- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2004

Cornelius Griffin wasn’t ready to go home that night.

Heck, he was 21 years old and it was only about midnight. Griffin was planning to drive right past the family house in Brundidge, Ala., and head out somewhere else. But then he saw his sister’s car in the yard. And his brother’s. And those of people who attended his church.

“Something ain’t right,” Griffin, now a Washington Redskins defensive tackle, recalled himself thinking.

Something definitely wasn’t. Griffin’s father, Willie, had been struck head-on by a drunk driver. Griffin had just transferred from junior college to the University of Alabama, and his life was just starting to take off. But it would have to take off without his father, who died that night. Two months later, Griffin reported for camp with the Crimson Tide.

“It was kind of hard for me to do, but I had a choice: Do I stay here and take care of my family? Or do I pursue a dream?” Griffin said. “My mom wanted me to go. It’s just, ‘Never quit.’ My dad didn’t quit on me. And my mother never quit on me. So I can’t quit on them.”

Seven years later, Griffin’s determination is making him an emerging cornerstone in Joe Gibbs’ second stint with the Redskins. Already, Griffin has 61 tackles and four sacks. Just as importantly, he is setting an example with his attitude and hard work, which can be traced to his small-town roots and the way his parents raised him.

“It really has greatly influenced the work ethic that he has,” assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams said. “He’s a real prideful man. He’s got a great family background in that respect. His pride is, he’s going to give you a full day’s work for a full day’s wage.”

Brundidge, as Griffin describes it, is a country town of about 2,300 people where football reigns supreme. He was born and raised in Brundidge, went to high school there, met his future wife there and one day might retire there.

“Everybody knows everybody,” Griffin said. “If you did something wrong, your mother knew about it before you got home. That’s how close everybody down there is. It’s very quiet also. Good people.”

Griffin was the fifth child among two brothers and four sisters, and his parents were both pastors. He calls the family tightly knit and centered around education and its Christian values. All the children went on to college, and one of his sisters graduated with honors. Even his mother now is studying psychology at Troy State. Griffin alone took a casual attitude about school.

“It’s a very intelligent family,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just I goofed off.”

Baseball and football were Griffin’s passions, and as his body started filling out he began focusing on football. In high school he played outside linebacker and tight end — relishing the time on offense — but he didn’t have the grades to go straight to a Division I-A school. So he spent the next two years at Pearl River (Miss.) Community College.

There Griffin put on about 50 pounds, and his natural aptitude for defense landed him on the interior line. After earning his way to Alabama and perservering through his father’s death, Griffin played well enough in two seasons with the Crimson Tide to be a second-round pick by the New York Giants.

During Griffin’s four years with the Giants, many scouts wondered in what direction his career was headed. Although he outperformed expectations as a rookie, his play declined from there. Last spring Washington drew criticism for signing him to a seven-year, $30.8million contract. The only people championing Griffin, it seemed, were inside Redskin Park.

“I thought he was the best guy on the market,” Williams said. “I really wanted to try to draft him [in 2000]. Didn’t get that opportunity. So when he became available, I was really excited.”

The reason, according to Williams, is Griffin’s combination of huge talent and tiny ego. There’s no self-glorification in Griffin, who didn’t even comment at his own introductory press conference in March. Even as Griffin increasingly dominated recent games, his interviews nonetheless focused on how he could improve.

“I like the fact that he’s not a me-me-me person,” Williams said. “He’s not going to sing his praises. He just wants you to watch the film.”

It all goes back to what Willie Griffin taught his son. Those lessons guide Griffin, who spends his free time horseback riding in Alabama and relishes the no-nonsense football analysis he gets from his brothers.

“Grif brings that country-ness to the team,” cornerback Fred Smoot said. “You can tell any small-town guy — real tough, real gritty, never going to stop, and just dedicated to what he’s doing.”

Griffin predictably shrugged off talk of the Pro Bowl yesterday, saying it was inappropriate to discuss individual accolades with Washington (3-5) still below .500. But he recalled the advice of his father and expressed confidence the organization is headed in the right direction — provided it, too, doesn’t quit.

“‘Be a man first,’” Griffin recounted. “‘Be respectful. Don’t take the coward’s way out. There is no substitute for hard work. When you see an obstacle, it’s a challenge. See how you overcome it. It doesn’t matter how up or down you are, eventually the sun’s going to shine.’

“That’s the way I’m feeling right now. The sun’s going to shine on me and my team. We may be struggling now, but it’s going to turn around. You’ve got to make it happen. Keep working.”

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