A look back at the nation's only two-time Heisman Trophy winner and his extraordinary family: eight athletic scholarships, eight college degrees, three NFL players—and two heroic parents
Editor’s note: In honor of Archie Griffin’s 65th birthday on Wednesday Aug. 21, we’re republishing our 1984 cover story about him, his seven siblings and the remarkable parents who raised them.
The boys could always see mom and dad. It didn't matter whether they were playing in high school, college, or the pros. The Griffin boys could look up from the football field and pick their parents out of the crowd every time, even at Ohio Stadium where the stands were clogged with people. "You wave and let 'em know you're there," says Margaret Griffin, the mother.
They knew. Through years of games, important and meaningless, the Griffin boys knew their parents were in the stands, cheering them. When they were little, their mother would drive them to and from practice, while James Griffin, their father, would take vacation time from the two and three jobs he worked simultaneously, just to see his sons play football.
Seven sons. Each was a football star at some or all levels of play. The family lineup includes James Jr., 36, who was a halfback for Muskingum College; Larry, 34, a fullback at Louisville; Daryle, 32, a cornerback at Kent State; Archie, 30, a legend out of OSU's backfield; Raymond 28, a defensive back at OSU; Duncan, 27, also a defensive player at OSU; and Keith, 23, a star running back at Miami. And then there's the youngest child, the only girl, Krystal, 19—currently a member of the track team at Drake in Des Moines.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Archie, of course, was one of the greatest college football players of all time. He won the Heisman Trophy twice, a feat that no one else ever accomplished.
Along with Archie, both Raymond and Keith became professional football players: Archie and Raymond with the Cincinnati Bengals and Keith with the Washington Redskins. Few families in the country can boast of three sons who played in the NFL. And people believe some or all of the other brothers might have been good enough to turn pro themselves.
Each Griffin received an athletic scholarship, including Krystal. And when she graduates in two years, each of the eight Griffins will have earned a college degree.
“I’ve never seen a better family than the Griffins,” says Woody Hayes. “Never.”
And former Gov. James A. Rhodes, in a luncheon honoring the Griffins years ago at which then-First Lady Betty Ford was a guest, looked at the president’s wife and said, “You may be the first lady of the country, but the Griffins are the first family of Ohio.”
The boys were in the spotlight for years, each breaking a record, winning an award, being named an All-Something-or-other. But while the Griffin sons were on a podium or seated at a dais to accept acclamation for whatever accomplishment they’d pulled off, people invariably would gaze at the Griffin parents—usually beaming in the background—and shake their heads in wonder.
How did these two, these children of the coal camps of West Virginia, how did they manage to produce a family like this? They were working class, high school-educated people who raised their children during a time of rebellion, race rioting and widespread drug abuse. Yet each Griffin boy grew up unscathed by the troubles that felled so many of their peers in the ’60s and ’70s.
They are all married, save for Krystal, and starting families of their own. By all accounts, everyone gets along, everyone expresses respect and love for one another. These are stable, solid people. They’ve won awards and football games, sure, but they’ve also grown up with their heads on right.
“It’s rather an astonishing family,” says Citizen-Journal sports columnist Kaye Kessler, who’s known the Griffins for years. “But without the parents, without that background, the kids would never have made it.”
Margaret Griffin is sitting in the family den of her Berwick home. She is watching OSU blow its game with Wisconsin, and she is not pleased. Mark Harrison, who had been her son Keith’s teammate at Eastmoor High School, is running all over the Buckeyes. James Sr., sitting next to his wife, can’t believe it. “Did Wisconsin score again?” he wants to know.
Football means a lot to this couple. The fact is reflected throughout the comfortable room. This is the family’s trophy room, which holds a collection of 198 trophies, awards and plaques, along with one of Archie’s two Heismans.
They are glittering, tangible reminders of eight different athletic careers, But Margaret Griffin also remembers the dirty uniforms she had to wash and the training table she had to set. She’s not complaining, though. Margaret was there for the duration, from the days of grimy sweat socks to the luncheons at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City.
Around Columbus, they honored her with a simple bumper sticker that Buckeye fans sported on their cars: “Thank you, Mrs. Griffin” was what it said. Thanks aren’t necessary, she says with her easy smile. She just had her babies and took care of them. Simple.
“I probably could have been a nurse if I didn’t have so many kids,” says Margaret. “But I just didn’t want to leave them. I wasn’t satisfied unless I was there myself.”
And she was, day after day. “I consider mom the backbone of the family,” says son Daryle, now an executive with AT&T in Chicago. “She was always there. She taught me a lot in terms of life and dealing with people. She taught me how to cook and how to survive.”
While Marget worked at home, James was holding down a number of jobs. After eight years as a coal miner and then a try at running a small grocery, James worked for a foundry, the Columbus department of sanitation and the city school board (as a custodian). For a while, he worked all three jobs at the same time. These days, of course, he’s past 60 and taking it easy by working just two jobs at once.
His sons remember the old days, when their father would exist on four or sometimes no hours of sleep. “I wouldn’t see him much, except at our games,” says Archie, now acting assistant director in OSU’s department of staff employment. But the father’s influence was there.
“Our father was keeping everything together, mostly by example,” says Duncan, who works at Nationwide Insurance Companies.
“My father cared dearly about the family,” says Daryle. “He just made sure we were taken care of.”
James told his children that as long as they studied and practiced sports, he wouldn’t ask them to take part-time jobs after school. He knew that athletics could be the key to college, something he couldn’t afford to give his children on his own. That was important in the Griffin family. “When they were small,” James says, “I let them know college is required, like high school. After high school, I said, you ain’t through. You got to go on.
“I had a boss once,” he adds, his eyes smiling. “And I told him all my kids are going to go to college. He said to me, ‘You can’t expect that.’ I’d like to see him and let him know that they all made it.”
The elder Griffins had other reasons for seeing that their children became involved in sports: “If you get them in athletics,” James says, “you don’t have to discipline them. They’re too tired. It keeps them out of trouble.”
Talk to friends, former coaches and teachers; they’ll all say the Griffins were good kids who did, indeed, keep out of trouble.
Eastmoor football coach Bob Stuart, who coached and taught five of the seven boys, remembers them as being quiet and introverted, for the most part. “They were not people you’d notice in the building,” he says. “They never acted funny or aggressive. And I can honestly say that they didn’t enter into any shenanigans that kids get into—drugs and things. A lot of that, my friend, goes back to the upbringing in the family.”
Archie acknowledges that the boys were generally well-behaved, but says seriously that he’s “gotten into my share of trouble.” Oh? Such as? “That’s what I’m trying to think of,” Archie says, laughing. Then, after a 20-second pause, he launches into a story about how, “Once, I dared a junior high school buddy into calling our French teacher by her first name.” And … what else? “Nothing else. I got into trouble for it, though.”
Like Bob Stuart, Woody Hayes, who coached Archie, Ray and Duncan at OSU, has praise for the family. “These kids have great, great respect for their parents,” he says. “And they all graduated from college because their parents expected them to.”
Then Hayes, as he has done so many times in explaining football and military strategy, analyzes the success of the Griffin family by breaking things down to their essential elements. “In a good home,” he says, “you have two things: One, a kid knows he’s wanted way before he can walk. It develops his self-respect, and he becomes a good natural leader. Two, there’s discipline in a good home. Also, a big family adds cohesiveness. There are more people to gather around.
“You’ve got a bigger huddle.”
The Griffin huddle has always been a protected, supporting place, although, while no one admits to family jealousy of any kind, every Griffin readily acknowledges the competitive nature that is present in each of them.
“Family competition helped cause our success,” Daryle insists. “Larry always tried to outdo Jimmy. I tried to outdo Larry. Archie tried to outdo me. It was to be able to say, ‘Hey, I’m just as good as you.’ ”
It didn’t matter what others outside the family were doing. In the Griffin family, it was being the first at something that counted. The first one to excel in wrestling, or track. The first to be on a team that won the city title; the first to graduate. After older brothers Larry and Jim graduated, Daryle decided to do them one better, and graduated from college one quarter early. Archie saw that and did the same.
Competition started early for the Griffins. When the boys were young, they’d play strange game in Blackburn Park, near the house where the Griffins then lived. Archie explains the game simply: “You’d throw the ball in the air, and whoever catches it gets tackled by everybody. A lot of football skills are learned.” And, Archie reports, “My brothers hit me harder than anyone else.”
Probably the “craziest times” of competition, according to Archie, were when Ray and Keith would hold impromptu track meets on the street outside their parents’ present home.
“They’d run 40-yard dashes over and over,” says Archie. “Usually, Keith beat Raymond.”
Perhaps Raymond had the hardest time in the family competition. Intensely competitive himself, he found himself at OSU during the time Archie was setting records and being Mr. Everything.
“It got to him,” Archie says. “One time he came to class, and they were passing the seating chart around. His spot said, ‘Archie’s little brother.’ ” One family observer speculates that the reason Keith went to Miami instead of OSU was to escape the inevitable comparisons between him and his brothers.
Years later, even Krystal found herself being contrasted with her most famous sibling. “It’s hard,” she says. “People say I’m Archie Griffin’s sister. They don’t know me as just Krystal. I love my brother. But you wanna have your own name, too.”
Despite the accolades heaped on Archie, brother Larry points out, each Griffin “was outstanding in his own era.” Larry, for example, now a vice president of sales for a chemical manufacturer, was known as a star fullback at Louisville. Ultimately, as Duncan says, “Everybody can’t be a hero. We had our good points. Maybe one [brother] got recognized more than the others.” Besides, he adds, they all had to, or will soon have to, “start second lives” after football. “Sooner or later, I’ll be on the same level as them when they all come out to the working world.”
Although each brother had enjoyed some success in his post-football career, one working world endeavor three Griffins collaborated on became a financial disaster the family would like to forget. It was the only public failure the Griffins have known.
Archie, Ray and James owned the franchise for Athlete’s Foot, five stores in Columbus and one in Springfield. After about two years, the corporation the brothers formed was bankrupt, partly because they may have expanded too quickly and weren’t experienced enough to keep it together.
The family doesn’t talk much about the stores and the bankruptcy. “It was a tough situation,” Archie says briefly. “It tested our love for each other. A lot of money was lost.”
But that wasn’t enough of a setback to greatly affect the Griffin clan. Neither was the name tarnished. “The name,” coach Stuart says simply, “is magic.”
The magic apparently extended beyond the football field.
The Griffins excelled in sport, obviously, but they belied the stereotype of dumb jocks, says Stuart. The kids had brains. “They were decent students,” says Stuart. “They took good courses, not Mickey Mouse stuff. Now, Ray had some problems. He brought bad grades from junior high. He had messed around because he was a star; he felt he didn't have to study. But he finally did get down to the books in high school.”
Although all the Griffin boys earned college degrees, the smartest Griffin of them all is Krystal, according to Daryle. "I may be going out on a limb with my brothers, saying this," he admits. Like all but one of her brothers, Krystal won a full athletic scholarship (only James was awarded a partial scholarship, because his school, Muskingum, did not give out full rides). But unlike any of the boys, she also earned a full academic scholarship. Given the choice, she picked the athletic offer. It was, her brothers say, an example of Griffin competition again. If her brothers were athletes, then she'd be an athlete.
“When I was younger," Krystal says, “my brothers would push me to do better [athletically]. They'd say, "Girl, you're sorry.' I just wanted to look good in their eyes.”
Being the only girl, Krystal is a family favorite. "Krystal still is spoiled," her mother readily admits. “The boys never wanted to have to take care of her when she was little because she was so spoiled. She had to have her way."
Krystal won't deny it. “I guess you could say I was spoiled," she says, laughing. "I always had my own things and my brothers had to share."
Given the family's enormous success, one wonders what the Griffins could possibly do for an encore. Well, there are the grandchildren, now 12 of them. Then, too, people are expecting great things from Keith on the Redskins. As for the leaders of the family, mom and dad, the folks who sat through countless quarters of football and worked endless hours to see their progeny succeed, what will they be looking forward to?
James has a ready answer. "I'm just now beginning to think that when Krystal graduates, I'll get a diploma from work and retire."
He and his wife have lived life simply and cleanly. They did without a lot of things, including a house of their own (until recently) and vacations. The only times they got away was when one of their sons was in a bowl game, or when Keith was at Miami and the Griffins traveled there to see him play.
The parents have done well by their children. James and Margaret were always in the stands, always at home, always there for the kids. And the Griffin children, in turn, have inherited from their parents a shy, gentle reserve that is an obvious family trait. Each also has a confidence about him, that of a superior athlete.
"We are blessed," says Larry. Many in the family are religious, and thank God for their good fortune. But they don't forget to thank James and Margaret, too, for their part. "I don't know nothin' I'd like to see changed," says James Sr. as he thinks about what he and Margaret have done. "It was hard, but we enjoyed everything that went on."
Of course, the family story is far from over. Ray and Keith still play, and Archie's thinking about making a comeback, possibly with the USFL. For James and Margaret, there'll be more football games to see. And they have no doubt that, no matter where in the stadium they sit, their boys will spot them.
This story originally appeared in the December 1984 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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