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Carrying Ohio

COLUMBUS, Ohio - If you spend the day with Archie Griffin, who is shocked that his 15 minutes of fame is still going 24/7 in the information age, you get one of that endangered species known as American Originals.

You get one of those rare photo ops in his corner office above the sprawling Ohio State campus when Griffin, the heart of Buckeye Nation, meets Miss Sweetheart Ohio.

Just so nine-year-old Kristen Nguyen doesn't think this is just another important person in a big office, Dick Jones tells his granddaughter on the ride over from nearby Westerville that there are just three people in Ohio State football history that need no last name.

Hopalong. Woody. Archie.

Woody is gone and Hop spends some of his time in Florida. But no one before or since has won two Heisman Trophies and no one is on the horizon still.

So it is Archie that gets the requests from total strangers to appear at weddings and sign their Buckeyes toilet seats and answer their kids' notebook-paper-letters when it is time to do a report on the most famous people in Ohio.

"He's even had some requests," says Mary Basinger, his assistant, as she lowers her voice, "to visit people on their deathbed."

! **Archie and Kristen.** (Rick Harrison, Ohio State Alumni Association)

The request on this day is a bit simpler. Dick Jones has strict instructions from his daughter, Kristen's mom, to get this picture right. Jones, a 1970 OSU grad, saw Griffin play many times but this is the first time he shakes his hand. When Griffin suggests they pose in front of his bookcase for a backdrop, Jones jokes they should "go across the street."

"Across the street" is the Woody Hayes Athletic Complex, home of Griffin's Heismans.

"You want to do that? We can do that," says Griffin as he heads for his coat.

"No, just kidding," Jones says.

Later, Jones has no doubt.

"No question," Jones says. "Archie was ready. He would have done that."

Which is why even though next month it will be 33 years since Griffin racked up the last of his 31 straight 100-yard rushing games and he received the Heisman again, he still signs. Even though he last carried the ball for the Bengals in 1983, fans still ask. Even though his No. 45 has been retired for nearly a decade, people still admire. A little grayer, a little heavier, but not very much, Griffin has gone from converting third downs into firsts to converting the past into the future with dollars and diplomacy.

"Could you think of a more perfect guy for a more perfect job?" asks Mike Bartoszek, one of Griffin's tight ends that helped pave the way for the Heismans. "Is there anybody more accessible or down to earth?"

Indeed, the title on the door is president and CEO of the Ohio State Alumni Association. But his job, really, is to be Archie Griffin. What other Heisman winner, indeed, what other college athlete, is still so identified with not only his school, but his state? Straight off the Chip Hilton fictional bookshelf in an era of tell-all tabloids, he's still a comfort.

How much money has he raised for kids and the college?

Add together the annual alumni golf outing (where he putts with every group on the 18th green) with the Archie Griffin Endowment for sports other than football and basketball, and it is the only dollar number that dwarfs his Heismans.

"Could you set up another conference call on Nov. 12 at 9:00 with the same group?" Griffin asks Basinger as he bounces off tackle out of his office.

But there is always someone trying to get a piece of him. From former presidents all the way down to lowly sports writers.

One day a few years ago it was Bill Clinton who came to campus to give the commencement address and requested to meet Griffin. Griffin had hoped to shake his hand at one point after the ceremony, but there was Clinton coming to his part of the line with his hand out before they took the stage.

But on this day, it is a mere sports scribe that mentions Cincinnati could use his 4.1-yards-per carry for the 2,808 yards he had in eight seasons as a Bengal right now and he shakes his head. He went 0-8 with the '78 Bengals.

"That's got to be tough, especially without Carson," he says before his cell phone rings and he's back into the office.

But over lunch he'll talk about the '81 Super Bowl Bengals, Forrest Gregg, and how his teammates used to scare the heck out of him by putting little stuffed animals in his locker.

Griffin's lunch gets postponed so Basinger thinks he'll enjoy the rare opening to himself before spending his afternoon in meetings and interviews.

! **Griffin works at his desk as CEO of the Ohio State Alumni Association.** (Rick Harrison, Ohio State Alumni Association)

But when he hears some of the guys from the office are going to have lunch at the Scarlet and Gray Golf Course, he not only goes, but he picks up the tab for guys like his communications chief Jay Hansen, top fundraiser Andy Gurd, and art director Rick Harrison, the photographer that says he's taken more pictures of Griffin than his kids.

"That's Archie," says Gurd, a Cleveland-area native who played linebacker for the Bucks 20 years ago. "You wouldn't know if he was a backup running back who never made it out of college or he won the Heisman twice."

Bartoszek, who can hit a golf ball back to the '75 Rose Bowl that Curt Gowdy kept fouling up his name, says Griffin is more than a fair golfer. Word out at the course is that once after Griffin ducked his drive about 80 yards OB, he looked up and said, "Hey, I didn't win the Heismans for golf."

That's why they keep asking and why he keeps signing.

"I'm certainly Midwest. I was born right over there," says Griffin of the day 54 years ago, pointing in the direction of the OSU Medical Center. "I don't fall very far from the tree. This is what I know. This is what I like. It just fits."

Griffin has a 45 on his license plate, but it's in small print courtesy of the dealer, and his Jeep fits him, too. Nothing too flashy and he's got it punched to AM radio.

"Our flagship station," he says. "If you want to see where I grew up, just say the word. We can drive by."

Griffin is the flagship name of one of the nation's flagship programs, a hometown guy that led Eastmoor High to the Columbus city title before Woody talked him out of going to Northwestern or the Naval Academy.

It is the time of year in a state where you can be reminded that some close to Richard Nixon always felt his tight win over John F. Kennedy in Ohio during his failed 1960 bid for the presidency could be traced to Woody's endorsement.

But Griffin wouldn't endorse anyone in this or any other November.

"We talked about it the day after the election," Hansen says. "He just feels everyone ought to study the issues for themselves and make up their own minds instead of being swayed by somebody else's opinion."

And there are these moments you wonder how huge of an endorsement it would be.

On Griffin's desk is a note from a kid about 10 years old that comes complete with a drawing of a football player and a photo of the kid with the Heismans. Griffin had seen him over at the Woody and got his picture taken with him and this was Griffin's thank you.

"He's a Buckeye fan. He's got the Heisman pose. Look at him. He's got his Buckeye jacket on and he's just enjoying the whole works," Griffin says. "If you had told me back in 1975 and 1976 that the things that happened to me would still be happening, I would have said no way in the world. I don't know why. Yes, having two (Heismans) has something to do with it. But I like to believe that I like people and that I've struck up good relationships with people. I can tell you that Ohio State is a good match for me and I'd like to think I'm a good match for Ohio State."

After he arrived at OSU as an assistant athletic director in the late '80s, Griffin says he came close to leaving just once, when the AD job at the University of Cincinnati was vacant. When the Alumni Association called four years ago looking for a new chief, he assumed it was just a call to see what alumni wanted in a new president and CEO. When they called a week later to see if he was interested, he and his wife started to talk about it knowing that the previous guy had been in there for 30 years.

"So it must be a good job and it has been a terrific job," he says. "You deal with not only the best alumni in the country because they are so interested in their school, but you're dealing with all aspects of the university. We deal with almost every dean on campus, and we've got the alumni advisory council to the university president as well as 225 clubs across the country, and 55 special interest groups."

Griffin has a staff of about 50 working for him in the Longaberger Alumni House and two of them, editor Lynne Bonenberger and assistant editor Connie Wanstreet of the alumni magazine, meet with him often in his conference room that is connected to his office. "Publisher" is another one of Griffin's titles and on this day he greets them with "How y'all doing?" and is talking about his debate with Hansen about french fries in certain campus eateries.

Hansen insists that Griffin's hiring changed the alumni association. Not that it was a sleeping giant before he arrived because it is an independent entity that raises its own funds, but he has raised the profile and that includes the magazine. His "Welcome From Archie" is on the first page.

"When Archie was named our CEO, I felt now we'll have to have a media presence," Wanstreet says. "We'll have to have somebody deal with that. Because before we took a low profile on purpose. Now we get to say some of what we do, and that never really came out before."

Wanstreet admits she can aggravate folks at times and, yes, maybe she'll aggravate the unaggravatable Griffin.

"These folks are very creative. They don't aggravate me. I learn from the things they say and their ideas," Griffin says. "You need to have all perspectives to have a successful magazine. I think that's what separates our magazine."

Griffin says he doesn't want the magazine "just to cheerlead" for OSU and the editors are proud that they haven't avoided controversial topics such as alternative lifestyles and climate change. On this day, the subject is a bit more tame, memories of High Street down through the years, and Bonenberger is having a heck of a time getting anything out of Griffin from those "high" times of the '70s.

He just didn't go down there much. He admits it's a much better environment now because there are more restaurants than bars, but he can't help with the memories.

"Woody always told us something that stuck with me even when I went to Cincinnati," he says. "If you're well known and you frequent some of those places, the bars and what not, sooner or later you're going to get into a skirmish. You get alcohol involved and somebody is going to test you to show your manhood. I made it a point not to put myself in those situations. I made a conscious effort."

It's not the last time he quotes Hayes on this day. Griffin's Ohio State pitch is easy because it's his pitch on how the school gave him every opportunity to succeed. He says he took to heart what Hayes told his players about giving back.

Griffin rushed for an OSU-record 5589 yards in his Buckeyes career. (Wireimage)
"Paying forward. Doing things to help others. He talked about it all the time," Griffin says. "It used to drive us nuts at times. He was always getting on us about going into the middle schools and high schools and talking to the kids about going to college. I'm glad he did that because the young should get that message. A day doesn't go by that I'm not reminded about something he said. It's the same way I think of my father."

Bonenberger does get some Buckeye Donuts memories out of Griffin and he remembers going to watch Billy Preston and the Ohio Players at what is now known as The Newport. He also reminisces about the digs he had in the old Jim Thorpe Apartments off Seventh Avenue with teammates Cornelius Greene and Steve Luke.

"Plaid leather," he says of the furnishings.

This is why his editors call Griffin "a day brightener," but Wanstreet hopes there isn't a wrong impression.

"There's a lot of depth to Archie that I hope people realize," she says. "You can't have an empty front man. He's solid. He's got an inquisitive mind and he's good with numbers. It can't just be for show."

Which means Griffin can never be off. Even when he's out of the country, where he has gone on several alumni trips, such as this past spring's 17-day jaunt to South Africa. He just can't have a bad day. Archie has to be Archie.

The subject comes up at his next meeting, where staffer Angela McBride updates him on the new premium sports trip program. The idea is to get alumni together for junkets to top sports events, such as the Super Bowl and Final Four. The experiment begins this spring with The Masters.

But being with Griffin is never an experiment.

"He's never off," Hansen says, "because that's the way he is."

"It's become a way of life. I think that's the best way to put it," Griffin says. "I don't shy away from anything. I won't let it keep me from going anywhere or doing thing we like to do if I'm with my wife, my family and my friends. I won't let the fact that someone might come up and say something or ask for an autograph stop me. You have to live your life. That's who I am. It's been that way for a long time. I've known people who shied away from public places because they don't want to be a part of it."

The office tries to protect him. Many of them have taken turns "being the bad guy" whenever they go anywhere with him because Griffin never says no. When they saw how much time he spent signing autographs, they finally convinced him to charge $25 a pop for the scholarship fund. Not when he's out, or if there is a visitor to the office, but once every three weeks or so his assistant, Chuck McMurray, gathers enough things to fill a conference room, and Griffin spends about an hour signing anywhere from 50 to 150 items ranging from bird houses to cornhole games and everything in between. Often times he'll have to step outside and sign a motor bike or van.

McMurray, a former manager for Ohio Bell who helped recruit Griffin to Ohio State, can compare him to only one guy. McMurray, 83, used to line up speaking engagements for the great Jesse Owens.

"That's the closest that anyone has come to what Archie is now," says McMurray of his presence at the school and in Ohio.

Owens became the most famous American Olympian with blinding speed. Griffin won his two Heismans more with agility and vision than speed and more than the requisite toughness.

"He was the fastest guy I ever saw go side to side," Bartoszek says. "We had about nine to 10 guys that could beat him in a race. But you couldn't catch him when he made a move. He wasn't that big (maybe 5-9, 200 pounds), but he could run over guys because they were expecting him to make the cut to the side."


"You know the turf toe that kept Beanie Wells out for two games?" asks Bartoszek of the current Bucks back. "Archie had that one week. He couldn't walk on Monday and he went out there on Saturday and got something like 168 (yards)."

One thing Beanie and Griffin have in common is their favorite NFL player is Jim Brown. Except Griffin saw him play on TV and got drafted by Jim Brown's coach.

That happened to be Paul Brown, the former OSU national title coach who was the general manager of the Bengals when they took him in the first round in '76. Griffin wonders if he might have had more of an impact in the NFL if he had gone to more of a running team or if Gregg hadn't changed the philosophy of the offense, but he's still happy with the pick.

"That's where I wanted to go," Griffin says. "I wanted to keep playing my ball in Ohio. Paul Brown was a legend, an innovator. The veterans would talk about him as a coach and how much respect they had for him and how much they admired him. I've always said I wish I had the opportunity to play for him."

Griffin currently stands eighth on the Bengals all-time rushing list with 2808 yards. (Sports Illustrated)
Griffin would talk football with Brown on the sidelines but the conversation he remembers the most is the one where Brown told him he'd been elected to the Ohio State Hall of Fame.

"We were playing Denver at home that week and he gave me that Saturday off to come up here and be recognized," Griffin says. "He told me I didn't have to be back until the Saturday night meeting. He didn't have to do that. I'll always remember that."

Paul Brown's grandson also held Griffin in high esteem. When he was about eight years old or so, there was some concern his family wouldn't keep a cat. So he named it "Archie," knowing full well they couldn't possibly get rid of it. And they didn't.

"Archie," says Harry Shade "is Ohio State."

Shade, a 1982 OSU grad, is now standing in Griffin's office waiting for another photo op. His daughter, Melinda Shade, now attends the OSU branch in Newark and won an Ohio High School Sports Association sportsmanship award last year while at Alter. But she's driving across town late because there was a line to vote.

"She's worried about keeping Archie waiting," Shade says. "But it doesn't seem to bother him."

Griffin waves him off and offers Shade and his other daughter, Tammy, a water or soda while finishing off a phone call with former Bengals teammate Ross Browner.

Griffin's mates always have a line to him. Just before Browner calls, John Hicks, the best known of his Buckeye blockers, checks in to talk about the school's effort to draw one of the upcoming Final Fours for women's basketball."

Melinda Shade, who is playing basketball at Newark, arrives promptly and Griffin reminisces about his intramural hoop days in college before fast-forwarding to how tough the requirements are in Melinda's major to get accepted to the main campus.

"But I should be here in the spring," she says and Griffin tells her, "Make sure you stop by and see us."

Also on the agenda this day is a drive-home radio interview on Cleveland's ESPN radio station WKNR with Mark Bishop. Of course, Griffin knows him well enough to call him by his nickname of "Munch."

"Munch, it was a tough one," he says of the loss to Penn State the Saturday before. And he makes sure he talks up Gurd on his home radio waves.

"Andy is one of our stars," Griffin says.

The day is wrapping up and it's a rare day indeed because he'll be free at night. He figures he's got a night commitment two or three times a week, but on this night he'll be able to spend some time with his youngest of three children, Adam, a junior running back at Division II state power DeSales High School.

Archie missed Adam's mega game in Cincinnati when his 100-yard performance included a punt return for a touchdown in a defeat of defending state champ Anderson.

The Buckeyes were at USC that weekend, and Archie missed another game because the Bucks were home against Penn State. He also missed one because of a black tie dinner honoring alums of achievement.

"But that should be it," Archie says, "and I won't miss any in the playoffs."

A day, a conversation, a hello, with Griffin always begins and ends with the Heisman. He hasn't kept up with the stats of the defender, Florida's Tim Tebow, but while most everyone counts him out, Griffin says, "I still think he's got a shot."

"Someone will win it again twice and I hope I'm alive to congratulate them," he says. "I think I will be. I'm surprised it hasn't happened already."

He knows it won't lessen his accomplishment as the first double winner.

"Not at all," he says. "I'm proud of it because I think it reflects the type of teams I played on."

Then he went back to the letters on his desk thanking those who played in the alumni golf tournament.

A few more autographs and Archie Griffin clocks out another day working as Archie Griffin.  

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