A One-of-a-Kind Everyman
Dec. 13, 2012
This story originally appeared in the 2012 Big Ten Football Championship Game Program
By Todd Jones
Archie Griffin never makes you feel as if everything is about Archie Griffin. His pedigree suggests hosannahs are required. He's been honored so often it wouldn't be surprising if he thought his real name was The Only Two-Time Heisman Trophy Winner. Yet nearly four decades of handshakes, backslaps and effusive praise haven't dented his humble demeanor. His worldview is outward, not inward.
So when you ask Griffin about those Heismans he won as an Ohio State running back in 1974 and 1975, or any of the honors bestowed upon the three-time All-American in the nearly four decades since, the college football legend talks about all the people who made it possible for him to succeed. He sees others when others only see Archie Griffin.
That held true when the Big Ten named Griffin the first winner of its Ford-Kinnick Leadership award, which gave reason to consider all of the recipient's worthy attributes. Griffin has been president and CEO of the Ohio State Alumni Association since 2004, and he serves on Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee's senior leadership team as the university's Vice President for Alumni Relations. He also does various work for charities and special-interest groups throughout the state of Ohio. And yet when recently asked about being bestowed with a leadership honor, Griffin first wanted to talk about the people the award is named after: Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States and former Michigan center and linebacker; and Nile Kinnick, the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner at Iowa, who died during a training flight as a Navy aviator during World War II.
"Both were great leaders and great names in Big Ten football," Griffin said. "To be able to receive an award that has their names on it was really a true honor for me."
Turning the spotlight toward others is not just a natural reaction for Griffin, the first player to start four Rose Bowls. Selflessness lies at the core of how he leads an Ohio State Alumni Association with more than 450,000 members around the world. It's why he created the Archie Griffin Scholarship Fund, which benefits the Olympic sports programs at Ohio State, and why he teamed with his wife, Bonita, to form the Archie and Bonita Griffin foundation Fund that contributes to the development of sports, educational, and travel programs for central Ohio youth.
"When I think of leadership, the first thing that comes to mind is caring," said Griffin, a father of three, whose son Adam plays defensive back at Ohio State. "All the people in my life who I considered leaders, one of the characteristics that has stood out the most about them is the fact that they cared a great deal about people. That to me is really what makes a leader stand apart. You can do all you want to do, but if the people you oversee don't believe in you or don't believe that you care about them, then it's all going to be in vain."
Caring has roots in commitment, discipline and honesty. Griffin, 58, learned that from his parents, Margret and James, who stressed education so much to their children that Archie and his six brothers and one sister all earned college degrees. Their father set an admirable tone by working three jobs at once, seven days a week. Such hard work was also stressed to Griffin by Bob Stuart, his football coach at Eastmoor High School (now Eastmoor Academy) in Columbus, Ohio. His junior high school guidance counselor, Oscar Gill, taught him the value of the three Ds: Desire, Dedication, Determination. The great Paul Brown, general manager of the Cincinnati Bengals when they selected Griffin in the first round of the 1976 NFL draft, stressed that his players all prepare for life after football. Griffin soaked up that advice during his seven NFL seasons with the Bengals, which included a Super Bowl appearance. And, of course, he learned much about leadership from his coach at Ohio State, the iconic Woody Hayes.
"One of the things Woody always talked about was doing things for others, helping other people, paying forward," Griffin said. "Those kinds of things just stick with you. I've noticed that a lot of guys who had an opportunity to play for him, that's what they're doing. They're paying forward, doing good things in the communities in which they live, and I know they got it from him. Woody was really special talking about how it's about the team, the whole team. One saying he always used to say, and it's so true, is that in a team situation, you are better than you think you are. In a team situation, everybody is in it together, everybody is playing for the same cause, and everybody has the same goals in mind. If you're part of a team, you don't want to let your teammates down. So quite naturally, you're going to work a little bit harder. You're not going to be the weak link on the team. With everybody working harder as a team, you do better. Then in team situations, sometimes you get individual recognition."
Griffin never considered himself a big talker as a player. As captain with the Buckeyes and Bengals, he led by example, working hard to spur on teammates, especially in bad times. Football taught him that life is about dealing with adversity, and moving forward is best accomplished with everyone rowing in the same direction. Being a leader is getting others to think about we instead of me.
"Your people are your best asset," Griffin said. "To me, that's all about making sure the people you work with are taken care of and making sure that you've got good relationships with them. That's making sure your people know that you're honest with them and that they know you care about them. Those things are important to people when you're trying to motivate them to do something you want them to do. And the other thing I think about all of the time is the golden rule: do unto others as you wish they would do unto you. Treat people right. If you treat people right, good things are going to happen."
Todd Jones, a Columbus Dispatch senior reporter, is a four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee who won the 2009 Pulliam First Amendment Award and 2010 Sunshine Award. He's twice been named best sports writer in Ohio, including this year.