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Sports
January 9, 2024

FIRST IN, LAST OUT

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Being a football commentator isn’t so different from being a player. Admittedly, there’s less risk of injury, but you need many of the same qualities to succeed on air as you do on the field—quick reactions, encyclopedic knowledge of both sides’ plays and a commitment to teamwork.
Not everyone makes the transition from the gridiron to the studio successfully, however. Among those who have done so is two-time Super Bowl winner Howard Griffith. Following 11 years in the NFL—Carolina Panthers, Los Angeles Rams, Denver Broncos—he has become a respected broadcaster with the Big Ten Network.
Griffith attributes that winning move to the same factors that fueled his playing achievements—determination, dedication and a splash of humility. He speaks warmly of the many coaches who played an important role in his life—none more than Chicago Public Schools coaching legend Dr. J.W. Smith (see sidebar). He also recalls how college coach John Mackovic would put the team up in four- and five-star hotels when they traveled.
It was Mackovic’s way of saying, “This is the way you want to be able to travel. These are some of the things that you should want to be able to attain for your family. I want to show what you can do if you go out and do the right thing,” Griffith recalls. He is thankful for “so many coaches that really gave me the opportunity to maximize my skillset and what I wanted to do.
“One of the great things about coaches is they have an opportunity to mold so many people, and teachers are the same way. They have an opportunity to really go out and show young people what they can do, and they can help you achieve all the dreams that you could possibly want to achieve.”
Arriving at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on a football scholarship, Griffith knew that the academic demands were going to be a stretch for him. “I needed to be really upfront and honest with myself and my professors that, ‘Hey, I’m going to need some help. I’m going to get it done, but I’m going to need extra help.’ And I didn’t wait until that last week before midterms and the last week before finals to ask.”
‘Tough pill’
As “a Black kid coming off the South Side of Chicago,” Griffith recognized that he didn’t have much in common with the general student body at the university at that time.
He embraced the discipline needed to manage his studies and the rest of his life, to be sure to bring his best to training and games. “You have to really understand why you’re there and what your ultimate goals are,” he says. “If you don’t perform [in practice], you’re not going to play. And if you don’t play, you’re not going to be able to achieve your goals of possibly becoming an all-conference player or going on to play in the National Football League.”
Griffith also made some adjustments to ensure he achieved his dream of playing in the NFL. Though he’d been a standout tailback in college, when he turned pro he knew he wasn’t as fast as some of the other guys out there. And then a coach suggested he try fullback.
“Now, nobody wants to play the fullback position, because they never get the ball,” Griffith says. But “I wanted a career in the NFL, so I couldn’t be stubborn… I had to make that transition and it was a tough pill to swallow, but my desire to play and have a career outweighed the so-called ‘sacrifice’ that I was going to have to make.”
Actually, this was Griffith’s second opportunity to make that decision. His high school coach had asked him to make the same move, to create room for someone else on the team, but “the arrogance that I had at that time didn’t allow me to do that.” Griffith ended up transferring to another school. “It’s funny how things ultimately came full circle for me,” he says now. “I just wonder what differences would [it] have made in my career earlier had I embraced that [back then].”
The fullback move turned out to be a good one, earning Griffith those two Super Bowl rings and the nickname “The Human Plow” with the Broncos, before a neck injury prompted his retirement in 2002.
Griffith had been interested in broadcast since back in high school, when local reporters interviewed him. During his career he talked with some of the journalists he interacted with about their jobs, finding out what was involved. Getting into the media world wasn’t instant or glamorous. He started out by calling some Colorado Crush arena team games, one time earning a $25 gift card for his services. “But I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he says. “Ultimately it comes down to you finding what you want to be passionate about and doing that.”
‘No off days’
But you don’t succeed just because you enjoy something—you have to give it your everything. Discipline often sounds kind of negative to young people, he acknowledges, but it’s essential. “You have to be dedicated to what it is you’re doing,” Griffith adds. “And it’s not just on the field, it’s off the field as well, the decisions you have to be able to make.”
Take when he made it to the NFL, he says. “It was about making a choice… every Tuesday was an off-day, but I never took the day off. I was always in the facility, watching film, working out and I would always get in there early.”
With the Broncos, a Sunday victory meant players didn’t have to be back until Wednesday, “but we never took those days off. Most of the team would be there on Mondays and Tuesdays, getting in the work that they needed to get in, the film study and understanding that next opponent, because that’s the only edge you can get.”
Part of that first-to-arrive-last-to-leave drive was a recognition of the fact that a professional athlete’s career is only so long, so it was important to make the most of the time. “I never wanted to look back and have any regrets,” he says of his playing days, “because you know it can end at any time.”
That’s a philosophy that still drives him. Griffith approaches his media job the same way he did playing. He’s always early; he’ll be there three hours ahead of showtime to prepare, look over his notes and calm himself. “Being first into the building was one of the things that has really helped me throughout my broadcast career, because… it says something,” he observes.
Having played for several different teams, Griffith remarks about the different cultures he experienced and how they shaped performance. “When I want to look at a team and understand what they’re doing, I go look at the locker room and look at their bathrooms,” he says. “That tells me everything I need to know about the culture of that organization.”
He remembers everyone at the Broncos, from the maintenance team to the landscaping crew, wanting to be the best, a standard set by coach Mike Shanahan and owner Pat Bowlen. “It’s not leaving stuff laying around,” Griffith says. “It’s taking care of yourself. It’s taking pride.”
He warns others looking to transition from playing to the media that it’s a different world. “You’re not getting coached the way you’re used to being coached,” he says. As a player, you get immediate feedback on what you did, right or wrong. Not in television. “So what happens is if you’ve come in and you’re not prepared, you’re not doing anything, a producer will say, ‘Well, I can’t really work with him because he’s not prepared’ and they just don’t call you back. You have to be self-motivated and, again, discipline comes back into that.”
From an interview with Louis Carr
This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.