WACO, Texas — Robert Griffin III played football for years simply because he was good at it.
Then Baylor’s exciting dual-threat quarterback tore the ACL in his right knee and missed the last nine games of the 2009 season. While stuck on the sideline watching, he realized just how much he loved the game.
“After a knee injury like that, a lot of times you see guys come back and it’s not the same,” Griffin said. “So I didn’t want that to be attached to me, great player, got hurt, never was the same. … My goal was to come back better, not only for myself, but for my teammates.”
Goal accomplished for Griffin, who exceled while raising Baylor out of the Big 12 basement.
Already the winner of the Heisman Trophy and Davey O’Brien Award, Griffin won AP Player of the Year on Wednesday.
The aspiring lawyer, who arrived at Baylor nearly four years ago as a 17-year-kid after graduating high school early, is the nation’s most efficient passer this season, throwing for 3,998 yards with a Big 12-leading 36 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He also ran for 644 yards and nine more scores.
Baylor (9-3) has a five-game winning streak, its longest in 20 years, going into the Alamo Bowl next week. With a win over Washington, the 15th-ranked Bears would match the school record of 10 wins set during Mike Singletary’s senior season in 1980.
In his comeback from injury last year, after getting a medical redshirt that means he’s now a fourth-year junior, Griffin helped lead the Bears to their first Top 25 ranking since 1993 and their first bowl game in the Big 12 era. Baylor hadn’t even had a winning season in the first 14 Big 12 seasons.
That year on the sideline was the toughest for Griffin and the Bears, who went from big expectations to another losing record without their star quarterback.
“You miss out making plays and doing great things,” Griffin said. “I missed playing, I missed practicing, but you really just miss your teammates.”
By time Griffin played his first game for the Bears in 2008, when at 18 he was the nation’s youngest FBS starting quarterback, he was already a Big 12 champion and NCAA All-American in the 400-meter hurdles. He set an FBS record by throwing 209 passes to start his career before his first interception.
Griffin passed for 2,091 yards and 15 TDs with 843 yards and 13 more scores rushing as a freshman. But then he got hurt on the opening series of the third game of his sophomore season. He finished the first half of that game against Northwestern State on a gimpy leg, throwing for 226 yards and three touchdowns to push the Bears ahead 41-10.
He didn’t take another snap that season.
“When you don’t have something and it’s taken away from you, then all of a sudden you appreciate it more,” coach Art Briles said. “Everything had come real fast for him, from seventh grade on up, so what it did, it let him slow down. It let him appreciate the game and understand the game, get a different feel for the game, from a spectator and from a team-member standpoint, as opposed to always being the focal point.”
But Griffin is clearly the centerpiece for the Bears when he is on the field.
RG3 returned last year to throw for 3,501 yards to lead the Bears to a bowl game. He already holds 46 school records with a highlight reel that keeps getting longer.
This season started with a 50-48 victory over defending Rose Bowl champion TCU, the nation’s top defense the previous three seasons. Griffin threw for 359 yards and five touchdowns in that nationally televised game, but his biggest play was a 15-yard catch from receiver Kendall Wright to convert third-and-10 on the game-winning drive.
“I really liked that play,” running back Terrance Ganaway said. “It wasn’t a touchdown, but it meant a lot for our team right there. That’d be my favorite play because it helped win us the game.”
And set a tone for what would be an incredible season for the Bears.
After a tough stretch in October, Baylor swept through November with four consecutive victories. The Bears had won only four Big 12 games combined in November the previous 15 years.
That November stretch included their first win over Oklahoma, a 45-38 victory punctuated by another of Griffin’s signature plays. Griffin threw for 479 yards and four touchdowns, the last when he scrambled to his left and threw across his body to the corner of the end zone on the other side of the field to Terrance Williams for a 34-yard score with 8 seconds left. Griffin also had runs of 22 and 8 yards on that winning drive.
“Not that I was a prophet, but with this team and this program, miracles happen and that was a miracle play,” Baylor president Ken Starr said. “He was scrambling around. And I’ve watch that replay, that was magical. It was magical and miraculous.”
That is RG3, who now faces the big choice of whether to return for one more season at rising Baylor or go into the NFL draft, where his stock has risen significantly.
Griffin said his focus is on the Alamo Bowl and trying to get Baylor’s 10th win. After that, he will discuss his options with his family and Briles on a decision that may be tougher now because of all the success.
“If I come back, people would be like why. If I leave, people at Baylor will be like why,” he said. “So it’s a tough decision.”