- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Robert Griffin Jr. has been a father for 27 of his 47 years on this earth. The beginning, with all its thrills and wonder, featured that awakening all new parents experience. Children, it turns out, come with no instruction booklet. Somehow the manufacturer always leaves that out of the box. 

He and his wife, Jacqueline, both retired Army sergeants, needed direction, a mission statement. And so they agreed to a promise.

“Our kids would do much better than what we did,” Jacqueline recalled this week, “and we are going to sacrifice our entire lives and put anything we want to do on hold until these kids are successful adults.”

Robert Jr. has exerted himself to uphold that vow ever since. It led him to a fluorescently lit concrete hallway deep inside Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on the evening of Sept. 16. Griffin’s youngest child and only son, his namesake, became a working man this summer, and that day was his worst yet on the job.

Robert Griffin III, quarterback of the Washington Redskins, lost for the first time as a pro. It was only seven days after a magical debut in which he justified all those who labeled him the downtrodden franchise’s savior. Elation and excitement yielded to disappointment and regret.

Griffin Jr. waited for his son outside the door to the locker room. The son, dressed in a gray suit over an argyle sweater, finally emerged and walked right into his father’s open arms. From 27 years of fatherhood, Griffin Jr. knows when the moment demands a hug.

Their embrace, that day and any day, embodies who Robert Griffin III is as a man and who RG3 is as a football player. His relationship with his father has molded him into the total package we continue to get to know — the charismatic leader, the deft thrower, the witty spokesman and the blazing runner. Theirs is a powerful bond forged by mutual admiration, respect and love.

“You always give credit where credit is due — to high school coaches, college coaches — but my dad, the foundation that he built with me, is where all of this came from,” Robert III said. “The speed, the determination, the mindset, just the natural belief that you can do anything you put your mind to, it all comes from my dad.”

Everyone knows an example of a father pushing his son in athletics to the point of negative fallout. Everyone is familiar with the son who lashes out from his father’s strict oversight. There are famous examples — tennis star Andre Agassi and football phenom Todd Marinovich, to name two — and there are many more anonymous ones in Everytown, USA.

What makes Robert III’s relationship with his father so special is that it works in spite of and because of the intensity. And, to measure it by how seamlessly Robert III has transitioned to his role with the Redskins, it works spectacularly.

To know Robert Griffin III, then, is to comprehend the mind and methods of the man who helped raise him and coach him. As Robert III wades into the pool of superstardom at age 22, earning his father’s pride remains one of the driving forces in his life.

“It’s paramount to me — and I didn’t even know what that word meant until he taught it to me a few years ago,” the son said Tuesday through that infectious grin of his. “It’s really important. He was there for me. He sacrificed so much for me, so I want to make sure I make him proud.”

Faith and discipline

Two sets of values comprise the foundation for the Griffins’ promise to each other in raising their two daughters (Jihan, 27, and Dejon, 24) and Robert III. They are Christians, first and foremost, and they hold in high esteem the core principles of the Army.

Those values manifested differently in the two main dynamics of Robert Jr.’s relationship with Robert III. There’s the father-son aspect and the coach-athlete element. Those never were completely separate, but both were instrumental in grooming the celebrated son we now see.

“Just really being respectful and very disciplined, I think all that tied in to who his dad was and who Robert is today,” said Art Briles, the football coach at Baylor, where Robert III played the last four years.

Military life is omnipresent in Copperas Cove, a central Texas town of about 32,000 where the Griffin family settled when Robert III was 7. The parents worked at nearby Fort Hood; Robert Jr. as a psychological counselor who most recently worked with soldiers returning from Iraq and Jacqueline as an administrative specialist.

The Griffins emphasized to their children the value of the preparedness, obedience and hard work the military ingrained in them. It was productive for them, so it also would be for their kids.

“At a young age we instilled in our kids discipline, structure and basically this is how it’s going to operate in this household, and there’s really no room for negotiation,” said Jacqueline, 46. “We didn’t have to constantly spank them or whatever to get the point across. They knew this is how it is.”

Rules included no dating until after high school graduation. The kids had to be active and productive in the summer, instead of eating and playing video games. And nighttime was spent at home because not much good happens on the streets after dark.

The Griffins wanted their children to focus on graduating high school and getting out of Copperas Cove, preferably with a college scholarship as the ticket.

“Discipline, not just in strictness, but in fun, in school, academically, being focused and prepared,” Robert Jr. said. “Those types of things that we kind of take for granted and tend to let time develop, but with the military we can’t be so open-ended like that. We have to be determined.”

Robert Jr. and Jacqueline supplemented that discipline and structure by emphasizing certain principles rooted in their Christian faith, including humility, kindness, mindfulness of others and the importance of family.

When Jihan had a dance recital or choir concert, the Griffins would pack into the car and go to support her. The same applied to Dejon’s volleyball and softball games.

Robert III’s respect for his parents’ authority helped those traits take hold. That fostered the warm personality that has endeared him to so many along the way.

Jack Welch, the football coach and athletic director at Copperas Cove High, recalled how Robert III was a leader of the anti-drug and alcohol program Welch founded. He participated in many program activities, including stargazing and horseback riding.

And after high school football games, Robert III would sign his autograph on little footballs his mother had piled in a basket, and he’d give them to clamoring children.

“He has done it very, very humbly,” Welch said. “To me, that’s the blessing of Robert Griffin. He’s a role model, a solid citizen and somebody who cares about others.”

That’s the man Robert Jr. intended for his son to be.

One his proudest moments as a father occurred in September when Baylor debuted a commercial featuring Robert III. It starts with footage of Robert III being announced the Heisman Trophy winner last December.

It cuts to him delivering his acceptance speech. Then it seamlessly transitions to a montage of Baylor students and alumni speaking Robert III’s words while in different work settings.

Robert Jr. called his son when he first saw it. Here was Baylor University using his son’s words as a way to inspire and attract others.

“It’s so powerful,” Robert Jr. said. “We had to sit there and say, ‘Wow,’ because Robert at Baylor for four years was a, ‘Wow,’ the impression that he left there.”

Men with a mission

Welch knew what to expect every afternoon when he went out to football practice while Robert III was the quarterback there. Jacqueline Griffin would be sitting in a chair on a cement slab near the field. She’d have an umbrella to shield her from the sun, a book to keep her stimulated and a video camera to record practice.

Video analysis was an essential element of how Robert Jr. trained his son to become one of the best athletes in the country. The process started when Robert III was 11 and basketball was his love.

One day, he told his dad he wanted to be better than Michael Jordan. As in, the greatest basketball player ever.

Robert Jr. pressed him. If that were indeed the case, if that’s what his son really wanted, then they could map out a plan to make it reality.

Robert Jr. already knew his son was athletically gifted and was especially adept at absorbing information. As a Christian man, he believed it was his duty to God to do whatever he could to draw those talents out.

And so Robert Jr. attacked this challenge as an army would an objective. He preached to his son the importance of dribbling with his left hand. On their first day of training, Robert III returned home crying after an hour of left-handed dribbling drills.

He was upset because the new skill did not come easily, not because he despised the work. Ultimately, he respected his dad’s direction with the understanding it spawned from love and support.

“From about 11 to 15 there was no butting heads or any arguments,” Robert III said. “It was more, Dad said do it; I’m going to do it because I want to be the best.”

And that’s what held their relationship together throughout all the rigorous training sessions.

When Robert III would tie one end of a rope around his waist and the other end around a tire and repeatedly pull it up the hill near their house while his dad timed him, he did it because he wanted to.

“I wasn’t a rebel,” Robert III said. “It kind of clicked in my head, like, if I want to do this, I can go out and do it. Some kids, it clicks for them, and it doesn’t work out. But thank God for me it did work out. I put in all those hard hours of work, and it has gotten me to where I am.”

Robert Jr. met his son’s desire with a commitment just as deep.

He would go to the library and watch videos of great quarterbacks. He studied Dan Marino’s quick release, Ken Stabler’s scrambling ability, Joe Montana’s poise and John Elway’s strength — to name a few — and contrasted what he saw with videos the family shot of Robert III’s games and practices.

When he took over the local AAU track and field program when Robert III was 12, he taught himself the mechanics of field events. He studied how Olympic gold medalist hurdlers Edwin Moses and Allen Johnson ran and jumped. Father and son analyzed the video, always striving for that perfect amalgamation of skills.

Robert Jr. learned human anatomy by reading body-building magazines, and he used that knowledge to teach his son how to take care of his body. “Train hard, eat right, hydrate — that’s the motto I always gave him,” Robert Jr. said.

His oversight was constant and the training was extensive, but the results as Robert III progressed were undeniable. As a high school junior, he was 0.01 of a second slower than the national high school record in the 300-meter hurdles. And he ultimately eschewed a track career to become a Division I quarterback.

“I was tough; I admit it,” Robert Jr. said. “But as he began to see the success in how we approached things — the approach for school, the approach for academics, the approach to his faith — and then he started finding himself success, even when times were not so great, he still saw he was being driven and given information so that he could benefit.”

Answering the call

Robert Jr. wakes up before 6 a.m. every day in order to catch the Red Line train downtown. His wife drives him the 10 minutes from their rented townhouse in Gaithersburg to the Metro.

Robert III asked his parents to move to the Washington area after the Redskins drafted him this year, and they obliged.

“It’s just great to have them experience all of this while I’m experiencing it, as well,” Robert III said. “Hopefully, it’s a reward for them for all the sacrifices they made.”

Robert Jr. is now a management analyst at the Department of Veterans Affairs, about two blocks from the White House.

“We always lead by example,” Jacqueline said. “My husband told him I’m not coming up there without a job. I’m not coming up there to live off you because that’s not who I am and not who I raised you to be.”

Despite the Griffins’ close proximity to Robert III’s new home in Ashburn, father and son see each other only once a week or so. Apparently there is a limit to what Dad is willing to sacrifice.

“This gridlock traffic,” Robert Jr. said. “I don’t want to spend three hours on the road trying to see him.”

They constantly communicate by phone, though, either by voice or text message, especially the night after every game. But Robert Jr. doesn’t necessarily marvel at his son’s recent accomplishments on the field because he groomed Robert III for this.

Asked which of Robert III’s plays he likes best through 10 games, he contemplated a few. The 88-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon in the season opener against New Orleans was special because of the hit he absorbed as he threw.

But Robert Jr. ultimately cited as his favorites the handful of deep passes that have slipped through receivers’ hands. Those plays are evidence of what his son still has to accomplish.

“I expect him to execute,” Robert Jr. said.

Robert III does, too. That’s why he smiled late last Sunday afternoon as he walked up the ramp that leads out of FedEx Field. He had just thrown four touchdown passes and completed all but one of his 15 passes in a blowout win over division-rival Philadelphia. All the hills he ran and video he watched and nights he stayed home were for games like that.

The son pulled a suitcase behind him, flanked by security guards. Hundreds of fans who had gathered at the metal barriers hoping to glimpse their hero began chanting “R-G-3! R-G-3!”

He acknowledged them as he walked past. He strolled into the night and slipped into his car. He had an important phone call to make.

• Rich Campbell can be reached at rcampbell@washingtontimes.com.

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