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“I never want the one-liners or personality to outweigh the analysis. That’s kind of the focus I took in football. You want to tell the players’ story and tell it the right way. I kind of just took that same thing over to track and told the athlete’s story the right way. Talk about their accomplishments. Talk about what they’re working on. The trick is – and I’m not giving away any secrets because you know this because that’s what you’re supposed to do in the broadcast – to get in and get out. Be able to tell the story quickly in 10-15 seconds…You can tell stories in football that can track the whole game. In track and field, you can’t do that. As soon as the 100 is done, you have the hurdles. As soon as the hurdles are done, you’ve got the 400, then the 800. You have to work on your timing and how to tell those stories in the right way while also engaging the viewer.”
Robert Griffin III (RG3) is a former 400m hurdler from Baylor, former Big 12 conference champion, the third-place finisher and All-American at the 2008 NCAA Championships, U.S. Olympic Trials semifinalist but most people know of him for his football accomplishments including being a Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Bowl NFL quarterback. Well, he returned to track and field this weekend as an analyst with ESPN’s broadcast of the NCAA Track and Field Championships and he crushed it. I had to get him on to talk about his experience getting behind the mic and hyping up what he believes to be the best athletes in the world.
I’ve transcribed a few parts of the interview below, which have been edited lightly for clarity.
CITIUS MAG: Welcome back to track and field!
RG3: The NCAA was a dream come true. I definitely requested from ESPN a few months back that I’d be able to cover NCAA championships. And they kind of looked at me like, ‘Why? Why would you want to do that?’ It’s a passion project for me. People who follow the track closely know that that I ran through high school as a prolific high school hurdler. A lot of people don’t know that I ran track before I ever played football at Baylor University. I graduated early from high school so in my spring of (high school) senior year, I was just in college running. I just wanted to come back and try to give back to the sport as much as I could because I love it and I really appreciate the hard work and everything that the athletes have to go through to get to the point where they can perform the way that they do. I wanted to bring light to that, and I think we were successful.
CITIUS MAG: Overall, what was feeling like being back in the spotlight at the NCAA Championships and what were your first impressions of the new Hayward Field?
RG3: Hayward Field is incredible. Definitely different from when I was there. I haven’t ran at Hayward since 2008. So last time I checked, it was 2022. So that’s a long, long time ago. When we did Nationals back then, it wasn’t at Hayward. So to kind of go there and see the new track – if anyone is worried about whether the track fast or is it slow? I think NCAA has kind of showed you and Prefontaine showed you how fast the track is, no matter what the weather conditions are. Because in Eugene, it’s either raining, it’s about to rain or just finished raining, right? So the track stood up great. It was beautiful and aesthetically pleasing from the booth. I just thought the meet was otherworldly. You saw Fahnbulleh and Abby Steiner really take over the show on the men’s and women’s sides. And of course, Florida came away with two national championships from the team side of things, so that was awesome.
CITIUS MAG: Can you give us a bit of the behind-the-scenes of how this all came together? Did you get nervous beforehand? It’s OK if you did because getting nervous is a sign that you care.
RG3: I think if you’re not nervous, then you don’t care about what you’re doing. I didn’t feel any pressure, though. I knew coming into this that I called a full game of college football games in the booth, so I was comfortable with that dynamic. I thought our producer and director did an amazing job introducing me to the track and field world – or should I say re-introducing me. Because to the casual fan, they’re like, ‘Why is Robert Griffin III calling the track meet?’ But to the fan that knows about my track background, I thought they did a great job of introducing me, and explaining all of my accolades in track, so it made the viewer more comfortable with me being there on the broadcast. I gotta tip my hat to Lara Overton, Dan O’Brien and Dwight Stones because they’ve been doing this for a really long time. And they were beyond gracious with allowing me to come in and essentially piece up the breakdown of all the races with them. It wouldn’t have been possible without them because a lot of people have egos when it comes to the broadcast business and when it comes to being in the spotlight. They didn’t have any of that. I thought that that experience went over and above and it wouldn’t have been the same type of broadcast if they wouldn’t have been willing to allow me to come in there and do something.
CITIUS MAG: When you first appeared on the TV screen, there were a couple of tweets out there of people asking, ‘Why is the NFL guy calling this track meet? We don’t let track athletes go call NFL games.’ Very soon after that, you changed public opinion with the insights you brought into the broadcast. Your sense of humor was awesome. Who wrote the puns and one-liners with the names because you were having a field day with those?
RG3: I think that’s something that is like a calling card of what I do in the broadcast booth. I’m not a comedian, guys. I’m really not. It’s just what I see I think the viewer sees. So if there are earrings or someone’s wearing a funny hairdo. I point that out in the broadcast because it’s a way to engage the listener. When you talk about the names and the one-liners, that literally all comes from me and my wife. My wife is an Estonian heptathlete and the record holder at Florida State in the heptathlon. We literally just go through the list and we say, ‘Okay, what just pops out to you?’ You don’t have to try to make something happen that’s not there. So when we look at those names like Fahnbulleh. ‘All right, what does that rhyme with? I don’t know: What in the Fahnbulleh is going on here?’ They naturally come out that way. It’s something that I pride myself in because I’m not afraid to show personality.
But it’s so much easier to show personality when the performances on the track are just otherworldly. So I think that’s that part of the transition of athletes that might have been a little upset that I come over to the trackside, but then they also know that I have that track background. Otherwise, I’d just be requesting that ESPN lets me do the NBA, NHL, and all these other sports. I just thought it was a natural thing to do and I’m glad that I was able to win over more and more viewers as the days went on. But as I said, it wasn’t just me. It was everybody else in the production crew and then, of course, the athletes on the track. Nobody wants to talk about a guy running 10.3. So if you get someone to run 9.9 or 10.00 or have a girl run 21.8, that’s going to also broaden and heighten the broadcast as well.
CITIUS MAG: I love what different former athletes bring to the broadcast booth whether it’s through color commentary, play-by-play or analysis. What was your role going into the weekend and what did you hope to bring?
RG3: It’s a great question. And the fact of the matter is, you talked about the personality and the one-liners. I never want the one-liners or the personality to outweigh the analysis. And that’s kind of the focus I took in football because you have to talk about the players. You want to tell the player’s story and you want to tell it the right way. So I kind of just took that same thing over the track and told the athlete story the right way.
Talk about their accomplishments, talk about what they’re working on. The trick is – I’m not giving away any secrets because that’s what you’re supposed to do in the broadcast – being able to get in and get out. Be able to tell the story quickly in 10 to 15 seconds. That’s really hard to do for a track athlete who’s got four or five years (now that they got these super seniors) of accolades and accomplishments. So I try to do it that way. In football, it’s the same thing.
You can tell stories in football that can track the whole game. In track and field, you can’t do that. As soon as the 100m is done, you got the hurdles. As soon as the hurdles are done, you got the 400m, you got the 800m. So you have to be able to work on your timing and how to tell those stories the right way while also engaging the viewer. I think there are a lot of track and field analysts that do an extremely good job of that. It’s just trying to bring more light to that and making people actually enjoy the track broadcast as if they were just watching it in the living room with their friends.
CITIUS MAG: That’s the biggest challenge with track and field. There isn’t enough time in the broadcast to cram storytelling. One of the biggest things that me and my colleague Kyle Merber focus on when we call races is that our goal is to get you the viewer to care about this athlete, this race, this big move and why it’s all-important. You did a pretty great job of that with the excitement and humor that you brought to the call. It’s not rocket science that if the announcers are excited, the viewers will be too.
RG3: You have to be careful with that also because you don’t want to show excitement for something that the viewer at home is like, ‘Okay, why is he so excited about that two-yard run on third and seven?’ Right. You don’t want to be like, ‘Oh! He cuts it to the left and gets tackled right away!’ It’s just not going to go over well with the viewer. The performances that happened also bring up the broadcast because, you know, if you cover the NCAA championships, you’re going to have something that happens that really is going to allow you to be excited and engage the audience.
So actually, I love your idea of a pre and post-game type of atmosphere for track and field, because in America track’s not really celebrated the same way as it is in Europe. In Europe, it’s like a spectacle. Everyone’s going. They really dive deep into it and put a lot of resources into it. Track is almost like an afterthought. So much so that for ESPN it was on ESPN U and ESPN 2 and the only day that it was on ESPN was the last day for the women’s and it was in the middle of the day. I understand that part of it. But if you want people to get more engaged with track and field, then you have to tell the story better. And I tried to make it a point during the NCAA championships to do that as much as I possibly could so that people could engage with these runners.
CITIUS MAG: Because this worked so well, what a lot of people were wondering watching is just how connected did you stay with track and field when you chose to go the football route? (No pun intended)
RG3: Extremely connected. As I mentioned before, I ran track at Baylor, before I ever played football. The only reason I ended up playing football is that I had promised my coach I would give him at least one year. When you’re 18 and you go get third nationals off of two weeks of training, it’s one of those things that you just think, ‘Oh, I’ll just go pro in track.’ I had offers to go pro from the big brands and I just didn’t take it because I was going to honor my word and go play football for a season.
Ultimately, I made a decision to stop running track but I only made that decision once I got hurt for the first time and tore my ACL in football. I missed being with my teammates so much. That injury actually made me love football. I didn’t love football at that time before I got hurt. Every off-season, I worked out on the track. On the broadcast, I did state that I haven’t run over three hurdles in five years. That is true. Between 2008 and 2017, every single year I had a tradition of at some point in the offseason I was going to do a ten-hurdle buildup. That’s insane when you’re not really training for track and field. But I did it for the 400m hurdles – not the 110 hurdles – all ten hurdles. I’m in pain right now thinking about it. I stopped that in 2018 and I just started going and running over one hurdle or two hurdles. Then I would stop after that because I knew at that point my track and field “career” was probably done. I was just leaving out hope all the way up until I was 27.
So when it comes to the sport training-wise, I’ve always been connected to it. And when it comes to watching: any track meet that’s on the Diamond League, Continental Tour, the Prefontaine Classic, the U.S. Championships indoor/outdoor, I always kept up with that. And that’s why it was so easy for me to step in and do the NCAA championships because I knew all of those athletes…I knew all that stuff and it made it easier for me and more comfortable for me to step in and feel like, ‘Hey, I can actually give insight into these races and technique points on these races.’
This first time anybody is going to hear this…But in 2018, I was coming back to track and field. I had been training with Brooks Johnson down in Orlando and I was going to become a multi-eventer. Unfortunately, I got a call when I was on the track about eight months into training from the Baltimore Ravens. I looked at Coach Johnson and I said, ‘Well, the Ravens are calling and they’re giving me a terrible offer. What should I do?’ He said, ‘Well if you’re going to bet on anybody, you might as well bet on yourself.’ So then I ended up going back and playing with the Ravens for three years after proving myself again and that’s why I didn’t come back to track and field. I was in the thick of it training with Coach Johnson. My wife was training as a heptathlete. We were getting all the technique points on all the different events. I would have felt confident talking about the javelin, the shotput and discus. (ESPN) just didn’t ask me to do that and Dan O’Brien did a great job of covering all that stuff on the men’s side. Everything that’s happened over the last five or six years really set me up to be able to step in and hit the ground running.
CITIUS MAG: I remember writing those stories while at Sports Illustrated about your possible comeback to track and field. You’re telling me that 2018 was the last serious attempt at a comeback?
RG3: So when I was in college, I ran as a freshman and then I stopped. I was going to come back the year before we won the Heisman at Baylor. I ran with the track team. I trained for about a month with the track team and I was going to run on the 4×100 and 4×400. I wasn’t quite ready to go back out and do the hurdles. But I got to a point where I felt confident I can contribute a good leg on the 4x400and I can run the 4×100. I ultimately decided not to do that. At the last second, I just didn’t go to the conference meet. I had to talk with the coaches. We thought it was the best thing for me not to “take a spot from a guy who had been training all year” to run 4×400 or 4×100. So I left it alone. So that was in 2011 as the first time I was going to come back.
In 2017, I was out of the NFL. I was just sitting there and I’m like, ‘Well, what can I do training-wise that’s going to get me in the best possible shape that if I got a call, I would be ready to go at the drop of a dime.’ So I started training on the track again. I trained for the 110m hurdles and I trained for the 400 hurdles. I actually got in pretty good shape in both of those races. When 2018 came around in January, I sat down with my wife Grete and said, ‘All right. I’m going to do it. I’m going to come back to track. I’m going to try to be a hurdler and at the same time, I’m training to be a decathlete. I was a good three months into training. I was in tip-top shape. I had been training and running with LaShawn Merritt and Justin Gatlin. I was getting faster every day and getting my butt kicked in practice. It was a pleasure.
I did beat Gatlin one time in a start so I do feel good about that. I beat him in a 20-meter block start and he was really trying. He’ll never admit that. But I did. I have video footage of that.
I enjoyed that process. But once that call came, I was going to run track for the love of it. I wasn’t really seeking out a sponsor or seeking someone to pay me money to do it. So when the call came for football, I just felt like I had to continue to pursue that dream. The track would have to wait. So now, I’m sitting here four years later at 32 and I’m like, ‘You know what? I think I could go PR in 400m hurdles right now.’ Who knows? Who knows if I try to make a comeback to track and field. But right now, I’m extremely grateful to be able to cover the sport.
CITIUS MAG: There it is. Bringing us right back to those headlines again. But the thought is still there?!
RG3: The thought is there. I know you probably saw the demo on the broadcast for the 400m hurdles. It’s an event that everyone is fascinated by, but they don’t really understand the history of it or what’s important in the race. I wanted to pay homage to Edwin Moses in that. Honestly, I really felt terrible running those hurdles. Absolutely terrible. I know a lot of people said, ‘Man, he was gliding! He looked good!’ Yeah, but it didn’t feel good.
CITIUS MAG: I’ve been meaning to ask if that was one take for that segment.
RG3: Oh, my. No. I can tell you right now, I ran it three times. I did three 150s over the hurdles. After the first one, I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to make it back to the start line to run this next 150m. It was crazy. So everyone was laughing about the second explanation and asking, ‘How long did it take me to recover before I could talk again?’ It was a good a couple of minutes… It just reminded me just how difficult the sport is and exactly why I wanted to call it. I wanted to start off the meet by saying track and field athletes are the greatest in the world. I believe it. Football is great. It’s big guys doing things that they probably shouldn’t be able to do. But the ability to run as fast as they do; jump as far as they do; throw as far as they do is just fascinating to me. I think they deserve more, more respect and definitely more attention.
CITIUS MAG: That’s the clip that won a lot of people over when you expressed that belief. Was that something that you shared with other athletes in the football locker room?
RG3: Yeah, 100%. Anytime I had an opportunity to show them like: ‘Did you just see where Fred Kerley ran?’ … They’re all like, ‘Yeah, they’re fast, but they’re soft. They can’t get hit. They wouldn’t do this. They wouldn’t do that.’ The fact of the matter is, any athlete that does any sport and that’s the only sport they do, they always feel like they’re the best athlete in the world. That is unquestioned.
My belief that track and field athletes are the greatest in the world comes from my experience running in the sport and knowing how hard it is to just drop from one sport into track and field and be successful.
I think D.K. Metcalf did a great job when he went out last year and ran the 100. He ran fast. He ran 10.3 but he got last in that race and he got beat by sprinters that we would probably say aren’t in the upper echelon of sprinters. Now, if D.K. dedicated himself for an entire year or two years, three years, could he 9.9 or 9.8? 100% I saw it in that race. For him to run 10.3, as big as he was with as little training as he had. He trained I think three or four months for the run. He could go out there and get it done. But the bottom line is that he’s not doing that. A guy like Tyreek Hill is unbelievably fast. He’s not only football fast, he is track fast. Check him out on YouTube. But if you just dropped him into a track meet today, he would not win that race. I think that’s just a testament to how difficult the sport is and how fast it is and how different that speed is.
Some people like to down track and field athletes and say they’re not tough. I think they’re one of the toughest. Football is a different monster. Don’t get me wrong because guys are playing with no ligaments in their knees and stuff like that. But track and field athletes are not soft.
The ability to repeat runs – whether it’s the 400 to 200 or the 100 twice in a day for the shorter sprints – it’s something that guys don’t quite understand how difficult that is and how much of a mental game it is in track and field, as opposed to just being able to physically go out and just move someone out of the way. You can’t do that in track.
And, it’s just you. When you step on the track, you don’t have anyone else to rely on. You’re either going to run faster or everybody’s going to see you run slow. For me, that was a massive motivation and a confidence builder when I was growing up – just knowing that, ‘Hey, when it comes down to it, I can get the job done.’ I try to express that to (NFL) guys. But what they tell me constantly is, ‘Oh, you’re not a track guy, you’re just a football guy who ran track.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no. I’m a track guy that plays football and I just happen to be up at the higher level in both of them.’ So I just don’t like it when people try to down track and field athletes like that.
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