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Rookie phenoms take D.C. by storm

Politics yield to fresh promises of Griffin and Harper

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Days after the Washington Redskins used the No. 2 pick in April's NFL Draft on Robert Griffin III, posters bearing his aw-shucks smile, braids and the word "hope" spun through the Internet.

Modeled on Shepard Fairey's iconic poster of Barack Obama from his 2008 presidential campaign, Griffin's version in burgundy, gold and black slipped the Redskins' logo into the 'O' in "hope."

Much in the same way, Griffin has injected hope into the Redskins on the field, the same way another young star, Bryce Harper, has done for the Washington Nationals. This summer of hope in the nation's most political city has nothing to do with campaign slogans or attack advertisements or the presidential election.

Instead, Griffin and Harper have captured national attention for teams mired in years of gridlock. These are the innocent first days of a relationship, when each snap and pitch is flush with the promise and possibility of youth. Griffin, 22, is the first quarterback born in the 1990s to start an NFL game. He marked the occasion by passing for 320 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's victory over the New Orleans Saints. Harper doesn't turn 20 until October, and a statistical analysis by FanGraphs.com this week appraised him to be enjoying the second-best season by a teenager in Major League Baseball's history behind Mel Ott in 1928.

Unmet expectations, on the field or off, haven't crept in. They aren't weighed down, like onetime Washington phenoms John Wall or Alex Ovechkin, by postseason failure or simply the failure to get anywhere close. Same for the reality of injury, free agency and scandal. Ask Stephen Strasburg, his first full season after Tommy John surgery on his right elbow overwhelmed by the Nationals' decision to shut him down after 159.1 innings. You can dream on Griffin and Harper, judged less by what they have accomplished than the anticipation of what's to come.

"In Robert's case, the world knows who he is," former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. "It's almost not what you do on the field anymore, but how people want to promote you, how people look at you."

Hope looked like a plane full of ecstatic Redskins supporters en route to New Orleans on Saturday.

"I guess because this is a plane coming from Washington," one flight attendant said, "I should say, 'Go Redskins.'"

Cheers followed, as did echoes of "Go Redskins."

Hope looked like Pat O'Brien's bar on Bourbon Street late that Saturday. Saints fans belted out "Who dat?" and Redskins supporters, seeming to overwhelm the French Quarter, responded with choruses of "Hail to the Redskins." The pregame celebration seemed invigorated by faith in the man in the No. 10 jersey rather than tall glasses of rum-spiked Hurricanes.

Hope looked like a woman at the Superdome wearing knee-high Superman socks in a nod to Griffin's fashion when he accepted the Heisman Trophy and the man in the nosebleeds sporting a "Robert Griffin III knows" T-shirt. Usually a deafening venue for opponents, chants of "R-G-3, R-G-3" overran the Superdome.

"The one thing I try to do is not stress about anything or go out and try to prove anything to anyone," Griffin said. "The guys in that locker room, I'm still a rookie to them. After this game, they told me I'm not a rookie anymore."

After Griffin's 88-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon, the quarterback, flat on his back thanks to a vicious blow, thrust his arms into the air. Dubbed "Griffining," photos of people imitating the gesture in everyday situations flooded the Internet. Teammates poked fun at Griffin for the fad.

"Who would have thought getting knocked on your butt and throwing a touchdown would start a phenomenon like that?" Griffin said. "I'm not opposed to it."

Neither Griffin nor Harper acts like a rookie. Both display composure that belies their youth in carefully controlled media environments. Griffin speaks only during designated sessions each week. A media relations staffer is usually within earshot when Harper chats. Still, the rookies act as if they expect to be here, that none of this is particularly surprising, from the Nationals owning baseball's best record to the Redskins' offense screening and optioning its way to 40 points on a team that went 13-3 last season.

Five words in June brought Harper whatever attention his potent bat — he has 18 home runs since the Nationals summoned him from Triple-A Syracuse in April — neglected to provide. Harper is a devout Mormon and, after one game in Toronto, a local reporter asked whether he planned to avail himself of the drinking age there, 19.

"That's a clown question, bro," Harper said.

Harper applied to trademark the phrase the next day, as it rocketed across the country like his pants-on-fire, near out-of-control base running that leaves manager Davey Johnson shaking his head.

Even Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, used Harper's phrase in response to a reporter's question.

Everywhere the Nationals go, fans wield signs, cards, balls, anything for Harper to sign. Yells of "Harper" or "Mr. Harper" fill batting practice. They are desperate for a picture or autograph. Children sometimes show up with their faces smeared in Harper's trademark eye black. But mostly people watch in awe, even as the hype has settled down like Harper's batting average, which resides in the .260s.

Hope looked like Griffin's image being sculpted from lunch fixings by a sandwich company, among a slew of endorsements before throwing a regular-season pass. That included promoting a shoe company — not Nike — and covering the swoosh on his warm-up shirt Sunday with a piece of tape with "heart" all capitalized scrawled in black marker.

"Let's not get too carried away with all this," coach Mike Shanahan warned, probably too late.

Hope looked like Griffin's image being projected 74 feet high on the side of the Newseum last month, like the hopes a region is projecting on Griffin and Harper.

Hope, for the moment, is here.

Amanda Comak and Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

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