At Baylor, shock and disappointment at RGIII’s NFL status

Photo courtesy of Washington Post

Dan Steinberg (c) 2014, The Washington Post. John Morris lives in Cowboys country and has rooted for Dallas since the Tom Landry days. His friends and neighbors were Cowboys fans, too. But on Thanksgiving 2012, Morris finally had what he describes as “an epiphany” — he was now a Redskins fan.

“It’s amazing how many Redskins fans there are here now, just because of Robert,” said Morris, the radio voice of Baylor football for 28 years. “And I am one of them.”

“Robert” meaning Robert Griffin III. You know, the Redskins’ backup quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy at Baylor in 2011. The kid who might get a shot to play this weekend, but only if journeyman starter Colt McCoy isn’t healthy. This is turning into a weird paragraph. And the entire strange Griffin saga has put Baylor fans in an equally strange spot.

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Should they still root for the Redskins, or should they turn on the team that has so mangled Griffin’s career? Should they hope for a trade? How has this gone so wrong?

“I empathize with him; I know how disappointed he is,” said 84-year old John Wood, who, with his wife Pat, conceived of and paid for the 9 1/2-foot tall bronze statue of Griffin that lives outside Baylor’s new football stadium. “He’s a winner. He’s not used to losing; he’s not used to not being able to perform at his best. . . .

“We love him and we love his family. They’ve eaten in our home several times. They’re just class people. You wish the best for them, and you hurt when they hurt. I think that’s what the entire community feels.”

When the statue was unveiled over the summer, Wood — who spent a decade as Baylor’s team chaplain — spoke of how important Griffin was to the football program’s growth, how his personality and success helped make a new stadium possible. Those facts, he said this week, will never change, no matter how Griffin fares in the NFL. Wood called the quarterback “one of the most gracious gentlemen I have ever met,” and said “my wife and I wanted to put up the bronze primarily because RG is a role model for other student athletes.”

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“I think the entire community feels the same; they’re proud of what he’s done,” Wood told me. “We put the bronze here for what he did at Baylor and for winning the Heisman, not for what he’s done at the NFL. But everyone is disappointed that he hasn’t been effective with the Redskins . . . for whatever reason.”

Which is the key thing you hear when talking with people from Waco, Texas: confusion. Sure, Washingtonians are surprised at how this has gone, but we also know that the Redskins specialize in reality-bending dysfunction, in turning heroes into villains and sure things into busts, and not the bronze kind. For Baylor fans, this came out of nowhere.

“I don’t think anybody had any doubts that he would be successful at the NFL level,” said Morris, the broadcaster. “I think everybody’s pretty much shocked.”

The interest in Griffin’s NFL career was so intense that an ESPN Radio affiliate in Waco began broadcasting Redskins games. David Smoak, program director at ESPN Central Texas, estimated that they’ve carried 85 percent of Redskins games the last three seasons. The station also broadcast live from the NFL draft when Griffin was picked, did a live show from Redskins Park this past offseason and continues to run a weekly “RGIII Progress Report” on NFL Mondays, featuring Griffin soundbites, Jay Gruden audio and interviews with Redskins greats.

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“We carry the Redskins in Texas; that’s just unheard of,” Smoak said. “He’s still a rock star here. I mean, they put up a statue in his name. That wasn’t about the NFL stuff; that was about the touchdown pass against Oklahoma in 2011. That was the play that forced Baylor to raise $300 million to build a stadium — kind of like the house that Ruth built.”

And now?

“I think there’s a lot of people that are almost like: ‘What the hell? How did this happen?’ ” Smoak said. “I do get a sense of almost a sadness at how quickly this thing has switched. Maybe a combination of a frustration that there may be something going on that people can’t quite put their arms around, and a sadness that the guy’s star isn’t as bright as it was.”

Smoak said if Griffin moves on from Washington in the offseason, his station would look into broadcasting Buccaneers games, or Rams games, or whatever the next destination might be. And he said Griffin’s image still prompts roars when it’s shown before Baylor’s home games, that the quarterback “still has that ‘it factor’ ” in Waco. It’s like Baylor President Ken Starr said when the statue was unveiled: “We always want Robert back. . . . He’s ours.”

“We’re going to always follow him, until the last pass he ever throws,” Smoak said. “In one year, in five years or in 15 years, we’re going to follow him until the very end.”

All the Baylor folks I spoke with mentioned the pounding Griffin has taken over the past three years, the lack of a consistent offensive line and his uneven health. And all said, ultimately, that they remain hopeful about what will happen next.

“I think he’ll come out of it some way,” said Wood, who commissioned the sculpture. “I think he’ll turn things around. I don’t know what all will be involved. But I’m always optimistic about Robert.”