On Monday afternoon, former Wizards basketball player Etan Thomas published an open letter in the Washington Post to Robert Griffin III. It was emotional and powerful and thought-provoking, and it was inspired by his 7-year-old son.
"If RG3 is hurt and playing, couldn't he get hurt more?" Malcolm Thomas asked his dad after seeing Griffin in obvious pain during Sunday's wild-card game against the Seattle Seahawks. "Look at his face daddy, he is in pain, why is he still playing if he is in that much pain?"
On Wednesday, Griffin underwent surgery to repair one and eventually two ligaments in his right knee. The hope is a full recovery in time for the start of the 2013 season, and Griffin tweeted, "See you guys next season" on Wednesday morning to underscore the plan. But there's no way to know if one of the fastest and most mobile players in the NFL will ever be quite as fast and quite as mobile.
That prospect has elicited two reactions. The first is the standard concern for a star, just like the reaction to Marcus Lattimore's gruesome knee injury in October, or Adrian Peterson's torn ligaments in December 2011: We want Griffin to return to health.
"You have transformed the Washington Redskins franchise, electrified the city, and have many glorious days ahead of you," Thomas wrote in the Post.
But there's something else here too, and Thomas' letter touches on it. Griffin is not just a franchise football player. He means something more. Consider the opening stanza of today's New York Times column by Maureen Dowd, one of the nation's foremost political voices:
Everyone told me not to fall in love so quickly, that I'd get my heart broken. But I couldn't help it. Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris, the stellar Redskins rookies, were such appealing palliatives to our ugly, nihilistic politics and our cascade of lurid sports scandals.
She goes on to rip Redskins coach Mike Shanahan for "committing malpractice" by not shelving Griffin when he started limping in the first half of his team's first-round playoff game last Sunday. When Maureen Dowd has moved from Obamacare to Shanacare, you know an athlete has transcended his sport.
[Dan Wetzel: What was Mike Shanahan thinking playing RG3?]
And with this injury, he's moved into a realm that's both ethereal and unsettling. Griffin has inched toward Bo Jackson territory – an athlete so blessed with talent and beloved across the country that fans young and old fear the show could be cut short.
Griffin is fast and a little bit undersized, so his collisions seem tougher to withstand than, say, your usual sack of Ben Roethlisberger. Earlier in the season, in Tampa, defensive back Mark Barron picked Griffin up and pile drived him into the Florida turf. A gasp came from the crowd, even though it was an opposing crowd. The germ of worry, which sprouted in his first few NFL games, has now bloomed into a full-blown fear that we may not have RG3 for as long as we'd like.
Football players tear ligaments all the time and return to play all the time. Peterson's injury and miraculous recovery from a torn ACL is proof of both. But Griffin is so "special," to borrow Thomas' word, that people way beyond the Beltway feel the need to look out for his best interests, even if his interests don't mesh with theirs.
When Jay Cutler left a playoff game because of injury, he was called soft. Yet when Griffin stays on the field, as he did against the Seahawks, fans are desperate to give him a free pass simply because they don't want to see him hurt. Thomas, among many others, is protective of a man who doesn't seem to want any coddling at all.
"You have transformed the Washington Redskins franchise, electrified the city, and have many glorious days ahead of you," Thomas wrote in the Post. "It's not worth your ACL, and it's definitely not worth your career. And more than anything, young people like Malcolm will have a chance to root you on for years and years to come."
That's what's at stake here. It's not just a playoff run; it's a career. And it's the future of a franchise and, to some degree, the immediate future of the NFL.
Football is moving Griffin's way, with the dual-threat quarterback ascending at all levels, and Griffin, with Olympic speed and a cannon arm, is the best of the dual threats. He's also an ambassador for the game. His whispered encouragement to Tony Romo after the Redskins' Week 17 win showed how mature and revered he is in the league already.
This isn't Tim Tebow – a phenom with backlash and baggage included. It's not Cam Newton, who has truckloads of talent with pout included. This isn't even Johnny Manziel, who is "Brett Favre on a motorcycle" (according to one Texas high school coach) but with the mugshot and the Instagram of himself at a casino included. They're all stars, but in them the public has found something to love as well as something to loathe.
It's hard to find fault in Griffin. Like Bo Jackson before him, he's a joy to watch and easy to cheer for even if he's shredding your team. Just look at how the Giants lavishly praised him after their first meeting in October. "I'm not even going to lie – that's the best quarterback we've played this year, for sure," defensive end Osi Umenyiora said of Griffin just seven games into his career. "It's just unfortunate that he's a rookie, because he's going to be around here forever, doing stuff like that. That's just crazy."
Most highly-touted rookies would get ripped in a divisional matchup like that. The Giants seemed to enjoy Griffin as much as the rest of us do.
[Related: Doctor claims coach lied about RG3's knee]
And not to defend Rob Parker, who is no longer with ESPN after his reprehensible comments about Griffin, but what was most revealing about Parker's opinion was the idea that some people in the black community worry about Griffin tacitly severing his African-American ties. There, too, is the fear of Griffin fading away. There, too, is the fear that he will fall short of what's imagined for him.
One parallel to Griffin can be found in hockey. Sidney Crosby is also preposterously talented and mature for his age. He also came into a woeful organization (the Pittsburgh Penguins) and quickly assumed a leadership role without riling anyone. Older men on his team deferred to him so quickly that it seemed almost strange. Yet the way he handled himself, on and off the ice, exuded an almost presidential poise. He won a Stanley Cup. He won a gold medal. Crosby was the face of his sport. Then he got hurt. And for months afterward (leading up to today) there was a constant worry about whether he would ever be the same again. This worry was not only among Penguins fans, but among all hockey fans. The sport needed him, and it needs him still.
All the venom piled onto Shanahan after Sunday's game – Thomas wrote that he's "irate" at the coach for leaving RG3 in – is telling. Shanahan made a mistake that risked a player's short-term future. This isn't unprecedented. Every time there's a concussion, something like this is possible. Injuries are part of the game, goes the cliché, and come playoff time who isn't injured in some way or another.
Again, RG3 is different. Shanahan was messing with the story arc. He was threatening a destiny. Part of this is because of Griffin's market. D.C. has a tendency for hero worship, and boy are Redskins fans desperate for a legend. But Dowd's column shows this spreads beyond the diehards. RG3 is a source of constant discussion in many circles, not just the ones involving fans and fantasy owners.
Griffin is a great quarterback who will heal. But will he be the same? That's the issue. After Sunday's playoff loss, he stood up and bravely declared he was supposed to stay in and lead. As a football player, he's absolutely noble in saying that. Yet there's something bigger than football here. There's the preservation of a story that's only in its first chapter, the fulfillment of an awed athlete's potential, and the not-unmerited concern that the story of RGIII's career, much like Bo's, will begin, "What if …"
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