NEW YORK — A black Chevy Suburban with tinted windows pulls to the curb where Fifth Avenue intersects 29th Street. A smattering of curious passers-by watch as six television cameras start rolling. The street-side passenger door whips open and RG3 steps out.
Robert Griffin III would rather be somewhere else. Alone or someplace quiet, perhaps. He’ll tell you that without hesitating. “Men do what they have to do; boys do what they want to do,” he says. “I’m a man and I have to do this.”
That doesn’t mean Griffin is salty, though. That’s not his way. His toothy smile greets the cameras despite the fact that he woke up early for a television appearance. He spent the last hour inside the nearby Empire State Building voicing electronic advertisements and conducting phone interviews. This appearance at a Subway sandwich shop is simply next up on his jam-packed itinerary for NFL draft week.
Just seconds later, Griffin is behind the counter building sandwiches for customers. His green Subway golf shirt is emblazoned with an Adidas logo, proof that what we have here is marketing gold.
“What bread would you like, sir? Wheat?” he asks a man. “Cheese? Toasted?” Griffin banters with the customer while a public relations official asks him to take two steps right into better position for photographs underneath a sign inside the store.
The magic of Griffin is on full display. The same competitive inferno that compelled him to train during his high school football team’s days off is pushing him to be the best-ever sandwich spokesman.
His relentless drive to excel merges the elements of Robert Griffin III — the supremely gifted athlete, the quiet kid from central Texas, the hopeless romantic, the charismatic leader, the passionate student — into one package.
He is RG3.
That combination is why the Washington Redskins drafted him Thursday night with the second overall pick and, by extension, appointed him the quarterback to return the team to glory. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner instantly becomes the franchise’s biggest star and the face of the organization.
“I like the way he handles himself,” coach Mike Shanahan said in typical understated manner. “He’s got everything you look for in a starting quarterback.”
Mark Twersky, 34, learned of Griffin’s appearance at the sandwich shop from a friend. Having seen Griffin do his thing on TV, he felt comfortable enough to ask Griffin to throw him his freshly made sandwich.
“Good job,” Griffin said. “My first completion.”
“Interception,” Mr. Twersky slyly said later, pointing to the Philadelphia Eagles logo on his sweatshirt.
When Griffin’s appearance concluded, he posed for a picture arm-in-arm with Mr. Twersky. Then it was out onto the New York City street, back into the Suburban and on down the weekly agenda.
‘A natural loner’
RG3 did not always exist. Robert Griffin III is the introverted son of Robert Jr. and Jacqueline Griffin. Both parents were sergeants in the Army, combining for 33 years of service. The culture on their job shaped life at the Griffin household in Copperas Cove, Texas, a town of about 32,000 adjacent to Fort Hood.
Dad was a petroleum supervisor, responsible for helping to lay pipelines during stints in the Gulf and Iraq wars. Mom was an administrative specialist whose duties centered on personnel. Structure and discipline were the foundation for daily life.
Robert III thrived with such core values in place. Perhaps there’s no better explanation for it other than he’s simply hard-wired that way.
“A lot of times, we wouldn’t even know he was in the house he’s so quiet,” Robert Jr. said. “He’s a little bit open now. It took awhile.”
Robert III likes to be by himself. Shutting down, he calls it.
Even before he became famous, he found distinct pleasure in being alone. He’ll put on some R&B - maybe some Usher or, if he feels like going old school, some Luther Vandross - and just be.
“They called me a natural loner because I don’t necessarily need people to hang out with to feel like I’m doing something in life,” Robert III said.
He recalled days at Copperas Cove High School when he’d be the first one into the cafeteria for lunch.
“Most kids, if you sit down first and everybody else sits somewhere else, they get up and go sit where everybody else is,” he said. “I didn’t have a problem sitting there by myself.”
That makes for an interesting dynamic when we’re talking about a star quarterback. That job requires an ability to connect with, motivate and lead others.
And maybe that’s what makes Robert Griffin III so special. He straddles that divide between loner and leader. It’s impossible to do it flawlessly, but he’s more than effective. The proof is Baylor’s 10-win season in 2011 and Copperas Cove’s state championship appearance during Griffin’s senior season.
“If I didn’t play sports, I would not have fit in,” he said. “I was always the quarterback, so boom, I was instantly popular.”
The demands of playing quarterback, then, helped Griffin develop the traits that make him RG3.
As a high school sophomore, he embraced the duality, even flaunted it. He began wearing wacky socks, usually patterned after children’s cartoons. That became one of his trademarks as his fame recently exploded on a national scale.
“People had accepted the fact that, ‘OK, he’s the starting quarterback, but he’s not the typical jock, dummy, doing a bunch of girls and things like that,’ ” Griffin said. “I was seventh in my [high school] class. Is that popular as a football player? Probably not, but I was able to make it popular. It was because I was successful. Because I was interesting, people accepted me for who I was.”
Now, on the cusp of NFL stardom, Griffin’s outgoing nature seems so natural. If he’s forcing it, it does not show. He’s funny and charismatic and engaging in a special way. The introvert seems genuinely extroverted.
“You’ll fall in love with his personality as much as anything,” said quarterbacks coach Terry Shea, who trained Griffin during the pre-draft process. “He’s very endearing. He embraces people. I can see why his teammates at Baylor played at a very high level for him.”
Parental guidance required
Hip-hop beats softly thump inside Lavo Nightclub on 58th Street, just east of Central Park. Griffin’s itinerary on this Tuesday night has led him to a party hosted by Electronic Arts. He graces the cover of its video game, NCAA Football ‘13. Griffin has more than a dozen interviews scheduled. More marketing gold.
Other prospects projected to be drafted in the first round attend, as well. But 30 minutes after everyone else finishes their media obligations, Griffin is speaking to yet another national radio station.
His personality attracts him to marketers, but players don’t end up on the cover of video games without supreme talent. It’s fitting, then, that Robert Jr. and Jacqueline are here, too. They sit together in a velvet-rope-protected section of the club along with Robert III’s fiancee, Rebecca Liddicoat, and the younger of his two elder sisters, Dejon.
Those who know the Griffin family well say that Robert III’s warmth comes from his parents. His parents also fed Robert III’s unquenchable hunger for athletic success.
“They’re both loving, caring, genuine people that wake up every day with a plan and on a mission,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “That’s what Robert does.”
Robert Jr. helped train his son for football, track and basketball the best way he knew how: with meticulous planning and tireless effort.
“In the army, everything is about preparation,” Robert Jr. said. “If you’re prepared, you expect to perform. When I come out here, I expect Robert to perform or I tell him don’t come out here. That’s the honest truth.”
Robert III would tie around his waist a rope attached to a tire, and, with his dad supervising, he would run up a street near their house three times a week after high school football practice.
Film study was a major component of the relationship between father and son. Robert Jr. would show his son tapes of quarterbacks such as Ken Stabler, Randall Cunningham and Tony Romo. They would analyze the mechanics of certain throws and then practice emulating them.
Robert Jr. was an ardent Philadelphia Eagles fan, and he has shared with Robert III his critiques of past Redskins quarterbacks. The names Theismann, Kilmer, Schroeder and Williams are familiar to both.
When Robert III tore a ligament in his right knee three games into his second season at Baylor, Dad saw it as an opportunity to mold his son into a better thrower.
“I was up here on nights, put him in a chair, and we kept throwing the football throughout the whole season,” Robert Jr. said.
Jacqueline was a fixture at Copperas Cove’s football practices. When the team would take the field, she’d be in her usual place on a cement slab on the sideline with a book, an umbrella and a video camera.
Copperas Cove’s coaching staff records practices from an elevated perch. After Robert III broke down film of practice with the team, he’d go home and watch Jacqueline’s video with his father.
The training and oversight was indisputably intense. Some might interpret it as excessive. Robert III seems to thrive on it.
“Knowing the style of the parents and the heart of the parents, I think it was a desire of Robert’s,” Copperas Cove coach Jack Welch said. “They were willing to help Robert any way he wanted to.”
Griffin’s competitive drive so consumed him that he often eschewed activities other high school kids consider normal. That meshed with his affinity for solitude. He preferred training to hanging out.
“It’s not like I was a cyborg,” Griffin said. “I had fun. I just wasn’t having the type of fun everyone else was having, which was why I didn’t dally into alcohol, drugs or random acts of stupidness.”
Griffin finishes his last interview inside the nightclub and scoots through the crowd into the reserved area to join his family. The party is hopping now. The beats are turned up.
True to form, Griffin remains for only one hour. Long before the 1 a.m. closing time, he leaves the revelry to others and rolls out into the night. Time to recharge before the next item on the agenda.
‘I believe in my abilities’
It’s Wednesday morning at a park in Chelsea, and Coach RG3 is rallying his team of grade-school girls during a light flag-football game at the NFL’s Play 60 event.
“Interceptions, that’s what we do around here,” he tells his defense.
Moments later, one of his girls intercepts a deflected pass.
“Run!” Griffin yells before lead-blocking her return to the end zone. He’s smiling the whole time. It comes naturally.
After the game, several top draft prospects address the kids. All stress the importance of daily activity to stay fit. Griffin, however, delivers a different message.
“We’re all competitive,” he says, preaching the value of practice. “We all want bragging rights on the playground.” It’s his competitive drive, uncontainable.
This is one of those RG3 moments that are open to interpretation. He is fiercely competitive and, after such intense training and dedication his whole life, self-assured in his abilities. The line between confident and abrasively cocky is delicate.
An anonymous scout recently told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that Griffin has “got a little bit of a selfish streak. … He doesn’t treat anybody good.”
Several players and coaches who have worked extensively with him refuted that.
“He understands that he has been given a talent,” said Welch, Griffin’s high school coach. “That’s not arrogance. When you understand you have a talent, there’s responsibility with that talent. That responsibility is to push yourself to be the best you can be.”
Defensive tackle Nick Jean-Baptiste, who looks to also be drafted this weekend, played with Griffin at Baylor for four years.
“He’ll never say, ‘I’m the superstar, so I’m not going to do much,’ ” Jean-Baptiste said. “He always is going to put in his work.
“He was a respected guy out here. We all listened to him and he listened to us when we had things to say. [In] Washington, he will bring a lot to that locker room.”
Griffin tries to be mindful of the line at which confidence becomes a negative influence.
“I try to think I’m a confident guy, not a cocky-confident guy,” he said. “I believe in my abilities. I believe in the guys around me. I know I can’t do it by myself. Sometimes a cocky-confident guy thinks he can do it all by himself. I’m not that guy. I try to always involve my teammates.
“It’s not a show,” he said. “It’s who I am.”