Irene Griffin, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin IIIs grandmother,… (Julie Dermansky/FOR THE…)
NEW ORLEANS — The boy was 7 years old and soft, at least by the impossibly hard standards of the Iberville housing projects. His prized ponytail served only to trumpet the fact he was different, an outsider, and when the other kids teased him about it, he cried. But there was something about the kid: He was gifted of mind and body, smart and fast. It was time to put him on a football field.
The boy’s father, an Army sergeant deployed to South Korea, had been bugging the folks back home to make sure his son got signed up for some sports while his parents were overseas. And in Louisiana, sports meant football. So the job fell to Uncle Shane Griffin, who, one Saturday morning in 1997, dutifully loaded his nephew, young Robert, in the back seat of his car and pointed it toward a nearby rec center.
But halfway there, suddenly fearful of what might happen out there on the inner-city gridiron to little Robert Griffin III, the youngest of Jacqueline and Robert Griffin Jr.’s three children, Uncle Shane turned the car around. The boy, skinny and quiet, with big innocent eyes, was staying with his Louisiana relatives only temporarily, while his mom and dad were doing their tour in South Korea.
Uncle Shane figured it would be a good idea if he were returned to them in one piece.
“I said to myself, ‘Man, these project kids are gonna tear him up, and Jackie would never forgive me if something happened to him,’ ” Shane Griffin recalled. “So I didn’t even sign him up. We went and got some snowballs instead.
“And I look back now — I was driving around with the future Heisman Trophy winner. And I didn’t even sign him up! Can you imagine that?”
Some 15 years later after destiny was delayed by the conscience of a loyal uncle, Robert Lee Griffin III will finally make his football debut in the city he calls “my true home town.” Home, Griffin has said, is where you go for Christmas every year, and for the Griffins that was — and to a certain extent still is — New Orleans, where both his parents were born and raised, and where dozens of family members still reside.
Griffin returns to New Orleans on Sunday as the rookie quarterback of the Washington Redskins, and the No. 2 overall pick of the NFL draft. Shortly after 1 p.m., he will make perhaps the most anticipated regular season debut in Redskins history, against the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome.
Now 22, Griffin is already a man in full, with a $21.1 million contract, a ubiquitous nickname (RGIII) and the hopes of a franchise resting on his shoulders. The Heisman Trophy, earned as a junior at Baylor in 2011, sits on the mantel of his suburban Virginia home. He has a fiancee, Rebecca Liddicoat, whose high school class ring he wears around his neck day and night, alongside a dog tag with a Bible quote from Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ ”
Griffin’s time in New Orleans, which came in 1996-97 when he and his two sisters were forced to stay behind while his parents were deployed in South Korea, instilled in him an appreciation for family, a tolerance for humidity, a foolproof recipe for beignets and a healthy dose of street-smarts.
But mostly, what New Orleans gave him was a toughness he didn’t have before he arrived there. He saw rats for the first time in New Orleans. He had an achy tooth pulled via a string tied to a doorknob that a cousin subsequently slammed shut. Eventually, he even learned to tune out the teasing.
The elder Robert Griffin Jr. remembers picking his kids up from New Orleans at the end of the deployment, and taking them to Copperas Cove, Tex., near Fort Hood, where the family settled for good. In the younger Robert, there was something new, something different. His boy was tougher and stronger. He was ready to be an athlete.
“I think it was a good experience for Robert, because he got to see a side of life he had no idea about,” Jacqueline Griffin said. “Because of that, he could appreciate — and all my kids could appreciate — what we, his mother and father, sacrificed so they would never have to see that type of lifestyle.”
Born in Okinawa, Japan and raised primarily in Texas, Griffin nonetheless — because of his deep roots and his name — is as much a product of New Orleans as of anywhere. And it is worth pondering, as his parents sometimes do, whether Robert Griffin III would have grown up to be the man he is today without that time in New Orleans.
‘That’s not Ponytail, is it?’
“I looked around, and all I saw were skyscrapers,” Robert Griffin Jr. said of his own New Orleans youth. “I read about mountains in a book once. I wanted to see mountains. I wanted to see the world.”