When it comes to blazing trails for African Americans in sports, we, as D.C.-area residents, can proudly point to John Thompson. In 1982, he became the first black coach to take a team to the Final Four, and two years later, he became the first black coach to win a National Championship. Lee Elder competed in the Masters in 1975, the first man of color to do so. And K.C. Jones, who took the Bullets to the NBA finals in the same year, was among the first African American head coaches in the league.
However, when it comes to African American superstar athletes who competed here, there have been surprisingly few. And I'm talking about stars who transend the area - the type of player who's jersey is worn coast to coast. Michael Jordan was that guy in Chicago, but certainly wasn't that when he played for the Wizards from 2001-2003. You might make a case for Darrell Green, who spent 20 years with the Redskins, but he didn't carry the national sizzle that players like Barry Sanders, Michael Irvin and Randy Moss had during Green's incredible run. Patrick Ewing was one of the great stars in NBA history, but he did it with the New York Knicks - a much larger body of work than his four years at Georgetown. Yes I know Doug Williams was the first African American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, but he played here for only a few years.
In "The Great Book of Washington, D.C. Sports Lists", which I compiled with Len Shapiro four years ago, we put together the list of the top 100 D.C.-area athletes of all time. The top 10 includes five African American athletes. However, of that group, only Darrell Green, who's third, spent his entire career here. The others, Wes Unseld (4), spent the first half of his career in Baltimore, Sugar Ray Leonard (4), had few of his fights in town, Elgin Baylor (7), played only high school here and Ken Houston (8), had his best statistical years with the Houston Oilers. The five white guys we chose; Walter Johnson (1), Sammy Baugh (2), John Riggins (6), Sonny Jurgensen (9) and Randy White (10). Johnson and Baugh played their entire careers here. Riggins and Jurgensen were here for most of their careers. Only White, who is regarded as one of the best defensive linemen in college football history, spent the majority of his playing career out of town in Dallas after his career at Maryland.
Which brings us to the launch of Robert Griffin III's career as a Washington Redskin. If he continues what he started in New Orleans Sunday, RGIII may become that guy. In fact, Washington Post columnist Thom Boswell, has already stepped out on that limb by saying, "Robert Griffin III will be the most important and successful Redskin player since Sammy Baugh." Realize Baugh played 16 years with the Redkins and was named the best NFL player for the first half of the 20th century. That's a long haul away for RGIII. Still, his start is tantalizing.
Griffin's jersey was already a big seller and he'd piled up the endorsements before he ever took an NFL snap. Now that he's started to live up to the hype, you wonder how far this can go. Could we see Redskin number 10 jerseys, not just in town, but all over the country? Why not? Unlike Irvin and Moss, who had off the field issues, RGIII is everything you'd want your son to be. Who wouldn't his son, or for that matter, his daughter, to emulate the way the Heisman Trophy winner conducts himself? Kids will want the jersey and parents will want the kids to have the jerseys.
And jersey sales is just part of the picture. There's a great deal of civic pride in knowing that the superstar who plays in your town is revered around the country. On top of that, Griffin plays a position that was considered to be for whites only, until the last 15 years or so. Charlie Ward, who had similiar skills to RGIII, and won the Heisman at Florida State in 1993, spent his professional sports career playing basketball knowing he wouldn't get a fair shot to play quarterback in the NFL. We finally reached a point where Griffin's color was not a factor in where he was selected or what position he would play.
There's a Chicago Bulls fan, who happens to be African American, and blazed a new trail by moving in to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Barack Obama is now a Washingtonian who showed the rest of the country what is possible. This may be the time that Robert Griffin III starts to do the same.