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Bears look to young QB Griffin to restore the program

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Posted: Thursday, August 27, 2009 12:00 pm | Updated: 11:22 am, Wed Sep 3, 2014.

By Evan Mohl

The Cove Herald

It's easy to see why Robert Griffin III was nicknamed "The Franchise." It's clear why he's considered by many Bear fans to be the savior of a Baylor football program that hasn't had a winning season in 15 years.

Possessing the same type of indescribable ability that makes jaws drop and DVRs worth the extra money, the 19-year-old phenom defies logic and physical constraints on a regular basis.

Griffin usually hears comparisons to other uber-athletic quarterbacks like Michael Vick and Vince Young.

But that's not even the most impressive part or what makes Griffin an elite quarterback - his physical prowess is only a small part of why he's made a huge splash on the national stage.

"Robert is unparalleled," Baylor football coach Art Briles said. "What I saw (when recruiting Griffin) was a young man (who was) tough as nails, who was self disciplined and very motivated. He was willing to work to make his hopes and dreams come true. When you get that with intelligence and add the level of the ability - he is as gifted an athlete as there is in America - then you got yourself a chance to have somebody carry the banner for your university."

Briles took that chance on Griffin when few others even tried. When Briles took over the program at Baylor, the Bears were the perennial doormat of the Big 12 conference. They were the team every other school marked down as a 'W' before the season.

Briles has done it all before. In the late 1980s, he took over at Stephenville High, which had not been to the playoffs in 36 years, and won four Class 5A titles over the next 10 years.

At the University of Houston, Briles took the Cougars to four bowls in five years. Before his arrival, Houston had won eight games in three years. Turning around Baylor, though, was going to take a spark no one could anticipate.

Of course, with the arrival of Griffin, it didn't take too long to get it.

The chance

In 2009, the Bears seemed set at quarterback. They had returning starter Blake Szymanski and Kirby Freeman, a blue-chip Miami transfer.

Griffin, even though he was recruited as a quarterback out of Copperas Cove, was thought by most to be their next great target.

As a sophomore at Cove, Griffin was unhappy despite his team going 13-1, and it showed in his actions, his behavior toward teammates and how he conducted himself on the field.

"Nobody on the team liked me," Griffin told ESPN the Magazine. "It was a tough situation. I was mad at the world. But I learned to be supportive and to not talk about it."

His long windup and stride did not help his recruitment potential. After his junior year, Griffin was on few recruiting boards.

He then combined for 40 touchdowns as a senior and led the Bulldawgs to the state championship game. Still, few thought he was a Big 12-caliber quarterback. Following his last year at Cove, Griffin was listed as a 4-star recruit on Scout.com with his only scholarship offers coming from Tulsa, Stanford, Houston, Kansas and eventually Baylor.

The Houston offer was from Briles. Then, when Briles took the Baylor job in late November of 2007, the same offer was extended to Griffin again.

Three months later, a 17-year-old Griffin was playing spring ball and competing for a starting quarterback spot on a Big 12 roster in Waco. But it was track where he excelled at first.

Griffin won the Big 12 Championship in the 400-meter hurdles at age 18, less than 30 days removed from football practice and more than a year without track competition.

On the football field, all he needed was an opening. But it was Freeman who started the season opener against Wake Forest.

After two quarters, though, the team looked like the same old bumbling Bears trailing 17-0.

That was when Griffin entered and everything changed. On his third series, the freshman got his opening.

Scrambling out of the pocket, avoiding the Demon Deacons pass rush, Griffin was in a pinch.

So he did what most anyone else in his position would - he stopped. The defender flew by him and then Griffin flew by the other Wake Forest defenders for a 22-yard gain.

The spark had arrived.

The starter

Griffin was named the Bears' starting quarterback for the next game and went on to win the Big 12 Associated Press Freshman of the Year award, throwing for 2,091 yards and rushing 843 yards while setting a school-record with 28 total touchdowns. Griffin even opened his college career with a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 209 attempts without an interception and set a Big 12-record 19.7 yards a carry against Washington State.

Griffin, though, doesn't credit his athletic ability for his early success.

"I'm not going to sit here and downplay it and say that it's easy. I did something that not a lot of freshmen could do," Griffin said. "There are no secrets except to come in mentally prepared, confident. You can't be scared, you have to be tough and prove yourself with the ability on the field."

Griffin beats to a different drum than most. He never had a car in high school, so he didn't go out much. Most of his nights were spent jogging behind his dad's Jeep up and down the hills of Copperas Cove.

Robert Griffin Jr., who is retired military, wanted to groom his son for athletic success, particularly on the track. He believed it started with toughness, which is why Griffin III spent his teenage years not only developing his body, but his mental strength.

"A lot of people can have physical gifts, and Robert (III) really had that from a young age," Griffin Jr. said. "What separates good from great is the ability to push harder than anyone else - a drive. That's why we put Robert through those drills at a young age."

There's no entourage for Griffin either. He has friends, but it's a very close-knit group.

He spends a significant amount of time with his mom and dad, a rarity for most 19-year-old college students.

Griffin's mom, Jacqueline Griffin, sat through a Baylor workout this past July. The summer practices are fairly mundane, but she attends almost every one.

After two hours in the sun, Jacqueline patiently waited for her son while he returned punts for fun. Griffin would rather be on the gridiron or track working than anywhere else.

A group of receivers, who participated in the drills, planned to go out. Griffin instead went to eat with his mom.

"My parents are very important to me, the reason I can do what I can," he said. "See, when I want something, when I have a vision, I'm going to do whatever it takes - sacrifice, work - to get there."

Like give up track.

The sacrifice

Shortly after earning his Big 12 title in track and field, Griffin went on to win Regionals and take third at the NCAA Championships. He then finished 10th among the best in the country at the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Time Trials in July 2008 after just four months of training.

However, the world-class hurdler did not run track this spring.

It was his decision, albeit a difficult one because Griffin always dreamed of running in the Olympics and he worked most of his life to get there.

But the thought that Baylor could contend for a bowl game made Griffin change his personal plans. He made it his own goal to improve his passing precision.

He put on more weight to better take hits from those mammoth Big 12 defensive linemen.

"I wanted to go all in for the football team, even giving up track, a sport that I love, for them," Griffin said.

"It hurt not to run track, but right now it's everything for the team. There's a bright future ahead in football and I hope the guys realize that. This football season means a lot to me."

The decision proved to be more than personal. Teammates responded. They rallied around their quarterback who sacrificed one of his goals for the welfare of the entire team.

A difference has been noticed, even by coaches.

"When team members see that kind of sacrifice, they respond to it," quarterbacks coach Phillip Montgomery said.

"Not that we didn't have team chemistry already, but this summer and spring, it has gone to another level."

'The Franchise'

The coaches say the chemistry is there. But turning around a program that has gone 13-43 since joining the Big 12 South in 1996 is not an easy task.

That is why everyone is counting on "The Franchise."

Griffin carries the weight of the Bears football program on his back and he and Briles know it.

And the head coach could not be happier. He wouldn't want anyone else in Griffin's position.

"I don't worry about Robert," Briles said. "He's a natural-born leader. He can handle the responsibility because of his competitive nature, his passion and intelligence."

Griffin knows a long, bumpy road lies ahead for the Bears. It's partly what lured him to the program: the challenge of changing a downtrodden university's attitude about football. If Griffin can't do it, with his unique combination of skill, intelligence and drive for success, it might be hard to imagine anyone else better suited for the task.

Of course, Griffin relishes that idea. He knows he's regarded as Baylor's "savior" and thrives under that condition.

"For me, it's realizing no matter how last year (went), it wasn't good enough," Griffin said. "You have to find every little thing to improve and commit entirely to changing that and improving. You have to keep finding ways to get better." It's a scary thought, but for Griffin and the Bears, it seems wholeheartedly possible. It's what makes those DVR's worth setting, Baylor worth watching and Griffin so mesmerizing.

Nick Talbot contributed to this report .

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