Archie Griffin still Heisman standard

COLUMBUS, Oh. -- When 24 former Heisman Trophy winners gather in New York this weekend to welcome the newest member into college football's most exclusive fraternity, former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin will be two of them.

Forty years ago last week, Griffin, a Buckeye junior, won the 1974 Heisman. And 40 years ago next December, Griffin won a second. He remains the only player in the history of the game to win its most prestigious individual award twice.

Were that the only characteristic that set apart Griffin from the other Heismen, it would be enough. The difficulty of winning a second Heisman has amplified beyond merely being the best player in college football in consecutive seasons.

The NFL beckons players three years out of high school. A demanding voting body compares the defending Heisman winner not only to every other college football player that season, but to his winning performance a year earlier.

But that's not the reason that the Heisman fraternity has a special place in its membership for Griffin. As far as the other winners are concerned, the next two-time winner will have to not only better his own performance on the field, but match Griffin off it.

"Archie is the godfather of the group," said Andre Ware, the 1989 Heisman winner and an ESPN college football analyst. "He is the standard."

"He's one of the humblest Heisman Trophy winners I've ever been around," said George Rogers, the 1980 winner. "He doesn't say very much, but when he does, everybody listens."

"Archie always handles himself well," said Gino Torretta, the 1992 Heisman recipient. "There's a ton of respect for him."

In an era when the past two Heisman winners have been guilty of boorish, immature behavior off the field, their older brethren are concerned about them tracking mud into the Heisman House.

"Good guys don't do those things," Rogers said. "It's a reflection on the next guy, and the next guy, and the next guy, and the next guy. Everybody knows if you're a hardhead or not."

Added Torretta, "Tim Brown said, 'I wouldn't vote for anybody who wins the award to win it again. I think Archie should be the only two-time winner.'"

Brown, the 1987 winner, did not return calls seeking comment.

The woods are full of college football heroes who blaze into the public consciousness and fade away as age and gravity rob them of their athletic gifts. Griffin remains an iconic figure because of gifts he has continued to display long after he retired in 1982 after seven seasons in professional football.

He has never met a stranger. He never loses his patience. That means, when he's dining out in his hometown of Columbus, he never finishes a meal without interruption from a Buckeye who wants to tell him about how he saw Griffin rush for 160 yards versus UCLA as a senior, or wants to hear about how Griffin never lost to Michigan (3-0-1) in four seasons, or, What was Woody Hayes like?

"I feel it's a gift that could be taken away at any time," he said. "I'm going to appreciate that gift, let people know I appreciate the way that they think of me. ... Yesterday, I must have been asked three or four times about football. For people to remember after that period of time? It blows me away! It really does. It blows me away."

Imagine that. Of course the people who need to hear that wisdom, the 25-year-old multimillionaires that modern professional sports created, don't always listen. It's not as if Griffin came to that realization late in life, as if he decided to be humble after life had humbled him. It has ever been thus.

For instance, there's the story of how Griffin won his second Heisman, in 1975, even though he failed that season to become the first (and still would be the only) three-time winner of the Silver Football, given to the Big Ten most valuable player. His teammate and roommate, quarterback Cornelius Greene, won that award.

Larry Romanoff served as a senior manager on the 1972 team, Griffin's freshman year. Romanoff retired this year after more than four decades in the Ohio State athletic department.

"In 1975, Corny Greene was voted MVP of the Ohio State team," Romanoff said. "That's when they would take the 10 [team] MVPs and vote on who won the Silver Football. And the only reason that Corny Greene won that award was that Archie went to everybody on the team and said, 'Look, I won that award in '73. I won that award in '74. You guys got to vote for Corny. He deserves to win it.'"

Greene won the team MVP by one vote -- Griffin's vote.

"How many guys do that?" Romanoff asked. "And if you go back and look in your history books, I bet you don't find another Heisman Trophy winner that wasn't MVP of his own team."

Or there's the penniless football graduate assistant (yes, a redundancy) in the mid-1980s who needed Christmas presents for his family.

"I had zero. I was in debt," Buckeye head coach Urban Meyer said. "I had sisters, parents, grandparents, so the only way I could get them gifts was I would go get autographed pictures from Archie Griffin and give everyone that for Christmas. I was the hero, and it cost me zip. My sisters still got them."

Meyer wore No. 45, Griffin's number, when he played. He signed his name with a 45, the way Griffin did.

"It's not just the number," Meyer said. "It's what he stands for and the way he handled his business. He's a role model. To me, he's the ultimate. Two-time Heisman Trophy winner, that's the most humble, genuine -- one of the most genuine guys I've ever been around."

Griffin spent the first half of his non-football life working in the Ohio State athletic department and hoping for an opportunity to become athletic director. And then, in 2003, The Ohio State University Alumni Association asked him to interview to become its president.

"Rex Kern [quarterback of the 1968 national champion Buckeyes] called me," Griffin said, "and he had served on the alumni association board of directors, and told me that you couldn't ask for a better job. ... People just told me, 'That is the job that just fits you,' mainly because I seem to get along well with people."

The job is no sinecure arranged for a hero home from the wars, not at an institution the size of Ohio State University.

"A lot of schools have hired their former athletes in alumni relations or development," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "There's no one I can think of who has the level of responsibility he does. We have 500,000 alumni. His schedule has to be ridiculous."

A couple of Fridays ago, Griffin spoke to a group of Ultimate Software customers meeting for breakfast at the Ohio Union. He got a forkful or two of his scrambled eggs and potatoes into his mouth before he was summoned to be Archie Griffin.

He strode across the room to stand behind the lectern. Griffin has retained his athletic build more than four decades after he came to campus from nearby Eastmoor High. Greene, the quarterback, once recalled one of their first practices, when this squat, muscular classmate beat him in a sprint.

"Goodness," Greene thought, "the guards here are running 4.5s."

The first thing he did, which he does at every speaking engagement, is what he calls "a Buckeye test."

"O!-H!" Griffin yelled.

"I!-O!" came the louder reply.

Griffin spoke of his reverence for Hayes while promoting the volunteer opportunities at the alumni association, telling the story of how he went from fifth-string tailback to setting the school rushing record in one afternoon against North Carolina at Ohio Stadium. It was the second Saturday of his freshman season. On the first Saturday, on his first carry, Griffin had fumbled the football. He worried that Hayes, with his fiery temper, would never give him a second carry.

"All of a sudden," Griffin told his rapt audience, "midway through the first quarter, a call from the bench, 'Griffin!' Kept calling, 'Griffin!' I knew he wasn't talking to me. Couldn't have been talking to me. All week on the scout squad, couldn't have been me.

"But I was the only Griffin on the team at the time, so I went up to Coach Hayes. He grabbed me by the shoulder and told me to go in at tailback.

"I got all excited. I went to run out on the field. One of my teammates called me back. Because in all of the excitement, I had forgotten to take my helmet."

Griffin didn't fumble this time. In fact, he ran for 239 yards and came out early in the fourth quarter to a standing ovation. That tribute remains his most treasured memory of his four seasons as a Buckeye.

"I was actually on the sideline at North Carolina, the visitors' sideline, running the balls," Romanoff said. "The coach [Bill Dooley] kept going, 'Who the hell is that guy?'"

Griffin spoke for a half-hour, answered questions, and then left -- without finishing the cold eggs and potatoes -- so that the Ultimate folks could convene their business meeting. And when he left, three women followed Griffin into the hallway, meeting be damned, and handed an observer their phones to take a picture of each of them with Griffin.

He walked down the hall of the Union, past the Archie M. Griffin Grand Ballroom, past the 1975 Heisman, which sits behind glass outside the ballroom. The 1974 Heisman is showcased at the Buckeye Hall of Fame Grill.

"If they're sitting in my house," he explained as he kept walking, "no one would see them."

The next morning, Griffin navigates through an icy rain toward Ohio Stadium, where he parks about 15 yards from the entrance less than an hour before Ohio State kicks off against Indiana (It's good to be the king). He knows the guys at the entrance to the Stadium West parking lot, one of whom waits with a jersey for Griffin to sign. He does so, using his steering wheel as a table, with a neat, legible hand.

Beneath his name, he writes, "H-T."

Beneath that, he writes, "'74-'75."

He has never forgotten where he came from, literally and otherwise. Griffin likes to point out that he came into this world at the campus hospital, just south of the Horseshoe, that he played at the Horseshoe, and that he has worked for some 30 years in two buildings -- St. John Arena, where he worked as an assistant athletic director -- and the Longaberger Alumni House, both a short walk from the 'Shoe.

That Griffin played at Ohio State was something of an anomaly for Hayes, who hesitated before signing recruits from Columbus because of the pressure on a boy playing in his hometown.

"When Bo [Schembechler, the late Michigan coach] was living," Griffin said, "he used to always tell me, 'You know, Woody would have never recruited you if I hadn't recruited you first.'"

He believes his job in Suite 19, the one that belongs to the alumni association, is not to watch Buckeye football. His job is to serve as host and greeter to the guests who are in Suite 19 and beyond. When Ohio State scored its first touchdown, Griffin had his back turned to the field, speaking quietly with a lovely older woman in the back of his suite. Later in the first half, he quietly ducked out to stop by the suites of the businesses that sponsor Ohio State athletics.

"He travels with us and sits in my suite," said Smith, the athletic director. "Opposing fans in other suites will come to my suite. ... We'll be in airports and I have to walk over and literally drag him away. 'Our plane is leaving,' I say. Archie would stand there talking to them."

Watch the game? Griffin does that at home on Sunday morning, when the replay is televised.

In the end, Griffin speaks of three great influences in his life. His mother and father -- who expected all eight of their children to graduate from college even though they had not (all seven boys and one daughter did just that) -- and Hayes. Not the volatile man who is recalled for the way he attacked officials and sportswriters and, at the end of his career, an opposing player.

Griffin recalled the man who spoke to his players about education and military history, the man who had foresworn money and considered Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Compensation" to be sacred text.

"Woody always called it, 'Paying forward,' doing things to help others," Griffin said. When he speaks to audiences about Hayes, Griffin always mentions Emerson.

"In the order of nature," Emerson wrote, "we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody. Beware of too much good staying in your hand. It will fast corrupt and worm worms. Pay it away quickly in some sort."

Or, as Griffin said of his fame, every benefit is a gift that could be taken away at any time. If the next two-time Heisman winner must measure up to the standard set by Griffin, we may wait a while.