Black Jesus is dead.
Yesterday, the Washington Redskins named backup quarterback Kirk Cousins the starter over Robert Griffin III, finally confirming what Washington fans have felt for weeks and months and years: RGIII’s time in the nation’s capital is up. Barring an unfortunate occurrence, or a few, the QB for whom Dan Snyder mortgaged three future first-round draft picks and a second—the very future of the franchise—won’t take the field again this year. Barring one or some disasters, RGIII won’t be in Washington next year; it’s just as likely that his stint here ruined his career before it got started as it is he’ll go somewhere else and make the Hall of Fame. Either outcome will feel an indictment on the team he’s left behind.
I don’t much like football. There are plenty of reasons I can rattle off: The contrived militarization; the obscenity of watching young men ruin themselves running headlong into each other; the NFL’s refusal to adequately protect its players or even acknowledge the sport’s lasting hazards in pursuit of profit; the league’s dismissive treatment of women; the herky-jerky tediousness of the sport itself; the nigh-universal corruption of the pundits and reporters who cover it; punting; Boston; Philadelphia; and so on. It’s both easy and tempting to say that I like football less and less the older I get and the more I learn about it, and while that’s definitely true to a point, it’s more accurate to say that I’ve never liked football much at all. And that’s because I’ve always been a Washington fan.
My parents were both raised in DC; I was born in Washington and raised in her suburbs. They raised me to be a Washington fan. The team won their third Super Bowl in a decade in Jan. 1992; I was three and a half then, so I don’t remember it at all. At some point, children develop the ability to intertwine events with context and tether them as one to their mind for future use. My first clear memory of being a Skins fan is from 1997, when the team relocated from RFK Stadium in the city to what’s now known as FedEx Field in Landover, Md., minutes from where I would live and attend school until I set off for college. My second clear memory of being a Washington fan is this:
After running the ball into and through the end zone in the second quarter of a regular-season game against the Giants, Gus Frerotte threw the ball into the padded wall, and then his head. He sprained his neck, and at halftime, he was transported to the hospital by ambulance. I remember being horrified, not so much because our starting quarterback got hurt, but because someone dumb enough to hurt himself in such a fashion was our starting quarterback.
We tied that game.
Some buster named Dan Snyder bought the team in 1999. Since then, Washington has gone to the playoffs a few times, though I can’t remember when, or to whom we lost once we got there. One thing that is memorable, though, is the revolving door of overpaid, semiretired legends seeing out their careers in Washington after every other team turned them away. Each was supposed to be the savior, the man to return us to a glorious past I’d never known. As the years passed and bled into each other, so did the faces of these legends, and those of the countless coaches and quarterbacks and coordinators to stop here before going elsewhere. Through it all, what was consistent was the lack of hope.
Washington’s the worst kind of sports town, the kind of town where citizens attach their identities and self-worth to the franchises that take their money only to let them down. No Washington team has been as consistently, relentless, soul-suckingly bleak as the football team. Not because they were bad, per se; they were never all that bad or all that good. But unlike the NBA, there’s little to gain in being very bad in the NFL. There are worse teams in pro football, after all, whose yearly failed endeavors to better themselves are spectacular and exhilarating in their own right. As far back as I can recall, Washington has never been in danger of winning anything, and only a few times have played at being truly terrible. Washington was mediocre, irrelevant, and invariably with a playbook that could turn my teenage cock to silly putty.
This would be fine—everyone can’t win—but even as Washington was hard at work boring its faithful to tears, one 7-9 season at a time, Snyder was actively sabotaging his investment. It was funny at first, watching Snyder sign Deion Sanders or Bruce Smith or Mark Brunell or Albert Haynesworth or Donovan McNabb only to have them disintegrate right out there on the gridiron before our eyes, and never once thinking to sign a young wide receiver over 5-foot-9. Everything the boss touched turn to shit, and so it was morbidly fitting that Washington would draft Sean Taylor, the best and most exciting player to don Snyder’s burgundy and gold, only to have our immaculate, invincible free safety literally, actually die in 2007 from a gunshot wound to the leg. But eventually it became obvious, too, how sinister Snyder and his football team were, gleefully robbing an entire race of their agency, every day, under the banner of Heritage Not Hate. He disgraced and disgraces himself, his football team, me, and the city whose essence runs through my veins.
That people like Dan Snyder still live and breathe disproves that morality or karma exist at all, let alone in the context of sports, or that people and franchises and teams “get what they deserve.” This motherfucker has a billion dollars. Still, it’s easy to connect Snyder’s many shortcomings and failures as a human to those of head coach Mike Shanahan, who Snyder appointed in 2010, to those of the organization they ran. As far back as I can recall, Washington has sucked, because Washington is supposed to suck, and that’s why Robert Griffin III’s rookie year made no fucking sense at all.
RGIII’s existence feels the conclusion of an Immaculate Conception. He appeared to me on Sportscenter (or whatever) one day in the fall of 2011 as some kid in the Bible Belt throwing passes very far, very accurately, very vertically down the field; or else running very far, very quickly, very vertically the same way. I’m no football whiz now, and I was less so then, but I could see that homeboy was wrecking cats every week. At the end of the year I saw all that he had done, and it was very good.
He won the Heisman Trophy that year, and at some point, it became clear that both he and Andrew Luck would be the first two picks of the 2012 draft. The Indianapolis Colts, who had the first pick, needed a new quarterback, because Peyton Manning fucked up his neck real bad, got surgery, and then moved to Denver. The St. Louis Rams, picking second, also needed a new quarterback, because Sam Bradford is a china doll with a trick knee. But they didn’t know that at the time, and they sucked so bad, and they had holes everywhere, so they leapt at the chance to receive a king’s ransom for rights to the no. 2 overall from Washington, who had just peeled off three straight double-digit losing seasons and for some reason were paying Rex Grossman and some probably-nice fella by the name of John Beck to take up roster space.
I wanted Washington to draft Luck. This isn’t because I thought Luck was better, but because I thought RGIII was, and because he was black, and he wore box braids a remarkably long time after it was fashionable to do so, and he looked like a fun and exciting athlete. As we crept closer to April and the 2012 NFL draft, legions of white men repeatedly hailed him as One Of The Good Blacks, who was from a good military family and had good Christian morals and used good, comforting grammar. Intangibles. I wanted him to succeed. I wanted him nowhere near my team.
We drafted him.
I have two vivid memories of RGIII that fall. The first came from the very first quarter of the very first week of the NFL season. Washington was in New Orleans against the Saints, who had one of the best offenses anyone had ever seen; Drew Brees, who’d thrown for 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns the season before; and a defense that had incurred heavy fines and suspensions after news got out that they had a bounty system in place designed to provide incentive for endeavoring to decapitate opposing players. The Redskins received the opening kick; RGIII took the field, and immediately went 6-for-6 on his first-ever professional drive. We stalled anyway, of course, and led 3-0. Then the Saints marched down the field and scored a touchdown, and then this happened:
On the first play of his second drive, RGIII faked the handoff to rookie running back Alfie Morris, dropped out, and threw a 20-yard strike down the field to new signing Pierre Garçon, just as Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins tore around the corner, left his feet, and plowed through RGIII’s chest. Griffin crumpled; Garçon caught it and ran unmolested to the end zone; and we were up 10-7. Watching on my couch in Manhattan, I jumped up, spilling beer all over myself. When I looked back up, I saw RGIII, still on the ground, raising his hands to the heavens.
A future Hall of Famer. Photo via Getty Images
Holy shit. Holy shit!
Every Washingtonian would’ve been fine losing 70-10, but Morris ripped the Saints defense for 96 yards and two touchdowns, and RGIII outplayed the scariest QB alive in a 40-32 shootout, and Washington left the Superdome 1-0.
We lost in week two to none other than the Rams, after jumping out to a 21-6 lead. Two things became immediately apparent to everyone: Washington was incapable of stopping your mother, if she really wanted to score a touchdown; and this was still a pretty bad team whose fate and future rested solely and squarely on the shoulders of RGIII and Morris. Following the 2011 success of offenses built around athletic QBs like rookie Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco and Tim Tebow (of all people) in Denver, read-option offenses were all the rage. Washington, with a bulldozer of a running back and a QB who trialed for the 2012 Olympics as a hurdler, were tailor-made to destroy opposing defenses.
My second vivid memory came at home in week six, at home against the Minnesota Vikings. We were 2-3 after giving up three or more touchdowns every week, and late in the fourth, we were on our 24-yard line, clinging to a 31-26 lead. As far back as I could recall, this was precisely the type of game Washington lost. With three minutes left, Griffin took the snap out of the shotgun, and faked a handoff to Morris. The Vikings brought the house, and with the pocket collapsing around him, RGIII stepped up, and took off.
He got to the second level, cut sharply to his left, and turned the corner to sprint past the Washington sideline. Before he even got to the end zone, a roar was crashing onto the field from above. The camera was shaking. Fans were shaking. I was shaking. It was the greatest play I can remember in all my years of watching the team. It was the first time I’ve ever felt real, honest-to-God hope, without the faintest hint of cynicism.
We dropped the next three games.
It was fine. It was fine. We were going to build around RGIII the next few years. The season was all but over; Mike Shanahan said himself this was the time for peripheral players to win spots for 2013. The only person saying we had a chance to make the playoffs was Skip Bayless, a loudmouthed blowhard who humped every Christian football player as if each was his own personal altar boy, and who had no choice but to support RGIII after tweeting this following The Run.
Bayless has made millions of dollars saying unconscionably dumb things, and in the midst of our season collapsing, he predicted we’d win our last seven games, five against NFC East opponents, and win the division over the Eagles, Cowboys, and defending-champion Giants. Oh for sure, man.
In the next game, RGIII threw four touchdowns against the Eagles in a 31-6 blowout. We were 4-6. The next week was RGIII’s homecoming, in Dallas at Cowboys Stadium. With a sizable cheering section in the stadium, he went absolutely fucking bonkers, throwing three of his four touchdowns in the second quarter. Our nominal rivals never knew what hit them, and we were 5-6. Then we flew back to DC and beat the Giants 17-16. We were suddenly 6-6, but this game was memorable for a few reasons. In just Washington’s 12th game, Griffin broke the all-time rookie quarterback rushing record. He was getting flushed out the pocket and lit up every game, nearly every drive, but somehow he kept making first downs, kept throwing touchdowns, kept the team playing a month after our head coach said we had nothing to play for. Against the Giants, RGIII sprinted to the end zone, and fumbled the ball directly into the arms of Washington receiver Joshua Morgan.
This, I remember, is when I knew, when I started speaking aloud about what we were witnessing. Fuck a jinx; we had Black Jesus! It wasn’t just that we were winning, but how. It’s important here to stress how bad Washington was this season, so that maybe you understand how so, so impossibly good RGIII was. He would catch the ball in the shotgun, and scan the field with an almost spooky calm. The pocket would collapse around him, and he’d dart a short pass to move the sticks, or slip through a cranny like an otter and run, cutting, ducking, pressing, never diving, never giving up. He looked almost childlike in his pads and helmet, a bit too short, a bit too slim, which made everything he was doing all the more unbelievable, ethereal. He was a gift.
I remember, in these moments, being almost moved to tears with joy and disbelief that we had him for the next decade. Even then, even as I was screaming and laughing, my stomach would roil unexpectedly. There was no doubt that RGIII was a Hall of Famer, at the very least the best player to ever don a Washington jersey. I felt guilty, then, as if I was voyeuristically experiencing happiness the fucking Redskins didn’t deserve, that I didn’t even deserve.
In week 14 against the 9-4 Ravens, the other shoe dropped. With two minutes left to go in the fourth and Baltimore leading 28-20, Griffin scrambled around to the left, and instead of running out of bounds, cut inside for more yardage. He was hit from the side, his legs were swept into the air, and Ravens tackle Haloti Ngata dove into RGIII’s unprotected knee. His leg folded sickeningly at the wrong angle, and he stayed down.
We needed a miracle for our season not to end right there on the field with RGIII, and it was delivered by Kirk Cousins, the rookie we drafted in the fourth round to be our star’s career backup. He marched the team down the field, threw a touchdown to Garçon, and converted the two-point conversion himself to force overtime. Washington walked off the field minutes later as victors, their record now 7-6.
RGIII missed the next game, and there’s probably no better argument for a God who picks and watches over his favorites than the fact that the next game was against the Cleveland Browns. Cousins beat them easily, and then RGIII was back, albeit with a heavy knee brace, to close out the season. We beat the Eagles to set up a win-or-go-home finale against Dallas. RGIII had his worst outing to date, going 9-18 for 100 yards with no touchdowns. But Morris put the team on his back, ripping through the Cowboys for 200 yards, and at game’s end, we won 28-18. I never doubted them.
I remember, and will always remember, what came next. We hosted the Seattle Seahawks, a good, hard team with a future as bright that figured as ours. But they had a rookie quarterback who, though promising, was not my rookie quarterback, and so their time would have to maybe come later. I was so excited that I flew out to Phoenix and watched the game with my best friend from home.
On Washington’s very first possession, they drove 80 yards down the field in nine plays and scored when RGIII connected with Evan Royster. Then the Seahawks punted, and then RGIII drove down to the Seahawks four-yard line. On first and goal, RGIII dropped back, rolled to his right, and threw a perfect pass to Garçon in the end zone. Garçon dropped it; RGIII fell, and didn’t get up. This was the first real feeling of dread I’ve ever felt for my football team. Eventually RGIII gingerly rose, and threw his second strike of the quarter. Washington led 14-0, and it was easy. But I remember knowing, on some level, that the season was over.
For the next two quarters, RGIII limped, planting weakly, running gingerly, and throwing poorly. He looked frail, then. I joined in with panicked Washington fans across the country to yell to put Cousins in, that our hero’s already done enough, but Shanahan couldn’t hear.
We went scoreless in the second, and the Seahawks pulled it back within one at half. Neither team could get on the board in the third, and in the fourth, our defense finally broke. Marshawn Lynch scored on long run, the Seahawks converted the two-point conversion, and we were down seven.
Washington’s offense took the field, and on first and 10 from the 19, a single Seahawk swept into the backfield. All season, I watched RGIII either sidestep slower players or use the pressure as justification for ripping off a long run, but this time, he just couldn’t get out of the way. He was dragged to the ground, his knee folding awkwardly beneath him. The very next play, he hiked the ball out of the gun. The ball was snapped low. Just as RGIII was bending down to grab it, his leg collapsed.
His demise was as violent as it was grotesque; watching his knee bent inward at a sharp angle against his body, I felt a rush of nausea, like I was witnessing an execution. The rest of the game, I watched, numb, as the clock ran out.
The Seahawks game sits in stark relief from the events surrounding it. At some point, he was named offensive rookie of the year with 3,200 yards passing, 815 more on the ground, and 27 total touchdowns to just seven turnovers; meanwhile the same intangibles that made RGIII such an attractive prospect were being bandied as proof that he was so phony, so corny, that his very blackness was called into question. At some point, we found out RGIII needed a whole new knee, and he vowed to be back by the start of the 2013 season, no matter what. At some point, there were reports that RGIII was even had a superhuman ability to heal faster than other people, and we believed that. He said that he’d be ready for the 2013 season because he’d taken tens of thousands of snaps in his head, and, fuck it, we believed that, too.
The next season, RGIII played in week one, just as he promised. But by then, the debate over Washington’s name had fired up again, and RGIII continued to wrap himself in Snyder’s burgundy and gold. In his sophomore season, RGIII was mortal, and the team around him was bad, and Washington went 3-13, their worst record in 20 years, since before I can remember. I began once again to look away.
At some point, the narrative cohered. RGIII was an arrogant, entitled, locker-room cancer who lacked accountability; the ever-insightful Jason Whitlock even said RGIII was to blame for his own injury. I took these boring, tired descriptions with a grain of salt; it’s what writers have always said about black athletes who dared be proud.
Shanahan was fired, and last year, Snyder brought in Jay Gruden. In week two, RGIII dislocated his ankle, and if Washington had any ambitions to do anything, they died that day. Washington went 4-12, and at some point, RGIII came back. He was physically and mentally slow, his team still sucked, and because Snyder gambled the future on RGIII, no help was on the way. Meanwhile, people began reaching for the same boring, tired descriptions for black athletes when speaking about the quarterback.
“If you want to look at the good teams in the league and the great quarterbacks, the Peytons and the Aaron Rodgers,” he said last season, “these guys don’t play well if their guys don’t play well. They don’t.”
It was a correct, dickish thing to say, exacerbating a rift between RGIII and both his teammates and his coach. It only widened this offseason, and after a poor preseason, RGIII’s only defender was Dan Snyder himself. Eventually, he backed down, too.
RGIII is headed elsewhere now. Whether it happens in the upcoming days or months is of little consequence. And so it’s irresistible while remembering the player to figure out where it all went to shit.
As far as I can recall, the RGIII that enraptured the nation’s capital died on the cold, wet ground in Landover against the Seahawks. Knee injuries are the nastiest in that they can rob you of some combination of your explosion, your speed, and your agility. Worse, they can take your confidence, your fearlessness, your spirit. It feels a bit revisionist to say now that RGIII was a raw prospect with limited tools, but perhaps his fall was always destined, and an athlete seemingly from the future was finally overtaken by the evolution of NFL defenses. Maybe, as it’s looked this preseason, his team stopped playing for him long ago, and his coach stopped protecting him, as well.
Maybe Snyder in fact traded the future of his franchise for one cinematic season, and without the ability to draft talent, Washington fell behind. Maybe it’s possible to connect Snyder’s many shortcomings and failures as a human, to those of head coach Jay Gruden, to RGIII and the organization they run. Shit, maybe it’s karma.
Three years ago, RGIII came to DC to save a franchise and city in spite of themselves. He almost succeeded. Soon, he’ll be chased out of town, a trail of smolders and ash in his wake. I don’t think I’ll watch much football anymore, but the one thing I’ll always remember, for the rest of my life, are the days he set my city alight.
Photo Credit: Getty Images