What do you see when you look at Robert Griffin III?
Above all, you probably see the brilliance on the field, a quarterback capable of one day leading the Washington Redskins back to glory. Or, if the bigger picture matters, you probably note as well his commanding presence, his polish, the confident, charming smile. You can sense his character. He gets it, you figure. He’s special.
But if you are African American, and have lived in Washington a good long while, long enough to have internalized the complexities of being a Redskins fan in this city, you see so much more in Griffin. Chances are, you have gone beyond wondering if he is merely the franchise quarterback you’ve been craving, or simply the city’s newest superstar.
Chances are, after seeing what Griffin has done these past seven Sundays — after seeing him shred defenses, gain the admiration of everyone he encounters and navigate the media minefield without a single misstep — you’re beginning to believe he may be The One.
Someday, you knew he would finally arrive, right? The One: an athlete so brilliant, so likable, so rooted over time in the region’s culture, he would lift the entire community. A transcendent figure — less a messiah than a soulmate for the populace — who would be more than this city’s champion, but its face. Theoretically, it could have been anyone, but realistically, in this city, it could only be this: an electrifying, young African American quarterback for the Redskins.
“I think he can be that guy,” Redskins veteran linebacker London Fletcher said of Griffin, 22. “He’s what this franchise and this community have been looking for, for over 20 years — a superstar quarterback. But he’s more than that. He has the persona, the charisma, the talent. There’s another dimension he brings.
“He’s someone who can relate to anyone. You see everyone’s falling in love with him. But for African Americans, it’s an even different connection. In a lot of cities it might not mean as much. But this is Washington, D.C. It means a lot.”
For Griffin himself, the injection of race into his story usually has meant only negativity and stereotyping — colleges that recruited him out of high school but that wanted him to switch positions, or analysts who unfailingly compare him only to other black quarterbacks.
He was raised in a military household, by two now-retired Army sergeants who taught him to see the world without much regard to race, and those lessons continue to inform his worldview as a young adult.
“My parents raised me to not ever look at race or color,” Griffin said recently, “so it doesn’t have a big part in my self-identity. [But] I think it has played a big part in how other people view me, just going back to when I was a kid, to even now, doing the things that I’ve been able to do. As an African American, I think other people view that in a different way than I do.”
And yet, in a city where race remains a relevant issue — where even the name “Redskins” is charged with racial tension, and where old-timers still resent the fact the franchise was the last in the NFL to integrate in the 1960s — the symbolism of Griffin’s emergence goes beyond the mere question of how many Super Bowl titles or most valuable player awards he might win.
“When we got RGIII, it breathed new life into the fan base, particularly the African American fan base,” said lifelong Redskins fan Tshaka Cunningham, a research scientist for the Department of Veterans Affairs and an assistant professor of microbiology at Howard University. “We’d been in a drought for a long time in terms of star players who were African Americans.
“As an African American male myself, he gives me a great sense of pride. He’s someone who, as a father of two sons, I would be happy for my sons to look up to. I hope the Redskins go on to win Super Bowls under him and he becomes the Peyton Manning or Brett Favre of our area. The impact some elite quarterbacks have in their area — I can see him doing the same thing.”
“Every once in a while, someone comes along like that, someone who is the full package,” said Brian Mitchell, a former all-pro kick returner for the Redskins who is an analyst for CSN Washington and a sports-talk radio host on WTEM (980 AM). “Say what you want about Michael Jordan, but he knew how to handle himself both in an interview and on the basketball court. I’m not saying this kid will be Michael Jordan, but because of his ultimate intelligence, he can be at that level.”
Indeed, so new is this feeling, so complex is this dynamic, so deep is the history, so intense is the longing, so young is this superstar — that it is possible Griffin himself doesn’t even realize how much he matters here.
‘They don’t see color’
What do Griffin’s parents see when they look at their son?