Four-and-a-half years ago, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh approached a 17-year-old Robert Griffin III with an ambitious idea. Griffin, a quarterback and track star out of Copperas Cove High School in Texas, would come to Palo Alto and play for Harbaugh at Stanford, sharing quarterback duties with another Texas high schooler — a blue-chip recruit named Andrew Luck.
A two-man system with the big pocket passer Luck and the athletic Griffin joining running back Toby Gerhart in the backfield, insisted Harbaugh, would put Stanford back on the map and make the Cardinal national contenders.
Griffin, relatively lightly recruited to play quarterback despite eye-popping numbers, strolled Stanford’s campus with Harbaugh that afternoon and gave the dual-quarterback system some brief consideration. In the end, though, he declined the notion, thinking, as he recalled earlier this week, "That system almost never works."
Safe to say he found a system that does work. On Saturday evening, the master of Art Briles’ high-scoring system at Baylor earned college football’s ultimate prize, winning the Heisman Trophy by 280 points over, who else … Luck.
The hoisting of the stiff-armed trophy, the first time a Baylor player has ever done so, not only validated Griffin’s decision to say no to Stanford, but marked the most significant point in a journey unlike any ever quite taken by a player, filled with smart decisions, a change in school, injury and perseverance.
Along with passing on Stanford, Griffin rebuffed an offer to play wide receiver for Mack Brown at Texas, as well as pleas from programs as famed as Miami to as un-football as Harvard. Ultimately, Griffin hitched his wagon to another charismatic head coach, Houston’s Art Briles. But before Griffin ever got to Houston, Briles took the head job at Baylor. Soon after, he was anxiously calling his high school recruit’s home to see if the young man would follow him to the college football wasteland of Waco, Texas.
"When Robert and his family came to our camp at Houston, we watched game video for about an hour-and-a-half with Robert’s father, mother and sister. I thought, ‘These people are pretty serious about winning,’ because that was pretty unusual to sit there and go through the whole tape," said Briles from the podium of the New York City’s Marriot Marquis hotel on Saturday.
"So, when the Baylor deal came along, I called his mother and said ‘Hey, can I come see Robert?’ You know, it was getting close to signing time and he was a mid-term guy," Briles recalled. "She said, ‘Coach, we told you we were coming to Baylor. Don’t worry about that. Go out and get him some teammates.’ And we did!"
"Briles told Griffin III that if he came to Baylor, he’d be a finalist for the Heisman Trophy," said longtime Houston Chronicle NFL reporter John McClain. "He wasn’t lying."
No, he certainly wasn’t.
But the climb up the national charts at Baylor was hardly without setbacks.
When he started his first game at Baylor in 2008 (in Week 2 after coming off the bench in the season opener), the 18-year-old was best known for his track-and-field skills. A 190-pound freshman, he was the nation’s youngest starting quarterback. Despite huge statistics and national acclaim in that first season, the Bears went a disappointing 4-8, finishing 2-6 in the Big 12. A season later, with preseason magazine covers bearing his face and great expectations placed upon him, Griffin tore his ACL just three games into his sophomore campaign. After receiving a medical-hardship redshirt, he came back last season and led Baylor to its first Top 25 ranking since 1993.
But when the 2011 Heisman odds were posted by Las Vegas sports books back in July, the fourth-year junior’s name was nowhere to be found. Off the board, altogether. Baylor was predicted to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 standings by writers covering the conference, there were no summertime magazine covers, and there was absolutely no NFL draft talk. Griffin was just another quarterback in a season that was expected to be "The Year of Andrew Luck."
As recently as Nov. 18, the day before Griffin’s signature performance in Baylor’s first win over Oklahoma, the quarterback’s name was still not listed on any Las Vegas Heisman odds lists. Less than a month later, though, there Griffin was in New York City, hoisting the Heisman Trophy, dressed in Superman blue socks, as Luck watched from the audience.
In an era where Twitter and message board buzz seems to matter as much as the games played, Griffin won the 2011 Heisman by making the most of his nationally televised moments. After a season’s worth of media hype and undivided attention from pundits covering both the college and pro games, Luck had his worst performance of the year in Stanford’s one game versus a Top 10 opponent — a primetime, nationally televised 53-30 loss to Oregon in which the redshirt junior threw two interceptions. That effort left the country — and a nation of voters who might not have caught all of Luck’s majestic performances in late-night affairs with Pac-12 opponents — unsatisfied.
When Griffin had his opportunities in front of the entire country, he excelled. Against defending Rose Bowl champion TCU in a season-opening Friday nighter, Griffin went 21 for 27 for 359 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught a game-saving 15-yard throwback pass from receiver Kendall Wright on Baylor’s final scoring drive of a 50-48 win.
Big spot. Big delivery.
In November, shortly after USC defeated the same Oregon team Luck and Stanford couldn’t conquer a week earlier, ABC’s national television coverage went to the fourth quarter of Baylor’s shootout against No. 5 Oklahoma. With the score tied 38-38 and the nation watching, Griffin again seized the moment and tossed the Bears on his back, leading Baylor on a heroic five-play, 80-yard game-winning drive. In what would become Griffin’s signature Heisman moment, the quarterback rolled left, took a hit with the pocket crumbling and tossed a beautiful 34-yard pass across his body to a streaking Terrance Williams in the back of the end zone with eight seconds to play. Baylor 45, Oklahoma 38.
Baylor had gone 0-20 in meetings with Oklahoma prior to the game; the program hadn’t beaten a top five team since 1985. Now an entire country was watching the student body rush the field.
Big spot. Even bigger delivery.
In the final week of the regular season, with a premier bowl game and a shot at Baylor’s first 10-win season in three decades hanging in the balance, Griffin overcame concussion-like symptoms to throw for 320 yards and accounted for four touchdowns in a 48-24 win over Texas. With Luck and Alabama running back Trent Richardson (who finished third in the Heisman voting) watching from home, Griffin put on a show.
Big spot. Big delivery. Yet again.
The player his teammates affectionately refer to as "Baby Jesus" put up incredible individual statistics in 2011. He led the nation and is on pace to break the NCAA single-season record for passing efficiency. He tossed 36 touchdowns and threw just six interceptions. He is the only player in all of college football with 3,300 passing yards and 300 rushing yards (3,998 and 644, respectively).
But Griffin’s Heisman victory had as much to do with what he’s done for the long-ridiculed Baylor football program as his eye-popping numbers. In the 15 seasons before 2011, Baylor had a combined five wins in the month of November. They went 4-0 during the season’s most crucial month this season. The Bears went 6-3 in the Big 12, their best record since the league expanded to 12 teams.
Long the laughing stock of the conference, the Bears rode Griffin back to relevance for the first time since three-time All-American Mike Singletary roamed the field in the late 1970s-early ’80s. Baylor is going to the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29 despite fielding the nation’s 112th-ranked defense. It will be there because of Griffin, a Heisman winner who seized the award with highlight-grabbing plays and a consistent display of class.
When discussing the award with reporters on Saturday evening, Griffin repeatedly used the word "we" instead of "I." Asked about his signature moment in the Oklahoma win, Griffin explained, "After the Oklahoma game, when we shot up the charts, (my teammates) said, ‘We’re going to go and win this Heisman for you.’ And that’s all you can ask for from your teammates — to take an award like this and say, ‘This is ours.’ And it is. I’m just proud to be the representative."
When Briles left Houston to take the Baylor job, Griffin could have wavered. He could have considered those spots on the Texas, Miami and Stanford rosters. He could have pursued his interest in politics and law and gone to Harvard. He could have stayed at the University of Houston, learned Kevin Sumlin’s quarterback-friendly system and battled with Case Keenum for the starting gig.
But Griffin went with the man who told him he’d be a Heisman finalist. He went with the man who sat and watched hours of game tape with his family. He went with the man who told him — with no hidden agenda — he’d play right away. He went with Briles, even if that meant being asked to resurrect a program that had long been left for dead.
Griffin saw an opportunity to shine where few others saw any hope and he seized it.
Big spot. Big delivery.
Through the season-ending knee injury, through the bad losses and through "The Year of Andrew Luck" — Robert Griffin just kept on going and kept on delivering.
As he left the Marriot Marquis stage Saturday night, Griffin revealed a smile and gave a deep breath.
"This experience is great," he said. "It’s a once in a lifetime thing. But once you do this, you kind of miss lifting weights and running and watching film. I know that sounds crazy, but that is what we do. We’re football players."
But as Harbaugh, Luck and Briles; the TCU, Oklahoma and Texas defenses; and the entire Baylor community could attest, Robert Griffin III is more than merely a football player.
Superman socks and all, he’s your Heisman Trophy winner and the face of college football in 2011.
And with several more big spots and big deliveries undoubtedly up ahead, this is just the beginning.