- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2016

BEREA, OHIO — It’s quieter in Berea, home to about 19,000 people and a handful of three-star hotels. About 20 minutes southwest of Cleveland, Browns signs attached to lamp posts begin to pop-up on the bridge heading toward Lou Groza Boulevard, where the Browns’ facility is housed.

Out back, in Wednesday’s late-breaking sun, Robert Griffin III is throwing passes as the lead quarterback. He has not done this for a year, not since all the goodwill, skill and hope in Washington evaporated in dramatic tumult around him. He was benched, Kirk Cousins took over and asked Redskins fans if they “liked that” while Griffin sat silently in what used to be his kingdom. Then Griffin was released.

So, he’s in Cleveland, a quarterback with a tumultuous past in a town with a soul-ripping sports legacy, trying to fix both. In particular, Cleveland’s pain is attached to the Browns. Red Right 88. The Drive. The Fumble. The more recent mess at quarterback with Johnny Manziel. It’s like non-stop infamy falls from the Midwest sky.

Griffin has not been named the starter by new coach Hue Jackson, but, as the quarterback, he again is the attraction, even if questions about his pocket-passing ability and motives linger. It’s just that the furor is calmer, for now. There are no links to special treatment from the owner, no wholesale and anointing trade for his services. He’s vying to be the next starting quarterback for the Browns, learn new teammates, undo rumors he believes are inaccurate, all while being the same person.

“I think when you hear rumors, whatever, guys are going to make their own judgment on you by what they see,” Griffin said. “The worst thing you can do is try to come in and be somebody I’m not. So, when you ask me am I the same guy? You have to be. Because what we say is guys’ BS meters can go off really fast. If you’re BSing them, they’re going to know you’re BSing them.

“People will see through what is a rumor and what is just things that happen in the NFL compared to who you really are. I think that’s the best thing you can do. Be who you are, show them that what you might have heard, maybe some of it’s true and if [a teammate] went up here and said all that stuff’s true, I’d be like, ‘Oh, dang.’ But, a lot of the stuff can be extremely false and you can come and prove to them who you really are. And, that’s what the blessing of a new opportunity with a new team and a new organization blessed me with — a chance to just go out, be myself and let guys make their own determination.”

The frustrations of fandom

Misery always has a backstory. For Peter Pattakos, his began in his hometown of Akron, Ohio where the family would gather to watch Browns games after returning from services at the local Greek Orthodox church. His father, born in Greece and brought into NFL fandom by his native Ohio wife, would put meat in the oven before departing for church or handle the bill for a bucket of chicken on the way back.

“It was something we could all sit around and do and talk about and it was special,” Pattakos said.

His second year of love with the league, when he was 8, taught him his first lesson about Cleveland sports heartbreak. Pattakos‘ summer birthday had always prevented him from having a big party with his school friends. But, that year, the Browns were heading to the Super Bowl. Bernie Kosar was the beacon leading them and they had just taken a late seven-point lead against the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game. Pattakos hatched his plan, asking his mom if he could have a Super Bowl party at the house with his friends.

“She said, ‘Yes, Peter. Of course,” he remembered.

Completion by completion, John Elway sucked the possibility of a party away. In what became known as “The Drive,” Elway pushed the Broncos into the end zone and the Super Bowl after overtime, chasing a dejected young Peter to his room.

“I was just completely crushed,” Pattakos said. “I went upstairs to my bedroom because I was crying uncontrollably and I didn’t want to do that in front of my little sister. Then she comes upstairs a bit later while I’m still bawling. She knocks on my door and I thought it was just to troll me, just to hear if I was really crying about a football game, and I said, ‘Leave me alone! Go away!’ And she told me that my grandfather died in Greece. We had just gotten the call.

“Ever since, it’s just been boom, boom. Heartbreak after heartbreak as a Cleveland fan.”

Pattakos, now a lawyer in Cleveland, runs the blog “Cleveland Frowns” and its paired Twitter feed. To stump Pattakos, ask him who his favorite Browns quarterback since Kosar is. He’ll need a long pause, rubbing his head while pondering. Fourteen quarterbacks have led the Browns in passing since 1994. He throws out some names with little ambition.

“I’m struggling to identify one,” Pattakos said. “Kelly Holcomb? You have to say Kelly Holcomb, right?”

So, when Griffin arrived in title-starved Cleveland, Pattakos had a simple reaction.

“He fits perfectly on this list,” Pattakos said. “That’s my reaction. … It’s like the universe’s screenwriter is drunk again. Let’s bring a complete career meltdown to a career killer.”

Refining the fundamentals

There is so much for Griffin to unwind — personally and for his new city — which is part of the reason he spent more than a month at O Athletik, a massive fitness facility in Houston, before signing with a new team. He worked there with trainer James Cooper, one of his longtime quarterback coaches, Terry Shea, and another quarterback coach whom Griffin chose not to name on Wednesday. There were three sessions during the two weeks Shea spent in Houston: Griffin went through a personal workout with Cooper, a group workout and then worked with Shea for 90 to 100 minutes.

Shea was focused on Griffin’s footwork. They split their shared 90 minutes into three more segments. The first focused on working through agility ladders, over bags, anything that made Griffin move then reset. The next 30 minutes were focused just on dropbacks, which would end with a throw to a stationary target. He worked on sliding in the pocket, stepping up and aligning his feet, which Shea refers to as “the stance arrow.” They closed by throwing routes, with one of every three throws being executed after some form of movement in the pocket.

“It wasn’t his arm that needed the attention, in my opinion, it was everything he does from the waist down,” Shea said.

Griffin was there, he said, to become “leaner, more explosive.” He felt ambitious work in Houston would make practice wherever he signed easier. He went through an extensive interview with Cleveland after his weeks at O Athletik, quickly signing a two-year, $15 million deal with the Browns.

‘Focused on this team’

Griffin looked the same on the practice field on Wednesday — outside of his gear’s color scheme. An orange helmet and jersey now covered him up. A white sleeve and a white glove ran down his left arm. His right arm was bare in the sun as he worked through drills with the litany of other Cleveland quarterbacks, like Josh McCown, who are trying to take Griffin’s place. Griffin was playful with his teammates, running after receivers when they made a catch and the drill location shifted. Ironically, his first drill of the day was a zone-read handoff. He is practicing sliding after runs and throwing the ball away when necessary.

Griffin said he doesn’t read what is written about him or concern himself much with the past, that he’s not worried about what is happening in Washington.

“My focus is being a Cleveland Brown, changing the culture here and giving this city something to be proud of,” Griffin said. “I can’t do that if I’m focused on the past. So, I’m moving forward, focused on this team.”

He’s packed a public lifetime into four years in the NFL. The draft, the majestic rookie season, the downfall, the next shot. When he walked out of the Redskins’ locker room for the final time, he did so without speaking to reporters. Instead, Griffin left a small sign hanging on the gray steel at his locker.

It was given to him by former Redskins assistant strength coach, Joe Kim, now also with the Browns. The words on the sign encouraging perseverance resonated, Griffin said, so he stuck it on his locker and left with his belongings overflowing in a cardboard box. The last line of the card read, “It was never between you and them anyway.”

In Cleveland, he has chance at a dual uplifting, though some Clevelanders, like Pattakos, aren’t so sure that’s possible for anyone who joins the team. “It’s the Browns,” he said.

Griffin is publicly undeterred by his time in Washington. He has never turned away from a chance for a dramatic story, which is again in his lap.

“I feel like you can’t let life happenings change who you are,” Griffin said. “It can grow you as an individual. Adversity is an opportunity for your character to be tested. You can’t let it change who you are. I believe people are genuinely good. Maybe I’m a fool. I don’t know? But, I just think people are genuinely good until they prove you wrong and you have to take that approach to everything you do. As a football player, as a man, you get up every morning and try to live for others. I enjoy that and that will never change.”

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