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Griffin’s NFL dream began watching Elway

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Posted: Sunday, April 22, 2012 12:00 pm

After Thursday's draft, Heisman winner could get chance to run same offense

By Alex Byington

Killeen Daily Herald

COPPERAS COVE - Sitting in the living room of their single-level brick home a quarter of a mile from the nearest paved road in 1997, Robert Griffin III and his father watched in awe as John Elway built his legend 1,300 miles away in Qualcomm Stadium.

Scrambling to his right on a third-and-6 from the 12-yard line, the 38-year-old Denver Broncos quarterback took off for the first-down marker as Green Bay safety LeRoy Butler went in for the kill. Absorbing the shot, Elway helicoptered into the air before landing safely inside the 5-yard line. Jumping to his feet, the quarterback pointed to the Broncos' sideline. Two plays later, Denver tailback Terrell Davis barreled into the end zone for the 1-yard touchdown, celebrating with his signature Mile High salute.

The Broncos' 31-24 victory in Super Bowl XXXII was the defining moment in Elway's legendary Hall of Fame career.

But for Griffin, it was the beginning.

For months afterward, the 7-year-old

future Heisman Trophy winner re-created Elway's "helicopter" play and capped it off with Davis' salute in the front yard of his family's single-acre home at the end of an uneven 400-meter gravel path no wider than a small SUV.

"As you can tell, I don't have many neighbors, so I threw to myself. … I was out there playing with my imagination," Griffin said. "I'm throwing bombs as Elway and catching them as Rod Smith. … I kinda had to go out and throw the ball to myself, and you know how that can be - sometimes you're accurate, sometimes you're not accurate at all."

If former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan selects Griffin as the No. 2 overall pick Thursday in the 2012 NFL Draft for the Washington Redskins, the former Copperas Cove and Baylor quarterback could find himself doing more than just imagining himself running the same plays Elway did 15 years ago.

Getting into the game

When the Griffin family settled in Copperas Cove in 1997, football wasn't in young Robert's peripherals. Instead, he wanted to "Be Like Mike," even to the point of wearing his replica Michael Jordan jersey everywhere.

Griffin gravitated to basketball first and then later track and field, two sports where his inherent straight-line speed and athleticism made him an elite talent from the start. But, watching the way Elway played with heart and reckless abandon sparked a different focus.

"That was around the time I was starting to realize football was pretty big in Texas," Griffin said. "I had no urge to play football, but watching (the games) kind of excited me about the opportunity."

While his mother filmed every practice and every game, his father watched for flaws and showed him tapes of quarterbacks he admired, such as Roger Staubach, Dan Marino, and, of course, Elway.

"There were a lot of great quarterbacks in that era, and we let Robert see those guys," said Robert Griffin Jr.

The dedication to film study helped Griffin refine his game as he broke down the intricacies that made each of those quarterbacks special.

"I'm a very good mimic - you can ask my fiancée (Rebecca Liddicoat). When I sing … I can mimic other singers - and it's the same thing when I play, I can mimic other people when I play if I really want to," he said. "And that's helped me throughout my career because I can do what Peyton Manning does at the line, play-action like Tom Brady, I can do those types of things because I can see it in my head and I can go out and do it.

"That's why I ran so well in track because my dad always showed me (video of) Michael Johnson, and what's Michael Johnson always doing? Winning."

Competitive workouts

Even an innocent game of catch - the staple of father-son bonding - would often morph into a competitive battle of wills between Griffin and his father.

"There was a game we used to play in New Orleans called 'push-back.' Basically we would stand evenly on the field, maybe on the 35-yard line, and I would throw the ball as far as I could throw it and he had to catch it," the elder Griffin said. "If he caught it, he'd get five big steps toward me and he throws it. He was either going to push me back or I was going to push him back."

The pair continued to ramp up their competitive workouts once Griffin hit high school. That included running up and down a hill along Highway 116 in Copperas Cove - known affectionately as "Griffin Hill" - in the early mornings dragging a tire behind him.

"A lot of work's been put into the finished product, or at least this portion of the finished product before the draft," Griffin said. "A lot of hills, a lot of hurdles, a lot of tired days where you just don't feel like doing anything. One day I worked out so hard I didn't wake up till 10 (a.m.) the next day. They thought I was dead, and I was just asleep."

When Griffin suffered his first major injury three games into his sophomore year at Baylor, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, the workouts didn't stop or slow down - they got harder and more precise.

From a stool in the parking lot of the Ferrell Center in Waco, Griffin refined his accuracy by throwing to specific targets. All the while he was in the Baylor film room breaking down game tapes, studying NFL stars, such as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

The hard work paid off as Griffin returned from his injury in 2010 a better prospect, improving his quarterback rating more than 50 points from his freshman year (142.0) to his Heisman-winning junior campaign (192.3).

"You try to add those things to your game, but you also have to know … I have to do it in my own way," Griffin said. "I can pull from their games and realize, 'Look, he does this really well, he does this really well, how 'bout I can combine it and make it what I do really well.' And that's what I try to do."

Living a dream

Since orchestrating back-to-back NFL championships in 1997 and 1998, culminating in Elway's retirement from the league following the 1998 Super Bowl, Washington's Shanahan has struggled to find his next great quarterback.

There have been plenty of candidates in the meantime: Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, Rex Grossman and John Beck.

Now, as he enters his third season as head coach and vice president of football operations for the Redskins, Shanahan seems poised to change that trend if the Redskins select Griffin with the No. 2 overall selection Thursday.

"Great players make great coaches better, and great coaches make great players better," Griffin said. "There's no doubt that Mike Shanahan is a great coach. So if I can be that great player that makes him better, and he can be that great coach that makes me better, I'm all for that."

For Griffin, who helped revitalize a stagnant Baylor football team and transformed it from Big 12 cellar-dweller to must-see TV, the opportunity to play for the same coach who molded Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Elway and Steve Young would be like living a dream.

"You could say dream come true, but it's more of living your reality," Griffin said. "I watched (Shanahan) from a young age and saw what he was able to do, so hopefully not only do I get to bring a level of excitement to whatever city I go to, but I get to bring an excitement to a coach."

Contact Alex Byington at alexb@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7566. Follow him on Twitter at KDHsports.

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