There were days in late 1988 when Eric Griffin feared he was losing his marbles. "My mind was going crazy," says the 24-year-old light flyweight boxer. "My life had fallen apart. I had lost everything, and I just went nuts."
Tossed and turned by insomnia, he would wake up some mornings at four o'clock, only a few hours after returning from his job as a dishwasher, pull on his sweats and run seven miles along the darkened streets of south Houston. Back home he would bolt awake again after an hour's nap and jostle his older brother, Tony, to work out with him. "My brother would hold up his hands and spar with me," Griffin says. "We didn't have any pads. And sometimes I would go crazy with him—start to wrestle and throw him on the ground. He'd say to me, 'I don't care how much you hit me or slap me. I'm going to get you back like you want to be. We're going to get it off your mind.' "
There were nights when Griffin would hang his heavy bag from a tree not far from his apartment and bathe the ground around it in a spotlight. "I would run the spotlight on a generator with a battery and train right under that tree," he says. "I would cry when I trained. I would try to bust the bag, hitting it five or six rounds, and then I would kick the bag, trying to bust it, and push it and throw it. I was just berserk."
It was thus he tried to chase the demons chasing him. Shortly after the Olympic trials in July 1988 Griffin, then the second-ranked American in the 106-pound class, was training in Las Vegas for a match in the Box-off against top-ranked Michael Carbajal for the right to represent the U.S. in that class in Seoul. When U.S. boxing officials said they wanted to see him, Griffin worried that something might have happened to a loved one back home—to a member of his family or to Robert Jordan, the Houston computer executive who had become more like a father to him than any man he had ever known.
"Eric, you have a problem," Colonel Don Hull, president of the USA Amateur Boxing Federation, told him.
"What's the problem?" the young man asked.
"In the drug test taken at the trials, you came up positive for marijuana. We are suspending you from the Box-off."
The suspension was for six months. Not only had Griffin blown the chance for which he had been training the last four years, but within the week he was out of Jordan's life and on his own, without the man to watch over him, with just the spotlight in the tree to show the way. "I thought things would never come back like they had been," says Griffin. "I thought I would never come back."
Almost four years later, to be sure, the man is back. Griffin's suspension was lifted in January 1989, and he has since won four consecutive world championships at 106 pounds—from '89 through '92. Some observers judge him to be the finest amateur boxer in the world, a methodical, accurate puncher whose style is perfectly suited to the new international rules in which punches are counted by computer.
"I'm going to win the Olympics," Griffin says. "As an amateur the only thing left for me is the gold. I always wanted to be something. And now I am."