WASHINGTON — On Monday night, Robert Griffin III will perform his usual pregame rituals. He’ll listen to the Michael Jackson song “Thriller.” He’ll take a stroll on the turf, from end zone to end zone.
“I am not very superstitious,” Griffin said. “But I do walk around the field one time before every game to kind of mark my territory, saying, ‘Within these lines, you control what happens.'”
The last time he played, much of that control slipped away. He reinjured his right knee twice and became a diminished version of his record-breaking self. He stayed in the game until the knee gave out for good in the Washington Redskins’ home playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks in early January.
It was the end of the season, but the story of the knee was just beginning. Shouldn’t coach Mike Shanahan have removed Griffin from the game earlier? Shouldn’t Dr. James Andrews, standing on the sideline working for the Redskins, have intervened? Or shouldn’t Griffin have swallowed his competitive pride and taken himself out?
A few days later, Andrews reconstructed two ligaments in Griffin’s right knee. Eight months later to the day, Griffin will start in prime time in Week 1 of the regular season against the Philadelphia Eagles. He made his rehab into a very public mission, returning quicker than standard medical science would suggest, and audaciously calling out his coach more than once over mistakes made in the Seattle game, as well as the practice schedule at training camp.
Along the way, Griffin also married his longtime girlfriend, but he never lost focus on the knee, even seeking out an amateur football team — Les Dauphins de Nice — to get in a workout while traveling in the south of France on his honeymoon. He so dominated the offseason headlines that the Seattle loss seems ages ago, and the anticipation of his return to the field is such that he admits it could be even more emotional than his NFL debut a year ago.
“That’s going to be tough,” he said. “I don’t know if there’ll be tears. If there are, they’ll be tears of joy. It’s just been a long journey. It’s been an adventure; it’s been fun. You don’t necessarily want to go on the journey that I had to go on this offseason, but you try to enjoy it along the way and hit those milestones. And to come out of that tunnel with the team Monday night’s going to be a great moment.”
The stadium will be familiar; the turf won’t. The poor Redskins sod became a story in itself during and after the playoff game, and the team has put in new grass that hopefully will hold up better. Still, it’s hard not to look at the 5-yard line at the north end of the stadium and visualize the site of Griffin’s knee buckling the wrong way.
So many feelings. Little wonder last year’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year says he’ll rely on his teammates to keep him steady.
“They’ll be there to help me manage my emotions,” he said. “I’ve told them I’m going to need them for that.”
Griffin proved last year to be a spotlight player, rising to the occasion in high-profile games as he led the Redskins to their first division title in 13 years. Playing in the first Monday night game is such an event, the phoenix rising from the ashes before a packed stadium that won’t stop chanting “R-G-3!”
If he puts on another show, if the knee holds up, if he leads the Redskins to victory, the drama of the last eight months will start to fade quickly. When the history is written, says Redskins veteran backup Rex Grossman, the games themselves are all that really matters.
“Week 1, nobody remembers anything that happened before that,” Grossman said. “They remember the playoff game and Week 1, and whatever happens in between, nobody cares.”
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