- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2012

NEW ORLEANS — In a cramped hallway outside the locker room, Robert Griffin III cradled a football under his left arm, speckled with blood, and shook Sonny Jurgensen’s hand with his right.

Mr. Jurgensen, the Hall of Fame quarterback who played 11 seasons for the Washington Redskins, looked toward Griffin as he walked away in red and black sandals. A smile fixed on Griffin’s face, inches from the braids dangling near his eye black.

“He’s got,” Mr. Jurgensen said in his North Carolina drawl, “a great, great future.”

In Griffin’s NFL debut Sunday, the rookie quarterback delivered a performance as big as the 74-foot mural of him projected on the side of the Newseum last month. He transformed the Superdome’s 13 acres into his personal playground as the Redskins shocked the New Orleans Saints, 40-32.

“After this game,” Griffin said of his teammates, “they told me I’m not a rookie anymore.”

Griffin didn’t look like a rookie. Not when he took the field hours before the game with “HEART” scrawled in black marker on a strip of white tape on his chest. Not in one of the NFL’s most hostile stadiums, where the ear-aching din at kickoff left conversation impossible and shook the press box.

Griffin felt the noise in his body and said, without a doubt, this was the loudest stadium he’s ever experienced. This is a treacherous place for opponents of the Saints, coming off a 13-3 season in 2011.

Treacherous until Griffin, whom the Redskins surrendered three first-round draft choices to select with the No. 2 pick in April’s draft, quieted the stadium with 320 yards passing, 42 more yards on the ground and two touchdown tosses. He threw quick, calming screens to start, then moved to deep balls, such as an 88-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon, ran the option, and showed he could stand in the pocket and absorb hits.

All of this equaled the most points the Redskins scored since Mike Shanahan arrived as coach in 2010. Shanahan, not given to superlatives, described Griffin’s performance as “unbelievable.”

By the time the Superdome emptied late in the fourth quarter, a few thousand Redskins supporters started chanting as they pressed toward the field.

“R-G-3,” they shouted, “R-G-3.”

The supporters wore T-shirts insisting “Robert Griffin III knows” and knee-high Superman socks and strings of burgundy and gold beads emblazoned with the Redskins‘ logo.

“This felt like a home game,” Griffin said. “This was definitely a storybook first game.”

Griffin’s parents, Robert and Jacqueline, were born and raised here. Between 30 and 50 family members attended the game. But after Griffin forgot his cellphone in Virginia, he enjoyed a quiet night before the game watching television while, on Frenchman Street, a jazz ensemble sang about the Saints going to the Super Bowl.

In the bowels of the Superdome, Griffin held the football under his arm and tossed it from hand to hand as Redskins staffers ushered him through postgame interviews. Reporters shouted down one another to get in their questions, sounding more like a White House news conference than an NFL opener. One television reporter asked about his favorite beignets, but a Redskins staffer pulled Griffin on to another interview before he could answer.

In a tunnel leading to the darkened field, the football slipped from Griffin’s hands for an instant, perhaps his biggest mistake of the day. In an instant, Griffin scooped up the ball and kept moving.

The serene, composed look on Griffin’s face didn’t leave, as if he were made for the role he’s been thrust into.

“I just wanted,” Griffin said, “to be myself.”

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