Before earning the Heisman Trophy, before winning the Davey O'Brien Award, and before taking home the Manning Award. Before the Alamo Bowl, before the 10-win season, and before the true national hype began. Before all of that, I did an exclusive interview with the man most people now know as RG3 just before the 2011 season began. Before the season opening victory over TCU, before the comeback versus Kansas, before the clutch performance over the Oklahoma Sooners, or the victory over the Texas Longhorns.
After a high-tempo practice concluded, RG3 and I each took a knee in the corner of the endzone on the amazing on-campus practice facility on Baylor University's campus. The interview started with a firm handshake as always. I started the interview asking Griffin III if he was ready for the rigors of college football when he came out of Copperas Cove High School 3 years prior. Griffin was a 4-star prospect, ranked the 12th best high school quarterback in the country according to Scout.com.
“I might have been a little bit naive. Everyone was telling me the speed of the game was different, and that everyone was bigger. The 'bigger' part I understood because you were taking all of the stars from the high school teams and putting them on college teams,” Griffin III said.
“I didn't feel the game would be that much faster being a fast guy,” Griffin III continued. “And when I got up to Baylor and began, I didn't feel the speed of the game was that different. That's because I was playing at such a fast rate. Now, when you step back and look at it, yeah, the game is faster and the guys are bigger. But for me it didn't affect me too much because when you're fast, you're fast.”
And fast he is. RG3 was one of the nation's top high school sprinters receiving the 2007 Gatorade Texas Boys Track & Field Athlete of Year award after setting state records in both the 110-(13.55 seconds) and 300-(35.33 seconds) meter hurdles. In his freshman campaign at Baylor, RG3 became a track & field All-American after finishing third at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the 400-meter hurdles (49.55). In addition, Griffin III won the Big 12 gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles with the third-fastest time in school history (49.22).
Griffin III had a huge following in the track and field circuit prior to his arrival at Baylor, but coming into college few believed he could make a splash playing quarterback. Baylor Head Coach Art Briles gave him that chance, and one particular play really set the standard for Griffin's future on-field performance. In fact, perhaps that one play changed RG3's entire career.
“I was mostly known in the track world, and there was a little bit of buzz about me playing football,” Griffin III said. “But, I think that play really did do it. I didn't think much of the play when it happened, it was just playing football to me. Everyone else saw it as something different.”
The “play” being referred to was one of the most incredible displays of athletic talent I had seen in quite some time from a freshman quarterback on the collegiate level. It was the season-opening game for the Bears hosting Wake Forest. It was the only game that RG3 didn't start in his Baylor career (besides missing games due to injury). Baylor starting quarterback Kirby Freeman began the game but lasted only the first quarter after throwing two interceptions leading to a 17-0 Wake Forest lead and was pulled for RG3, a true freshman. Griffin III quickly put the college football world on notice that he was the real deal after a spectacular 22-yard scramble down the left sideline. Following a Jason Smith block, RG3 hit the brakes, back-peddaled a yard, and then hit full speed again up the sidelines drawing a standing ovation from the Baylor home crowd.
“Honestly, I didn't even know the guy was coming,” said Griffin III. “I am not trying to downplay the play, but for some reason something told me to stop, and I stopped, and then I took off. The whirlwind behind that play was unbelievable. The buzz turned into a lot of hype. A lot of people starting calling me the 'Messiah' and all of this other stuff. That's all fine and dandy, but one guy cannot win you a championship.”
Griffin III's freshman year was a spectacular one as he earned both 2008 Freshman All-America Honors and the 2008 Big 12 Freshman of the Year award. RG3 threw for 2,091 yards, completed 60% of his passes, and had a 15/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He added another 843 yards and 13 touchdowns rushing. I wondered why his true freshman season at quarterback for the Baylor Bears was so successful when so few were willing to give him a shot to play the position coming out of high school.
“I think it started with having a strong mind,” Griffin III said. “You can say that, and some people are it, and some people just say it. It is all about having a strong mind. You can let what other people say get into your head which happens to a lot of talented kids that get to college and just don't blossom.”
Before I could ask another question, Griffin III continued his answer sounding as confident and mature as ever.
“The game is harder at this level, but if you believe in yourself you can do anything. That's why the game seemed to come easier to me. I believed. I knew I wasn’t going to be on the field long if I wasn’t smart with the ball, so that is why I didn’t throw a lot of interceptions. You throw passes you know you can complete. I did that my freshman year, and I did that as I continue to move along. You develop; so the more you play football, the better you get at it. For me, I was coming out of high school, and I just believed in myself.”
Entering his sophomore campaign, RG3 had a lot of hype, a lot of praise, and a lot of expectations. Baylor was coming off of a 4-8 season, but RG3 was now no longer a secret, in fact, he was a college football sensation that people simply wanted more of. Things changed in the first half of the third game of the season against Northwestern State. A fourth down-and-short quarterback option to the right resulted in RG3 laying on the turf at Baylor' s Floyd Casey Stadium. After a short time on the turf, Griffin III walked off the field, warmed up a little bit on the sidelines, and returned to the game to play. What the world didn't know yet was that he had suffered an isolated tear to his anterior cruciate ligament in the right knee. Griffin III opted to play the remainder of the first half on a wrapped knee and totaled 226 yards while completing 13 of 19 passes for three touchdowns and no interceptions. It wasn't until later that he heard the news of his season-ending injury.
“When they told me I tore my ACL, I started crying immediately,” said Griffin III. “Not because my season was over, but because I felt like I let a lot of people down.”
But the young quarterback had the motivation to come back better than he had ever been.
“Outside of football, my motivation was my family and friends. But also my teammates. To see the look on their face every game-day when I am not out their with them was hard. So, that motivated me to come back right there,” said Griffin III.
RG3 acknowledged there was more that motivated him as well.
“And then there was the fact that I know what this game of football and Baylor University can do for myself, my family, and my future family. That motivated me to come back. I know that once you come back from an injury like that you have to come back better than you were before. You will always have doubters, so I made sure I busted my tail to come back and be better for these guys and make sure nothing like this ever happened again.”
Griffin III returned after rehab on the injured knee wearing a knee brace. He led his team to a 7-6 season with signature wins over Kansas State and the University of Texas. Baylor played in its first bowl game in 14 years ( a 38-14 loss to Illinois), but there were some critics that said RG3 had lost a step. Some believed that he was not the same quarterback that caught the football world by storm just 2 years prior even though Griffin III threw for over 3,500 yards, completed 67% of his passes, and had a 22/8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Even after rushing for 635 yards and 8 touchdowns, some doubters felt that Griffin III was missing a signature win after the team lost 4 straight to end the season.
“It's on paper. I am faster than I was before the injury. You can go in there and look on the charts if you want to,” Griffin III said getting as serious as he had the entire interview.
“But as far as elusiveness, I haven't been running like I did my freshman year. The coaches aren’t drawing up running plays like they were for me my freshman year. Back then it was ,'Okay, we are going to snap it to Griffin and he's going to run it.' You know, for the coaches to look at me in a different manner, and for them to look at me as more of a quarterback that can play on the next level, to me, that was big,” says Griffin III.
RG3 worked on all facets of his game during his rehab. His upper-body strength, accuracy, throwing motion, and film study were all part of Griffin III's quest to be the best quarterback in the game and help his team win.
“To me, I didn’t want to be the guy that ran 30 times a game,” Griffin III said.
“That is not a knock on Denard Robinson and all those guys, because they are doing things to help their teams win, but I wanted to be a quarterback. As far as elusiveness, I mean, no one on this team is easy to tackle. But if they want to see some more dazzle, I am sure there will be times I will dazzle people this upcoming season.”
Did he ever.
He didn't just dazzle in the stat books either where Griffin III threw for 4,293 yards, completed 72% of his passes, and had a 37/6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. RG3 also rushed for 699 yards and 10 touchdowns. But this past season was more than just the statistics for Robert Griffin III. It was about Baylor winning 10 games. It was about letting his teammates shine. It was about putting Baylor University higher on the pedestal than it was before RG3 arrived.
“For a quarterback, a lot of people look at stats. So it would be interception ratio and things like that. You can go on with that stuff for days, but as far as being a great quarterback, you have got to be a great leader and allow other people to shine. My job is to let these guys shine. Yeah, I have that over my head when people say 'Robert Griffin is the man', but I want these guys to go out there, make plays, and contribute to Baylor winning football games,” said Griffin III.
The impact that RG3 had on his team, his university, and his community is still being felt today and will continue for years to come. Even before the Superman socks, every kid in Central Texas wanted to be like Robert Griffin III. And every parent in Central Texas wanted the same. RG3 was a model student, a model football player, and continues to be a role model everywhere he goes. He graduated early and was in graduate school at Baylor during his Heisman winning campaign. Things seemed to come easy in the classroom and on the field for the young man that looks to be a top-2 pick in this year's NFL Draft.
“It doesn't,” said a laughing Griffin III.
“The crazy thing is, I didn't know any better. I came in and I took 16 hours for my first four semesters. I am thinking that is normal, I am thinking that is what normal college kids do. But I came to find out most college football players take 12 hours in the fall and 15 or 16 hours in the spring. Because I took so many hours I got ahead of the curve, and then I was taking more hours in the summer than normal people were, so, that's why I was able to graduate. They didn’t tell me until this past summer that I could graduate in December. So, I said I am going to go ahead and do it. I took 11 hours in the summer, and 16 hours in the Fall. I don't think it comes easy. I think that if you apply yourself, you can get it done in 3 years or 4 years. You don't have to be here 5 or 6 years to get it done.”
Before all of the hype, before the cameras, the lights, the award shows, the speeches. Before the agents, the NFL combine, and the endorsement deals, before all of that RG3 and I knelt on the practice fields as he answered my last question.
What do you want people to say when your days at Baylor are done? Finish this sentence: There goes Robert Griffin III, he____.
“I mean, you want to leave your footprint. You want to leave your imprint somewhere,” said Griffin III laughing and looking into the distance in deep thought.
“The seniors did it last year with the bowl game. For helping this team get to a bowl game they will always be remembered. Maybe not the names, but they will be the class that got us to a bowl game. I don’t want people to look at me as a football player. I guess I want them to say, 'That guy right there, he is a great guy. On the field or off the field, he is always looking to help people. He also took care of his business and helped this football team and Baylor University get back to the top.'”
Did he ever.