The culture of the NFL as seen through rookie ‘RG3’s’ tumultuous first year - The Buffalo News
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The culture of the NFL as seen through rookie ‘RG3’s’ tumultuous first year

It was a gruesome moment seen all across the nation’s TV sets last January, when quarterback phenom Robert Griffin III went down in a heap during the fourth quarter of the Washington Redskins’ playoff game, as described by author Dave Sheinin:

The buckled knee. The deafening hush. The crumpled figure on the turf. The nervous “R-G-3” chant.

Griffin, it turned out, had suffered torn ligaments. But why, the Monday morning quarterbacks asked, was the rookie savior of the franchise still in the game after he clearly had reinjured his knee in the game’s first quarter?

All that sniping and second-guessing, Sheinin writes persuasively, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of pro football.

“To assign blame for Griffin’s injury is to make the mistake of thinking of football as normal, a realm where our regular societal mores and our notions of right and wrong apply – when in fact it is a singularly grotesque and twisted realm unlike any other, with the possible exception of the battlefield.”

It’s a culture, the author adds, where pain is masked by shots, where injuries are hidden from coaches and doctors, where the code of honor demands that you stay on the field for your teammates, even at your own peril.

That’s great stuff, and it’s what makes this book so good. It’s an insider’s insights into what makes the National Football League tick.

In many ways, this book is a boiler-plate view of a star-studded rookie, hailed as the savior of a long-suffering Redskins Nation. (Ouch. Sorry, Bills fans.)

You certainly learn about the RG3 phenomenon, and what makes this young man so special. First, he’s a gifted athlete, blessed with a rifle arm, elusive moves and a quick football mind. But he’s also unfailingly polite and charming, with a magnetic personality and terrific leadership skills, all punctuated by his flair for the theatrical, with his trademark braids and his goofy socks, ranging from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Superman.

But for this reader, some of the book’s most interesting nuggets came from reporter Sheinin’s digging and asking questions. Not only in the explanation of RG3 remaining in that playoff game, but also the tougher question about race. This isn’t just a rehash of a star athlete talking into a tape recorder for hundreds of hours.

RG3, as the book shows, is almost too good to be true. He’s what you’d create if you could start from scratch and make a new real-life superhero. And just for good measure, he’s an African-American kid who winds up in Washington, D.C., the same year President Obama is re-elected.

The son of two U.S. Army sergeants, Griffin was raised to be color-blind. Sheinin does a beautiful job of showing that that wasn’t just a cliche. So when he was drafted by the Redskins, after the team wheeled a barrel-full of draft choices to the St. Louis Rams, Griffin became an African-American savior in a predominantly black town.

He also came to a franchise with a horrible history of racial intolerance. While every other NFL team had integrated by 1952, the team’s first owner, George Preston Marshall, held out for another decade, once proclaiming, “I’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”

That’s a tough burden for a 22-year-old kid, the author implies. Especially one who was raised to be color-blind and refuses to be defined by his race. So Griffin came under fire from some commentators, who suggested he was almost an Uncle Tom or demanded to know his views on the controversial team name, Redskins.

Griffin refused to share his thoughts on the team’s nickname. Some might view that as a cop-out, Sheinin points out, but others might realize this was a young man smart enough to grasp that the nuance required on this topic wouldn’t fit into a press-conference sound bite.

As one retired black Redskins player said of Griffin, “He transcends race, easily. He’s post-racial.”

But Sheinin concludes that while America may have come a long way from the days of segregationist owners and black quarterbacks being a novelty, there still were some conversations folks weren’t ready to have, and that includes Robert Griffin III.

The book also has plenty of great anecdotes and personal touches that help profile Griffin, at least the 22-year-old version. They’re little things, like his spitting onto the artificial turf and then showing his manners by quickly smushing the dollop into the turf; or his being the only player to approach a teammate whose stupid unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty cost the Redskins a chance to win a game; or his pausing during a press conference when a jet passes overhead, so as not to ruin the audio feed for broadcasters.

Sheinin is a veteran Washington Post reporter who knows his way around the written word. He also has a keen eye for a well-turned phrase or sentence, like this one he quotes from the Post’s legendary columnist Shirley Povich, about a former great black running back shredding the Redskins defense:

“Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”

RG3: The Promise

By Dave Sheinin

Blue Rider Press

354 pages, $27.95

Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter.

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