If he stays at Baylor for another season, I have to imagine Griffin will be the first Heisman winner/candidate in quite some time to be actively enrolled in law school. His accomplishments call to mind John McPhee’s classic book about Bill Bradley, A Sense of Where You Are: “The most interesting thing about [him] was not just that he was a great basketball player,” McPhee wrote, “but that he succeeded so amply in other things that he was doing at the same time, reached a more promising level of attainment, and, in the end, put basketball aside because he had something better to do.”

I don’t know if Griffin will put professional football aside for one more season at Baylor, or if he will put professional football aside for a shot at the Olympics, or if he will someday put aside professional football to become a lawyer or politician. I honestly don’t think he knows what his future holds at this point. “I can’t lose focus, because I’ve got so much lined up,” he says. “There’s so much pressure on me to be successful. And that’s matched by the pressure I put on myself.”

He tells me he is enjoying college as much as he can, and trying to relish the moment as he contemplates whether or not he will enter the NFL draft. When I was there, he’d just written a paper on a feminist film theoretician named Claire Johnston, and he found it a fascinating diversion. Even dressed up in a ridiculous Halloween costume, posing for photographs with people he’s never met, he is measuring himself against his own internal standards. The Heisman would be a major hurdle to clear, but you also get the sense that for Griffin, it is nothing more than a start. He is young, and he is smart, and he’s only beginning to sense his place in the world.

Michael Weinreb is a Grantland staff writer and the author, most recently, of Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB and How the ’80s Created the Modern Athlete.

Previously from Michael Weinreb:
Boise State vs. LSU
Living in State College
The Culture of Unrest at Penn State
Growing Up Penn State
The Real Rocky
Who Invented the Seven-Game Series?
The Best Passing Quarterback Ever

To comment on this story through Facebook, click here.

Filed Under: Baylor, People, Robert Griffin III, Teams