Lessons for Obama from the rookie hero of the Washington Redskins

Mon, Nov 26, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:The two electrifying rookies exploded on to the scene with killer smiles, undeniable gifts, an affinity for superheroes, poise beyond their years and the ability to play at top form when it’s all on the line. Both stay so calm under pressure that they have evoked comparisons to Cool Hand Luke.

The capital of winning and losing now revolves around two natural-born world shakers: the president of the United States and the quarterback of the Washington Redskins. Only one of them, however, is old enough to appreciate the compliment of being compared to Paul Newman’s character in the 1967 classic prison drama Cool Hand Luke.

“Coach said you’re just like Cool Hand Luke,” a reporter said to Robert Griffin III, after the Baylor graduate and Heisman Trophy winner returned home to Texas on Thanksgiving and scored four touchdowns to lasso the Dallas Cowboys, the Redskins’ biggest rival. “Do you know who Cool Hand Luke is?” The 22-year-old Griffin did not. But he laughed, shaking his braids held back with a silver headband, and said: “He must be pretty cool.”

RGIII has made the Redskins vibrant again and coalesced the city around football. The Redskins have only a 5-6 record – that was the first Thanksgiving game the team had won since 1973 – but the city has gone wild for the charismatic Griffin, who is as fleet on the field as an unopposed incumbent with a super-Pac.

Comparing him favourably with the “impossibly wasteful” Tony Romo, the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins wrote that RGIII is the “one with flash and beauty, and substance, and urgency”. He is having less a rookie season, the Post noted, than a coronation.

Even the crowd at Cowboys Stadium could not resist, chanting “RGIII!” and booing their own team off the field at half-time. “The most valuable player in the entire National Football League,” declared Jimmy Johnson, the former Cowboys coach.

My family of rabid Redskins fans stopped talking to me about football back in the 1970s, when they took me to a game and I didn’t recognise Roger Staubach. So they’re stunned now at my sudden desire to dissect RGIII’s mastery of the bootleg.

His passes thrill, and his partnership with another unpretentious rookie, the compact but fierce running back Alfred Morris, dazzles. But what is really endearing is his spirit: a zeal to make every play count, a work ethic and self-effacing charm that has everyone rooting for him, a leadership style that causes team-mates to lift their games. You can see RGIII going up and down the sidelines patting his team-mates for encouragement. And in a rare move, the team voted to make the rookie quarterback a captain.

In a sports world dimmed by fallen heroes such as Tiger Woods, Joe Paterno and Lance Armstrong, RGIII offers values on and off the field that make us feel it’s okay to believe again.

The Bears fan in the White House has talked about inviting RGIII (who got his degree in political science) over for a basketball game, as long as they are on the same team. The president should take the opportunity to absorb some leadership lessons from the new wunderkind.

While Obama has developed an unnerving and enervating pattern of going into a pre-win slump – as in New Hampshire and Texas in the 2008 primaries or the first debate with Mitt Romney – RGIII never allows his batteries to run down while he’s playing. His parents were army sergeants – he was born in Okinawa, Japan, and his father served in Iraq – who imbued their son with the ethos of hard work and discipline. The only time Griffin drooped was when he got a concussion in the game against Atlanta.

While Obama prefers to preen as the man alone in the arena – keeping other pols at a distance on stage, parsimoniously handing out thanks and failing to mention his party or top surrogate Bill Clinton in his last victory speech – RGIII never passes up a chance to share credit.

While Obama – who has had a failure to communicate – finds media a bother, Griffin has an easy charm with the press. While Obama gets tangled up in his head – trying to decide if he’s too noble to play politics or if spending some evenings schmoozing with pols will leave him too depleted — RGIII keeps the joy, intensity and bonhomie in his game.

As a Democratic senator recently told me: “If only the president would have us over to the White House sometimes and talk to us, it could really help. When Bill Clinton called and asked if he could have my vote, I was more prone to do it because we had developed a rapport.”

Let’s hope that as Barry watches Robert, he’ll learn that stunning opponents with big plays, and then building on that excitement, can energise his team-mates, scare his opponents and lead to big wins.

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