Robert Griffin III is excelling on ESPN, but he hasn’t given up on a football career yet
It was scanned as a typical team meeting the night prior to the big game. The team met in a private room in a luxurious Orlando hotel. They were out of sight of many fans in various states of sobriety and milling about in the lobby. The team members took their seats, flanked by a long oak table. Men of all shapes and sizes discussed formations, schemes, and lineups as plates of uncooked appetizers began to cool and congeal. A laptop was set up to project film clips and other visual elements on a wall. The room hummed with nervous energy and confidence. Robert Griffin III was unmistakably the quarterback, the playmaker. He wore a RGIII signature logo sweatshirt with a ballcap and his signature braids, which were remnants of another era and, by accident or design, signify his alpha status. He was a natural leader and spoke at the right volume, keeping his eyes on each person around him. He mingled earnest talk about Cover-2 packages and jokes about movie quotes and stories about everything, from Alex Rodriguez’s mistreatment of a young fan to the excitement of Halloween with his Estonian wife and their two daughters.
Here it was, Oct. 28, the guts of a grueling, travel-heavy season. Griffin showed no signs of fatigue. Griffin was not only able to sleep in his bed the night before a home game, but also because it was a rare occasion. As the meeting was wrapping up, he said, “Honestly,” “I’m fresh.” This is great. If necessary, I’m available to go right now. I could play two games in one day .”
The next morning Griffin arrived at the stadium at noon, three hours before kickoff. Griffin’s uniform consisted of a gray custom suit with a pink tie and pocket square, and he didn’t wear a helmet or pads. His workspace was not a field 100 yards long, but a booth measuring roughly the square footage of a porta potty. Griffin would not score any touchdowns this autumn afternoon. He’d attempt no passes. He didn’t sustain any injuries other than a burnt lip from a burger his wife brought to the booth late at the first half.
RGIII may well have been the most accomplished player and fittest athlete inside FBC Mortgage Stadium that afternoon. He was there to broadcast the game between Central Florida and Cincinnati, but not to play football. Griffin would put on yet another spectacular performance in this MVP-caliber year.
This was RGIII in Act II. He is a breakout star and rocketed up ESPN’s depth charts. He’s already proven to be one of the network’s most insightful and incisive football analysts in this second season. He’s funny, quick-witted, agile-minded, and reliable informative.
Griffin combines substance with style and preparation with whimsy. He does what all great analysts do: he transports viewers onto the field and into a huddle. He avoids the great athlete-turned-analyst pitfall of I-remember-from-back-when-I-was-playing tropes that are as boring as they are narcissistic. RGIII has mastered the Barkley-esque art of delivering the unfiltered truth without polarizing the audience or drawing offence.
Kim Belton, Griffin’s producer, said that he could be a future generational talent. He has the same qualities that the great ones have. I’m referring to the Maddens, the Vitales, and the Ueckers. They realize, We’re gonna cover the game. But we have to let our personality shine through.”
And yet … for all the accumulating praise in this new line of work, Griffin doesn’t consider himself retired from his first job. At 32, he is still younger than eight quarterbacks currently starting in the NFL–including a certain 45-year-old who is playing barely an hour away. Griffin keeps fit by working out every day. He’s waiting for the phone ring again, literally and metaphorically.
It’s ironic that RGIII’s rising talent and promise on podcasts and football broadcasts has helped to soothe some of his wounds from a difficult NFL career. It has also made it clear how much he wants the opportunity to play again.
The Ballad of RGIII hits both familiar and singular strains. He was the toast of college football eleven years ago. As quarterback for Baylor, he confounded defenses with his cannon of an arm and the strong legs that enabled him to qualify for the Olympic trials in the 400-meter hurdles. He was a straight-line thrower, could run in curlicues and seemed to be setting a new quarterbacking record for each down.
He was a fiercely original player. Born in Japan, the son to two U.S. Army veterans, RGIII combined military precision with a kind of buttoned up maturity with blazing charisma. He composed and performed songs. He wore socks with capes attached. When he won the award, he delivered the most poignant and polished Heisman speech you will hear. As the Washington Post once put it, he possessed a “too-good-to-be-trueness.”
Before the 2011 Alamo Bowl, Griffin’s final college game, he spoke with Quint Kessenich, a reporter for ESPN. Kessenich remembers Griffin’s magnetic personality was so evident and pronounced that he kept a photograph of it. Kessenich says, “I don’t hold on to stuff like that.” “But there was something about him that moment. I became a fan. There’s not that many players that can impact you based on a couple conversations.”
Picked second by Washington in the 2012 NFL draft, Griffin began his pro career auspiciously enough. With a $14 million signing bonus and a satchel of endorsement deals in hand, he started immediately and was September’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month. His team voted him offensive captain, making him the first rookie captain of a Mike Shanahan-team. He responded with a four-touchdown passing game and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. After that, the deluge. In a Week 14 game against Baltimore, Griffin was, memorably, hit squarely in his knee, and it twisted like the cap on a jar. Griffin was injured in Washington’s wild-card playoff loss. He had to undergo surgery on his LCL as well as his ACL. He missed the Pro Bowl.
He never gained traction. Concussions occurred after that promising, but bittersweet rookie season. More leg injuries were reported. There was disillusionment. It also shattered his confidence. His first wife and he went through a messy, public separation. He was fired. Washington fans didn’t just turn against him, they also turned cruel–reverting back to the mean, so to speak–creating parodies about his downfall. (To Elton John’s Candle in the Wind: “Goodbye RGIII / That was an unprecedented fall / You’re still great at selling sandwiches / But not so good at football.”) Washington released him in 2016. One year in Cleveland wasn’t exactly a time for a fresh start.
By 2017, Griffin was out of football. Griffin kept fit by working out with his girlfriend, Grete, a former Florida State heptathlete, at the University of Miami track. After a series of 400-meter hurdles, Griffin says he collapsed on the ground in full body cramps. Grete came over to explain that Griffin was not part of a team and that there was no reason to train so hard. Griffin pondered the question. He paused and sighed. “Because I love it.”
In 2018 he was on a new roster, the Ravens having picked him up to be a backup quarterback and, more important, a mentor to Lamar Jackson. RGIII went months without seeing the field and averaged 19 pass attempts per season from ’18 to ’20. But, as he puts it, “I got three more years out of my career, right?”
If Griffin were no longer the subject of pursuit, hot or otherwise, by NFL teams, he was being chased doggedly by a New York television agent. In the 90s, Mark Lepselter spotted broadcast talent in Tiki Barber, who possessed sports bona fides but also natural curiosity and charisma. After signing Barber–eventually getting him a spot on The Today Show–Lepselter built up a business that now exceeds 100 clients. He spent many years coaxing Griffin and encouraging him to “get reps in front of the camera”. When Griffin’s contract with the Ravens lapsed after the 2020 season, he finally relented. Griffin went to Fox Studios Los Angeles for auditions, calling a mock football and reading highlights for a mock halftime. Griffin said flatly that they were “blown away”. (A Fox executive confirms this description. )
Then Griffin did what he thought was equivalent to fumbling the ball downfield. He says, “I was on a conference call with ESPN and I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to tell them that I had gone to an audition for Fox.” “That was my fault.” ESPN quickly brought Griffin to Bristol. He called Rece Davis to tape a game and sat with Laura Rutledge in a simulated studio show. He also passed the audition and signed a 2-year contract. In contrast to his NFL career, Griffin was placed in the best position possible by ESPN. For a designated producer, Griffin was assigned Belton, a former basketball star at Stanford and a Suns draft pick. Belton, a well-respected ESPN veteran, knew firsthand about the transition from sports to media after a career that was filled with exhilarating highs but didn’t quite live up to its potential. Belton projects calmness in the truck. Belton speaks sparingly to the booth and, when he does speak, he sounds more like a relaxed producer than a late-night DJ on Smooth FM. ESPN paired Griffin and Mark Jones to be the play-by-play man. Jones is a friendly, upbeat person who performs his broadcast duties with an easygoing professionalism, and a ready smile. Jones is best known for his NBA work and, at age 60, he isn’t exactly gunning for promotions. The bond between the two is not captured on camera. They share a love for track and field, Florida residents (Jones resides in Miami), and a mutual love of all sports. Their chemistry is evident on the air. It is due to Jones setting up his partner and getting out of the way. Ironically, Kessenich is the sideline reporter for team. He was so taken by Griffin’s personality from a decade before that he kept photos.
When Griffin first made his debut last autumn, he was, according to his own admissions, raw. He didn’t know how the telestrator worked. He didn’t know how to use the telestrator, adjust voice timbre, and swivel to different cameras. He didn’t know the promo is not brought to you by Papa John’s but delivered by Papa John’s. It would all be over soon enough.
But he did start the 2021 season with an organizing principle. He was a first-hand witness to the fact that media criticism can not only sting athletes, but also reroute careers. “If you make a statement about a player that isn’t entirely true, it can stay with them for the rest of their career. He says that he felt like he was one of those guys who had some stuff attached to his name that was not representative of who he was, what i had done, or the work a person had done. “When I started in broadcasting, I wanted to be fair to everyone. I want to deliver what broadcast TV is supposed be, which is entertainment. I won’t provide entertainment at the expense of a player. Calling them lazy. Not hardworking. Not smart. He doesn’t take the time. I’m not going to say that, unless I absolutely know it to be a fact.”
Multiple members of this current team suggest that Griffin’s media success has been therapeutic for him (their word) and redemptive following the drama (trauma?) His NFL career. He pleads guilty to lesser charges. He says, “I’ve moved on from all of the stuff in the past.” “You must learn from your mistakes. Learn from your mistakes. I don’t believe I would be where today if I hadn’t been through Washington. Broadcasting is not the only thing that I enjoy. It has made me a better husband and father. It’s made me a better player.”
The former players who think they can roll up to the booth, rely on their playing experience and simply talk about the action as it unfolds –“see-ball-hit-ball,” in T.V. Talk fast, and you’ll be weeded out. Ex-jock analysts are as prepared for broadcasts as they would for a match. Griffin’s approach is more than that.
He orders his team to complete their assignments by Sunday. He spends three days looking at film, reading research packets, and learning about the personnel of East Carolina or Colorado State. He travels to games on Thursday, sometimes in coach or commercial class. If it’s Thursday, you might be able to take a selfie with a Heisman Trophy winner if you’re at the Atlanta airport. On Fridays, he visits campus to meet with players and coaches, pick up facts and get to know the vibe of the teams. For example, Cincinnati never recovered from its loss to Arkansas in Week 1. This defeat ended its hopes of winning the national title.
Griffin also works on campus on camera before kickoff. For example, in Michigan, he did a high risk, low reward live shot of him walking through the Tunnel of the Big House. He took part in Spirit Splash, an UCF tradition that sees students sprint across a fountain, the day before the Cincinnati-UCF match. With a GoPro strapped to his chest, Griffin took off, showed off his speed … and then wiped out in the middle of the fountain.
On Saturday, three hours before kickoff, he was in a tent next to ESPN’s broadcast truck surrounded by his camera people, advising them how and when to shoot, and which players were most capable of making big plays. He then got on a golf cart to go to the tailgating scene. Griffin was welcomed like a hero after he had tweeted his intention to make an appearance. Griffin was presented with a plate of barbecue beef brisket and Texas grits by one fan. This was a nod towards RGIII’s Texas past and future. Griffin plans to move to Houston after the season. Another fan offered him cornbread muffins. A third person offered him moonshine. He graciously declined.
Griffin was struck by the way that the football experience–the flavor and the pageantry—-is lost on the players, including himself. Griffin points out that he used to enter the stadium in a private bus. He then went to the locker and field and stayed focused on the game. He also didn’t pay much attention to the fight songs or tailgate scenes. “[As a player] it is impossible to see the game from the fans’ point of view. The Spirit Splash? That’s something UCF players will never be able to do. One, because coaches are afraid of them getting hurt. Two, because they are so focused.”
Even for October, it was scorching hot in Orlando, and Griffin’s suit was soon covered in sweat. He still played cornhole, dappled the UCF mascot, and took enough selfies for campus wifi to stress. He’s not just a game. He’ll admit in weaker moments that all the attention, especially after his NFL experience is good for the ego. Kids who were 10 years old when Griffin won the Heisman, they’re now 21 and happy to tell him how fondly they recall him. Fans who remember him from Madden or their fantasy line-ups are thrilled to see him in the flesh. “It’s like that every week,” Brian McIntyre (Griffith’s cameraman) says. “Everywhere we go .”
Griffin wore those silly socks in college–a gimmick, but one that distinguished him from his peers. He also made himself relatable. This season, he has attracted as much attention for his sexual innuendos and double entendres (and single ones) he uses in his commentary. Griffin called Week 1’s Michigan-Colorado State game. When Wolverines freshman quarterback Alex Orji scored a late touchdown, Griffin could barely suppress his giggling before declaring: “It’s an orgy in the end zone.”
Two weeks later, he called the Washington-Michigan State game. When the Huskies’ quarterback, Michael Penix Jr., threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns, Griffin declared this a display of “Big Penix energy.” In that same game, Griffin referred to a Michigan State offsides penalty as “premature snapulation.” Speaking of crossing the line … referencing Antonio Brown’s recently exposing his genitals in a hotel pool, after Seattle defeated Detroit 48-45, Griffin took to Twitter to note: “AB showed more D than the Seahawks and Lions did today.”
He knows the topic of his sexual references is coming–anticipating the blitz, as it were–and pre-empts the question. It’s something that happens on the spot. As anyone has noticed, the last three to four weeks have been free of any sexual references. It’s not what my plan is to do. It’s not something I have in mind. I didn’t go through Michigan’s depth charts and say, “Ooh, their third string quarterback’s named Orji!” Oklahoma has a quarterback called General Booty. What should I call him? General B. When he’s getting ready to go in the game, well, Booty’s getting loose on the sideline. Play into it. Have fun with it. But never play into it so much where it’s over the top, where people can’t watch the game because it’s too sexualized.”
Belton isn’t interested in suppressing Griffin’s instincts, but he’s aware that all the innuendo has some downside potential. He said, “We spoke to him and we just had the to make sure that his conscience was aware of the consequences.” It might be funny, right? There are some people who might take offense At the Bearcats-Knights match, there were no off-color jokes but there were many touches that distinguished Griffin. Griffin tried his best to make up for the lack of entertainment in the first half. Belton sent in the video of Griffin crashing during the Spirit Splash. Griffin added a humorous note to the story, recalling that he had lost the ring of his wedding during the Spirit Splash.
Griffin also shared the story of his recruitment by UCF coach Gus Malzahn, who was then the head coach at Tulsa. Griffin declined the pitch because he figured Malzahn was a coach on the make and wasn’t long for central Oklahoma–which was correct, as Malzahn left Tulsa for Auburn in 2009. Griffin didn’t get a better story off-air about being recruited by Stanford coach David Shaw. Griffin was turned off by Richard Sherman when he visited The Farm. He took it as a sign that Stanford would attempt to make him a defensive back. )
In the second quarter, UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee collided violently and the Cincinnati defender. He rose haltingly, fell on the field, and was then taken off the field with a concussion. Griffin was careful in his words and refused to listen to the broadcasters’ speculations about the severity of Griffin’s injury. The second half was just as intense as the first. It was stuffed with big plays and turnovers, and questionable play-calling. Griffin adjusted his energy accordingly, increasing his energy proportionally to the game. Griffin sang as a Cincinnati receiver who caught a pass. Someone had “thickums.” for legs. He gestured as he spoke. He broke down the plays.
He said it to me during a break: “Want my philosophy?” I teach my daughter the alphabet. I also know the difference between G & H. But they don’t. It’s not about me, it’s about them. The same goes for football. How can I show my knowledge to the audience? It’s important to make it relatable to them With afternoon turning into evening, Belton remarked, “Man! Look at that sunset!” Lesser broadcasters would have simply recited the line. When a UCF receiver dropped a pass, Griffin said, “Maybe he dropped that pass because he was distracted by that beautiful sunset.”
Which is not to say that it was a flawless day. Griffin joked that Noah Potter, a Cincinnati defensive lineman, jumped offsides when Griffin saw it. This was a joke that Mark Jones couldn’t believe. Griffin began a story about his team meeting Cincinnati’s coordinators. Griffin took too long to finish the wind-up, and had to wait for a play before concluding the story awkwardly. There were many elements, as is the case with every broadcast: footage from RGIII at tailgate, researched factoids, footage, and an anecdote on the singing prowess in Cincinnati by Jowon Briggs. But it didn’t go on air. So it goes.
In the end, Central Florida, riding its backup quarterback, won 25-21, to the delight of the homecoming crowd. Although there was no scoreboard to eliminate doubt or subjectivity, it was a win for Griffin, and the ESPN team. It was a funny, bizarre, and rhythmic game. The broadcast communicated this message. Social media was supportive. The viewership was 1. 059 million–solid, given the time slot and the teams–it’s hard to imagine most didn’t leave a) entertained or b) slightly more knowledgeable about football.
Like any team, this one benefits from the presence of a hot star. Griffin’s rise has benefited his entire T.V. crew. Griffin’s rise has seen his entire T.V. crew get more attention and offer more games. They will be back at the Big House this Saturday as No. 3 Michigan plays Nebraska. They are all enjoying the ride with the RGIII, from Belton to Jones and Kessenich to Kessenich to Kessenich to Kessenich to Kessenich to Kessenich to Kessenich to the tape operators and camera operators–sports T.V.’s equivalent to the indispensable but faceless linemen. He is also benefiting. Complicating his travel but raising his profile, before this NFL season, Griffin was promoted to ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown replacing Randy Moss. He’ll likely be rewarded with a multiyear contract when his current deal expires. This notion was dropped by his agent but confirmed internally.
Griffin says he’d like to be in media “for the next 30 or 40 years.” But there are grander, vaulting ambitions. “As a player, you want to get into the Hall of Fame. You want to win Super Bowls. What does that mean for a broadcaster? You don’t really know. It would be amazing if I had the chance to make an impact on the game and become a Hall of Fame broadcaster. But that’s not all. Before I stepped foot in the booth last year, I had this conversation before. My ultimate goal is to be able travel the world and help people How. “Food insecurity, building orphanages, or helping people access water. At some point you have enough money and, and it’s time to go out there and give back and help people in a special way.”
Likewise, when the NFL franchise that drafted him entered the sales process last week, Griffin saw it as both a news story and an opportunity. “We knew that Tanya Snyder and Dan Snyder didn’t want to change the name. They changed it. He says that they knew they weren’t going to sell the team and that it now looks like they might be selling it. “I know that the fans have been wanting this for a long while. “… I don’t have billions in my account, but I would like to be part of an ownership group to add diversity.” He said that he has spoken to other potential owners including Dale Earnhardt Jr. But all that will have to wait. The following Saturday, he has another college assignment and two teams to deconstruct. When asked how he balances his broadcasting career with his NFL ambitions, the broadcasting revelation of the football season sighs. He was so quick-witted and glib on the air, he had no choice but to go prospecting for the words. He starts. He makes mistakes. Finally, he lands here:
“I’m a 32-year-old young man who loves the game of football. If the right opportunity presents itself, and it’s the right circumstance, I will be available to play. I know what it takes. I make sure I stay ready because a ready man doesn’t have to get ready. He is always ready. It’s a great experience being a broadcaster. I still love to play as a player. Both can be achieved simultaneously. They can both work simultaneously.”
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The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.