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Towering high in the broadcast booth inside Houston’s NRG Stadium, Robert Griffin III couldn’t believe it. His heartbeat picked up in pace. He batted his eyelids more than usual. And he felt like he might just start crying right then and there. Under the lights in his debut as a college football analyst for ESPN, the one-time present-and-future star of the sport had to shake it off.
Peering down onto Houston and Texas Tech facing off on this NFL field on Sept. 4, 2021, Griffin felt a jailbreak blitz of emotion, but looking back on it two years later, it was his subconscious sending him the honest signal he had at the moment: acceptance.
“I was like, ‘I miss playing,’” he recalled. “But I hadn’t even been out of the league for more than a couple months. I was at a point in life where I have no regrets.”
This is where the mind of RGIII goes when he’s asked how it feels to grip a football these days. He knows how to relay a personal anecdote that takes you, the viewer, beyond the field and into the psyche of the player.
This time, it’s himself, the player turned broadcaster, the No. 10 that became synonymous with his QB abilities, the one so many video gamers chose to ride with because of his mighty right arm, hypersonic foot speed and on-field style: the helmet visor, glove, arm sleeve, all of it. Still, when he wraps his massive right hand around the laces and peers outward these days, he reiterates there’s no pang of remorse.
“I throw that boy free-willy-nilly, because I know I did everything to make me successful,” said Griffin, now 33. “I can throw a football and not be upset.”
The transformation made by one of the sport’s most popular quarterbacks of his era has been as smooth as a spiral. Griffin, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner at Baylor, the No. 2 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and former NFL Rookie of the Year, isn’t a rising star in the world of sports broadcasting. He’s already there.
In just two short years, Griffin has made life in the booth look easy and entertaining. Hell, he recently belly-flopped into the pool in Jacksonville in a teal suit. He’s also one of the main analysts on ESPN’s “Monday Night Countdown” before “Monday Night Football.” Griffin is also part of the rotation for the network’s litany of morning shows and has proven to be one of the most versatile football voices in Bristol.
Baylor QB Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy in 2011. (Greg Nelson / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
“He has what some of the greats of the past have, and that’s the realization that sports are entertainment, and consequently, you don’t have to be an entertainer, but you have to be entertaining,” said ESPN producer Kim Belton, Griffin’s first producer at the network. “Robert has that gene.”
There is no single lane of life for Griffin. The flashy suits, the hip glasses, the wide smile, all of it is just the next phase. But before he could thrive in front of the camera, he had to make peace with the fate he was dealt. The replay of his knee giving way while he reached for an errant snap in Washington’s 2012 NFC playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks is the beginning of the end. It still induces a wince when rewatched.
“Listen, man, life is going to be unfair at times,” he said. “I don’t try and paint a picture of, ‘Woe is me.’ There is no woe is me.”
There is only Griffin, the man who is giddy telling other people’s stories, and if necessary, is fine retelling his own.
For a time, Griffin was the epicenter of sports talk culture — often the lead story on his now-home network and the subject of radio debates in the Washington, D.C., area and nationwide. For a franchise so snakebitten with bad luck at the most important position in sports for so long, Griffin was seen as a messiah when he was drafted by Washington in 2012.
“The guy was a megastar coming into the league, so there’s certainly a lot of expectation,” said former Washington defensive end and teammate Ryan Kerrigan. “I can imagine that’s quite the burden to bear.”
And Griffin felt the burden daily. Beyond that, he remembers hearing snippets of broadcasts or radio interviews or reading stories in print that he felt didn’t tell the whole story of his injury-riddled NFL career. His character was questioned. It got personal. All of which he’s now using in his broadcasting career to tell the viewer that either a player made a hell of a play or made a potentially game-changing mistake, but he doesn’t want to argue about the soul of a player.
“I was a guy that was hurt by people telling the story the wrong way,” he said. “Honor the player by giving him constructive criticism. Saying a guy sucks, making it personal, what that does is tear down the player and what that does is change the viewpoint of a player. It builds in a false narrative. I do believe that was done to me. It was certainly done. I didn’t appreciate that, and I know players that look at me as a former player and wouldn’t appreciate that.”
From 2012 to 2020, he went from video game cover to battling for back-up positions. His rookie campaign showcased everything that might’ve been but painfully wasn’t. A portion of the fan base turned on him often citing his inability to stay healthy. Untimely injuries mounted and his time in Washington ended with him as a third-string quarterback in 2015. After leaving Washington he went to Cleveland for a year in 2016 and then Baltimore from 2018-2020. Waived by the Ravens in January 2021, it didn’t take long for the media world to come calling. Griffin hired Mark Lepselter as his broadcasting agent, and soon auditions at ESPN and Fox were presented.
At both networks, Griffin’s auditions are part of company lore. He was everything they imagined, and more. Said ESPN Vice President of Production Seth Markman: “Famously here it’s one of the best auditions I’ve ever been around.” Griffin’s dry run at ESPN came calling the 2021 college football national title game on the ESPN campus with Rece Davis. When it was over, Davis walked up to Markman and said only three words: “Really, really good.”
Griffin opted to go with ESPN, he said, because of the “significant” reach the network has. His first year there he mainly called college football games live on-site. Then in the offseason in March 2022, he was invited to “Get Up!” and from then on became a necessity at ESPN.
“I think ESPN knows it has someone who is very talented and moves the meter,” said Belton.
It also has someone who can entertain beyond the booth. Sometimes at his own expense. Griffin doesn’t say no when broached with ideas by producers. There are times, too, where he calls his own audible and goes for it. Like jumping off a boat into Lake Washington while in Seattle the first week of the 2023 season. The attempted toe-touch went viral, not because he jumped but because his slacks ripped and the world saw Griffin’s underwear. Soon after he was hired, Belton sat Griffin down and asked him what the “E” at ESPN stood for.
College football is back with a splash…And a rip of pants!😂 pic.twitter.com/eUUaoS9Jla
— Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) September 2, 2023
“Is it a big ‘E’ or a little ‘e’? I’m looking at him like, ‘Damn, I don’t really know,’” Griffin said, laughing. “Then Kim said, ‘Is it big entertainment or little entertainment?’ That stuck with me before calling my first college football game no matter where I’m at.”
He acknowledges there have been times when he has been caught up in the moment. He apologized for accidentally using a racial slur on MNF last December. Most recently he was accused of saying the F-word when discussing Lamar Jackson’s lack of playmakers early this season, but upon replays, Griffin said Jackson is out there “fighting for his fudging.” And while calling one of the best college football games of the year, Ole Miss’s 55-49 win over LSU in September, he said LSU QB Jayden Daniels, the eventual Heisman winner, was stopped by the Ole Miss defense like Jesus being hoisted onto the cross.
“I’ve gone to the depths and almost crossed the line a couple times,” he said, “but I want to have fun and I don’t want to offend anybody at the same time.”
So Griffin often goes full-send. Lepselter said, “As talented as he is, he almost brings a producer’s mentality or thought process.” Last October he ran with UCF students at the annual UCF Spirit Splash before losing his footing in the water and landing face first into the shallow pool and getting soaked. When coach Dabo Swinney sprinted down the hill at Death Valley at Clemson as he usually does, Griffin was there to jokingly race him.
“He always had a pretty gregarious personality and was always positive, kind of like how he is on TV,” Kerrigan said. “That’s why it’s not a surprise to see that transition because that’s his personality for everyday life.”
The viewer on the couch, Griffin said, can spot someone on TV who has constructed a caricature for the camera. The only true way to get people to trust you — you know, beyond racing Dabo or showing you’re human too when your pants rip — is to be the person you’ve always been regardless of whether or not the red light is on. In September 2022, he called a Michigan State false start call against Washington “premature snapulation.”
You saw in real time what it’s like when a father gets the call that his wife is in labor — just so happens it was during the 2022 Fiesta Bowl when TCU played Michigan when Griffin got the call. Live on the sideline, he pronounced his wife, Grete, was in labor and used his 4.3 speed to get to the airport (though it turned out to be a false alarm).
“It’s so much easier, man, to be yourself all the time than it is to create a character and try and be that character,” he said.
There is no shortage of full-circle moments these days. But the one on Oct. 23 in Minneapolis felt particularly indicative. Griffin was inside the U.S. Bank Stadium for the MNF broadcast of the Vikings and 49ers. And nobody in football was more qualified to explain the matchup.
On one side, Kirk Cousins, his former back-up turned starter after Griffin’s series of injuries kept him off the field.
On the other, his former offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, widely renowned as one of the top offensive minds in the game, who once utilized Griffin’s unique set of skills to display that wizardry.
Griffin, in the middle, broke down with ease what to expect.
“I know their systems, and they’re going to be coaches for the next 20 to 30 years,” Griffin said. “Nobody knows more about these guys than I do. Had I not let all that go, I would not be able to do my job the way I do it right now. I don’t hold any grudges. I do know in life you can choose to get better or you can choose to get bitter.”
Markman has traveled with the MNF crew and has seen the impact Griffin has on the younger players in the league. For them, he was it once upon a time.
“We like people that are fresh off the field, and Robert has that,” Markman said. “He knows so many of the players and coaches. When I go to games with him you can see that. His name means a ton to younger players, too.”
As any good quarterback does, though, Griffin is holding on to one audible that may or may not be utilized. Actually, it’s not really up to him. Even since becoming a headliner on TV, Griffin has been transparent that he still would like to play football if the right team came calling and said multiple teams, which he declined to reveal, inquired as recently as this summer. Yes, he’s torn his ACL twice, broken his ankle, and shoulder, and has had multiple concussions, but says he can still run a 4.3 40-yard dash on the track near his home in Houston.
Robert Griffin III, shown in 2014, had a polarizing and injury-filled NFL career. (Mark Tenally / Associated Press)
Griffin says he can still play. Lepselter said the topic has come up about a handful of times since Griffin joined in 2021 and that both the agency and ESPN respect that continued desire.
“I’ve actually heard people talk about this in a way of you can’t have multiple plans. It’s got to be all Plan A. You can’t have a Plan B or C,” Griffin said. “The way I kind of looked at it is, I’ve got multiple Plan A’s. I’m doing stuff now at 33 that’s going to set me up for stuff I want to do when I’m 60. I’ve put 100 percent of myself in the media game because the fans deserve it and the players deserve it.”
If that right call never comes, RGIII won’t reflect on all the untimely injuries unfavorably. Football, he said, is a violent game. It’s still what he loves, though, which is why he would keep playing if the right situation presented itself. And if not, well, he seems to have a seat that’ll be kept warm for him for a good long while.
“When you fail, it doesn’t make you a failure,” Griffin said. “You go from one success to the next success with the same enthusiasm, but you also have to go from one failure to the next failure with the same enthusiasm, and know that you’re going to make it.”
(Photo illustration by Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos courtesy of ESPN)