From Brundidge to big time:

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 1, 2001

Local coaches, friends remember as Cornelius Griffin and the Giants prepare for Sunday


Sports Writer

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BRUNDIDGE – According to a Rand McNally road map, the actual distance between Brundidge, Ala. and Tampa, Fla. is 432 miles.

However, the distance traveled for former Pike County High School football star Cornelius Griffin was a much longer road to success. Throughout his life, everything Griffin wanted has been earned while overcoming adversity and numerous obstacles along the way. Yet at the same time, Griffin has been able to keep everything in perspective

On April 15, 2000, Griffin started to realize his dream of playing in the National Football League coming true when he was the 42nd player selected in the second round of NFL Draft by the New York Giants. Many draft experts including ESPN’s Mel Kiper considered the former University of Alabama star as one of the most underrated players on the board that could have an immediate significant impact.

Little did anyone know the Giant significance this small town kid from Brundidge would play in New York’s success. With all of the attention centered on the extravagant spending by Daniel Snyder and bitter NFC East rival Washington Redskins, very few people thought the Giants would be a factor within their own division.

Talk about the bargain of a lifetime!

When the draft came around last spring, no one really knew how good Griffin was – expect for Griffin and the Giants. The Giants had him in the Top 20 and never thought he would be available when they took him with the 42nd pick. Griffin (6-foot-3, 300) said he was confident he could get the job done and has never let anyone else’s words or opinions bring him down.

On Sunday afternoon, Griffin and the Giants will be playing in one of the world’s biggest spectacles while the Redskins will be sitting at home in the Nation’s Capitol.

While billions of people around the world will be watching, perhaps no place in America will be viewing the game with more interest than the folks in Brundidge when the NFC Champion Giants (14-4) face the AFC champion Baltimore Ravens (15-4) for the World Championship of Professional Football in Super Bowl XXXV. Kickoff is set for 5:25 p.m. Central Standard Time at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The game will be televised by CBS.

When Griffin was growing up in Brundidge, it was well known that he had the makings of a tremendous athlete with potential. However, unlike many athletes, Griffin did more to live up to his lofty expectations thanks to his strict Christian parental upbringing by his mother Martha, deceased father Willie B. Griffin, Jr. and his tremendous work ethic coming from a family of three brothers and four sisters who will be attending the game this weekend.

"Cornelius was obviously a phenomenal athlete," said John Ramage, the son of Brundidge mayor Jimmy Ramage who grew up with Griffin. " He was every bit as good in baseball and basketball. He could dunk a basketball backwards. But Cornelius’s success comes from his drive and determination. Cornelius has phenomenal speed for someone over 300 pounds. Cornelius is so driven due to his upbringing. His father was a phenomenal person and his mother was tremendous. Cornelius is a hard working individual because of his laser intensity at whatever he does."

Despite having to deal with the excessive media hype in New York, unlike at Tuscaloosa, Ramage said Griffin’s main objective is still the same – to win.

"The reason that New York fits with Cornelius is that it’s similar to Alabama in that they demand to win," Ramage said. "He works hard and pushes other people like he did at Alabama because he was the heart and soul of the defense. He made sure everyone else was better in that he made everyone else work that much harder."

Everywhere Griffin has played he’s been part of a winner whether he was in Brundidge, Tuscaloosa or New York. Griffin started his football career leading PCHS to four consecutive area titles and playoff appearances from 1991-94. After transferring from Pearl Junior College in Mississippi, Griffin led the Crimson Tide to a Southeastern Conference title in 1999. Now Griffin is one step away from helping the Giants win their third Super Bowl title (1986, 1990).

"You look back any of those games Cornelius played in and those squads were every bit as talented as the ’88 and ’89 state title teams," Ramage said.

One of Griffin’s greatest attributes is that he’s always been very coachable throughout his football career. During the regular season, Griffin slowly earned playing time at defensive tackle and at the end position. The Giants found that even for a rookie Griffin could switch from tackle to nose guard to end something many seasoned veterans cannot do.

Chip Wallace, who was the public address announcer at PCHS during Griffin’s high school career, said he credits his rise to stardom to where everything got started – in Brundidge.

"Cornelius had so much raw talent, but he’s had great coaching and a tremendous attitude," Wallace said. " (Pike County) Coach (Wayne) Grant had a tremendous influence on him because he worked really hard and made sure Cornelius had a good work ethic. He didn’t say all of that much, but he was so mature for kids his age. He played both ways, but Cornelius led by his play on the field and not by words."

Griffin had a breakthrough game in the sixth week of the season with a sack and two passes batted down in a 13-6 victory over Atlanta on Oct. 8.

He finished the season with 20 unassisted tackles, four solos and five sacks, an impressive total for someone who didn’t start a game.

Wallace said Griffin’s discipline along with his talent have led the way to an above average rookie season for the Giants.

"He found his niche and I think with his ability he’s one of the few people that has speed and agility for his size," Wallace said. "They liked him because of his size. He’s a disciplined player because he had good coaching in high school and college."

Perhaps Griffin’s national coming out party took place in the NFC Divisional Playoffs against the Philadelphia Eagles on Jan. 7 facing quarterback Donovan McNabb. Griffin contained McNabb’s running by collecting three tackles and 1 1/2 sacks to help the Giants to a 20-10 victory, which led to 41-0 whitewash over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game.

However, what sticks out in everyone’s mind about Griffin is how well mannered he is to go along with his tremendous attitude on and off the field.

Wallace said Griffin is still the same person in New York City today as he was while growing up in Brundidge.

"He had such a tremendous attitude (at PCHS) because he was always polite to other people," Wallace said. "His excellent attitude and upbringing in a small town and his respectfulness to other people really helped him. He had a lot of people such as Coach Grant and (former PCHS head) Coach (Michael) Beasley helping him along with his parents and they had an influence on him. He always answered "yes sir", "no sir", "yes ma’am" and "no ma’am" to other people."

Another reason why Griffin is so revered for someone at an early age, is the proper perspective he shows at handling his sudden lofty economic status.

Robert K.T. Cole of A.G. Edwards in Troy is Griffin’s financial advisor. Cole said making lots of money isn’t Griffin’s number one goal for why he’s playing professional football after a drunk driver killed his father nearly 2 1/2 years ago in Troy.

"He’d rather take care of his mother than make millions of dollars a year," Cole said. "He cares so much about people. His mother and daddy taught him right from wrong and to be his own man. Cornelius is the type of kid that still keeps his eyes on his goals. When you come from a small town and all of the sudden you have a million dollars, it takes a special person to be able to deal with it. I haven’t detected one change in Cornelius Griffin’s life. He wants to give back to his community. "

Grant, who was Griffin’s coach during his freshman year in 1991, said the 24-year-old took time out of his busy schedule showing the current group of PCHS players the value of hard work by being a role model.

"He came back last summer and did some workout with us running with the varsity players on the football field where he played his high school football," Grant said. "It was amazing to watch someone so agile and big. He has a great attitude toward working and he provided leadership for the younger players inspiring them to do the same things he’s accomplished."

As far as Sunday’s game is concerned, many people are expecting it to be a defensive struggle with the Ravens and the Giants posting the top two rushing defenses in the NFL. Griffin, who is one of the first reserves to come of the bench, will play a pivotal role for the Giants in a game that is expected to emphasize defense, field position and turnovers.

Regardless of the outcome, there will be lots of emotion when the Giants come out of the RJS tunnel just shortly before kickoff.

Major Lane, who was an assistant coach at Pike County when Griffin was a freshman and sophomore in the early 1990s, said he would feel a sense of pride when the Giants take the field in front of close to 70,000 fans.

"I’m going to be very thrilled saying that one of the players I coached had a positive impact," Lane said. "I always feel that way about Cornelius because of his caring attitude, work ethic, determination, love of family and his God."

Grant said Griffin would feel as if he’s on the top of his profession should the Giants prevail.

"That’s the ultimate goal everyone who works into the program is to play in a Super Bowl. So few have that opportunity," Grant said.

On Dec. 3, the Giants may have saved their season when they held on to beat the Redskins 9-7 in a critical NFC East battle that propelled New York to this point. Perhaps Griffin and the Giants are a team of destiny without using any shortcuts to success.

For Griffin, the success is only beginning for a small town south Alabama boy making it in The Big Apple.