By Bryce Rudow
“It’s one thing to want something, but it’s a whole other ballgame to know why you want it.”
These are the opening words of The Will To Win, a documentary/sly marketing piece produced by NFL Films and Gatorade about Robert Griffin III’s rehabilitation process that debuted on ESPN during prime time last night. The words are Griffin’s to describe his drive to play football again after a devastating knee injury in the playoffs last year, but they also bring up a larger question about our relationship with athletes as heroes.
Specifically, why do we care so much about a second-year quarterback who got injured playing a sport where injuries are seemingly just as common as touchdowns? Why did Gatorade spend oodles of cash to follow him along on this journey? And why do we as an audience, knowing this “documentary” is basically a puff piece, still feel enraptured by it whether we are football fans or not?
Because we, as Americans, need him.
He is our American Dream realized, and we don’t just want him to succeed, we need it. Sports has undoubtedly become the modern day bread-and-circus, but it also instills in a country built on the idea of faith that hope is the most valuable commodity there is and that it will ultimately be rewarded. So we care about The Will To Win not because of its artistic merit or because it is an unbiased, non-commercial view into a rising star’s life, but because it validates our belief in hope.
Despite baseball’s many attempts to convince us otherwise with their branding, football is our national pastime, and its reach extends well beyond the oversized billion dollar stadiums and NFL Sunday Ticket cable subscriptions. It’s built into our national collective narratives. The All-American quarterback is as important to our national identity as double bacon cheeseburgers, and the only thing more exciting than watching him succeed is seeing him conquer adversity to get there.
The big problem these days, though, is that we’ve become desensitized to tragedy. It’s not enough for the All-American QB to overcome deaths of fathers before Monday Night Football games like Brett Favre once did or to come back from devastating knee injuries like Tom Brady did. We have become so cynical at this point in our history that in order to not be picked apart by a 24-hour news cycle desperate for talking points, our heroes have to be at Friday Night Lights levels of perfection in order to avoid scrutiny.
Yet somehow, RGIII has done it. The documentary, while not exactly hard-hitting, backs up everything we have come to learn about a young man who at the age of 23 has taken on the mantle of Washington D.C. Sports Messiah, an honor that entails being not just a public figure but a role model who has to continually refute through his actions stereotypes about what he “should” be given his skin color, upbringing, and athletic abilities. RGIII has had to have the charm of Tom Brady, the swagger of Aaron Rodgers, and the lovable quirkiness of Peyton Manning, all while living up to the lofty expectations that the Redskins unfairly set for him when they traded multiple first-round picks to the Rams in order to be able to draft him.
So when I watch The Will To Win, even with the word “propaganda” sitting on the tip of the tongue, ready to escape and discount the whole thing, I notice it finds a way to dissipate the cynicism. It’s the visuals of seeing him attempting squats 5 days after surgery, going to workout in the Las Vegas heat on no sleep the morning after bachelor party, leaving a dent in the wall where he threw a medicine ball too hard; all of this is spliced with images of tender moments with his family, buying goofy socks for his friends, and playing with his comically small dog. They all craft an image of a 23 year old man, not boy, who understands the value of hard work and whose example gives hope to an audience accustomed to disappointment.
Like story-telling clockwork, in one of his confessional shots, Griffin sermons, “They wouldn’t call it the pursuit of happiness if it was going to be easy because to pursue something, you have to go get it.” As one of the more self-aware public figures out there, it’s fitting to see him sound like a politician and evoke a national idea like the “pursuit of happiness” when describing his off-season journey. He knows that this is bigger than just one quarterback’s knee. It’s about all of us trying to find our own happiness and wondering if it’s actually attainable.
Midway through the film, RGIII, a devout Christian, is backstage at the KSBJ Christian Men’s conference when a man named Bill Bennett, a former Secretary of Education, introduces himself as a DC native and says to Griffin, “You’re the only thing in DC that everybody loves right now. With all the stuff going on, you’re about the only guy who makes everyone happy and proud… Morale is pretty low on a lot of things, but you’ve given us hope and light so thank you. And it’s not just your ball-playing, it’s your example, it’s your character.”
Oh the audacity of hope…