The last thing strong safety Robert Griffith needed to deal with last Thursday—only two days before the Minnesota Vikings' NFC divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints—was a missing acupuncturist. Sitting in a meeting room at the Vikings' practice facility in Eden Prairie, Minn., Griffith punched one number after another into his cell phone, trying to find out why his favorite needier had missed his flight from San Diego to Minneapolis.
Certainly another acupuncturist could have been found in the Twin Cities, but Griffith swears by his guy. Furthermore, Griffith had promised the man's services to eight teammates who were also looking for a little relief, and he dreaded the thought of letting them down. That caretaker attitude has helped make the 30-year-old Griffith one of the best players at his position, and on Saturday it helped the Vikings move within one victory of the Super Bowl. In eliminating New Orleans from the title chase with its 34-16 victory, Minnesota was aggressive, inspired and cocky. In other words, the Vikings bore no resemblance to the team that limped into the playoffs with three straight losses.
On Minnesota's third play from scrimmage, quarterback Daunte Culpepper hooked up with wideout Randy Moss for a 53-yard touchdown, the first of Culpepper's three scoring passes. Moss and fellow wideout Cris Carter had 100-yard receiving games against the NFL's eighth-ranked defense. The Vikings' line didn't allow a sack by the team that had a league-high 66 during the regular season. Most important, the Minnesota defense—which had surrendered 104 points during the three-game skid and ranked 28th in the league—limited the Saints to 123 yards as the Vikings rolled to a 24-3 lead early in the third quarter. "We're getting hot on defense, and the teams that get hot defensively advance," Griffith said afterward. "This race is wide open, and we're one of the teams left."
That's largely because of the efforts of Griffith, who has replaced lineman John Randle as Minnesota's marquee defender. Though he had only two tackles against New Orleans, Griffith was all over the field helping teammates make plays. "Griff is smart, knows when to take chances and is the emotional leader of that defense," says Saints tight end Andrew Glover, who played three seasons with Griffith in Minnesota.
The Vikings lost five safety Orlando Thomas to a strained left hamstring in the second quarter, and three cornerbacks were hampered by injuries. Griffith was the lone constant in the secondary in the second half. He often raced from one defensive back to the next, pointing, shouting, trying to make sure everyone was aligned correctly. "Griff is our warrior," defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas said after the game. "He made the checks. We blitzed him. We played him at weakside linebacker and four or five other spots in our coverages. That's the kind of guy he is. He's tenacious and sharp."
Such performances have become the norm for Griffith, who plays as if he's one mistake from the waiver wire. He knows no other way, mostly because he was given little chance to get this far. Though Griffith went from walk-on to three-year starter at San Diego State, he wasn't even offered a free-agent NFL contract coming out of college in 1993. With the Aztecs he was a 185-pound monster back, a strong safety-outside linebacker hybrid who was thought to be too small to play linebacker professionally and not skilled enough to play in the secondary.
Griffith caught on with the Sacramento Gold Miners during the CFL season that year and after one week was traded to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He didn't get into a game with either team. By then Griffith had started thinking about a career outside of football, and he persuaded Saskatchewan to let him leave with three games remaining on the schedule and return to San Diego State to pursue his degree in electrical engineering. While on campus he trained with the Aztecs' track team and mulled over his options, the most viable of which appeared to be a $40,000 offer to work at Teledyne, a defense-industry-oriented conglomerate he had interned with the previous summer. "I was making $37,000 in the CFL," Griffith says, "so I figured I'd play another season up there and shop my [highlight] tape around the NFL, and if it didn't work out, I would move up the ladder with Teledyne."
Then, in April 1994, Griffith received a phone call that changed everything. Looking for more speed and attitude on his coverage and return units, Minnesota coach Dennis Green had hired Gary Zauner to coach his special teams. As an assistant at Long Beach State, Zauner had coached against Griffith, and after a game in Griffith's junior year Zauner had tracked him down on the field and told him, "If I ever get a job in the NFL, you're going to play for me." Zauner was true to his word, and Griffith finished third on the Vikings in special teams tackles in '94. He became a starter two years later and, except for missing two games that year with a dislocated right shoulder, hasn't been out of the lineup since.
Even though he's only 5'11" and 198 pounds, Griffith is one of the NFL's fiercest hitters, but in his first training camp he got carried away. He drew the ire of Carter after knocking him down as he ran a crossing route. Carter spiked the ball in anger, but that didn't faze Griffith; as far as he was concerned, he was there to stay. "He really wanted to impress people when he got here," Zauner says. "He's always been physical, but when he popped guys in practice, he would almost lay them out. More than a few coaches had to tell him to calm down."
Griffith has had at least 100 tackles in each of his five years as a starter, but recognition didn't come until last month when he was selected to play in his first Pro Bowl. The news came as a surprise to Griffith, who despite amassing 103 tackles and an interception this season didn't think his play stacked up well against his work in previous years. In fact, when Green announced that a defender was among the seven Vikings headed to Honolulu, Griffith assumed that player was Randle, who has made six Pro Bowl appearances.