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."
Griffin was raised mostly by his maternal grandmother, Rena Williams, a cook in Broussard, La., where he was taught to box by a local tough, Tim (Brown Sugar) Rabon. "Timmy taught me how to stick and move," says Griffin. "He taught me how to fight on defense. Boxing, you take your time, learn the skills, and you can get someplace. It keeps you sacrifighting."
Griffin sacrifought his way right out of Broussard. In 1982, at 14, he won the 80-pound title at the Junior Olympics in Colorado Springs, and a year later at the Junior Olympics in St. Paul, Minn., he won the 85-pound championship. "Boxing opened the world to me," he says. "I was flying all over the place. I'd get home, and I was ready to go again two or three days later."
When he was 16 Griffin accompanied another Broussard-area fighter, heavyweight Mike Williams, to Houston, four hours away. At 85 pounds, Griffin was clearly too small to have a future as an amateur. Or a pro. "You want to make any money, you're gonna have to put some weight on," Williams told him, and began feeding the boy as much as Griffin could eat. "Corn bread and milk, rice and beans, meat and gravy," Griffin says. "I was 106 pounds in six months. I stopped boxing and just built myself up. Mike had me doing 400 push-ups every day. And sit-ups, too, and he had me running three miles a day. It was the first time I was on a program."
For two years Griffin scratched by to pay his bills, bagging groceries at a supermarket, doing odd jobs. "It was hard," he says. "I was alone. I wanted to make the Olympics, and every day in my apartment I worried about it."
Griffin had never known his natural father, and he had never had a steady, sheltering male influence in his life until he met Jordan in late 1986. A onetime amateur out of Jasper, Tenn., Jordan was supporting a stable of fighters in a Houston gym. One of them was Williams, who urged Griffin to drop by. Recalls Jordan, "When Eric came into the gym, he was 5'3", 106 pounds, and I said, 'What's this? He can't be a fighter!' Then he started to work, and everyone stopped to watch. He was just awesome, throwing so many punches and combinations." What Jordan liked best as he watched Griffin train over the next few weeks was how hard he worked. "He was just a little gym rat," says Jordan. "We started pointing for the '88 Olympic trials."
Griffin won the National Golden Gloves title in 1987, and in the months they spent together, Jordan and the boxer grew close, sharing a vision of the future in Seoul. It all came apart, of course, when Hull summoned Griffin in Vegas. Jordan was flabbergasted on hearing the news. "This cannot be true," he said.
But it was. Two weeks before the trials Griffin had joined some Houston friends in smoking a marijuana cigarette, thinking he would never get caught. He acknowledges that he had begun smoking dope a year before. "It wasn't like every day," he says. "I'd go out to a party and do it." By the time of the trials, Griffin says, "I thought it would be out of my system."
At first Griffin protested his innocence to Jordan, and when the boxer twice tested clean after returning to Houston, the coach threatened to sue the boxing federation. When he heard that, Griffin decided to confess. "I never had a father that took care of me the way Bob did," he says. "I wanted to be honest with him. I didn't want to lie to him. I just couldn't do it. Something told me not to do it." So Griffin said, "Bob, I did it."
Jordan was a child of the 1950s—"If you smoked pot when I was growing up, you were a dope fiend," he says. "Get away from me," he told Griffin. "I don't want anything more to do with you. Go back to Louisiana and do whatever it is that 106-pound people do down there for a living. I quit!"
Soon after, Griffin found himself beating on his brother and his heavy bag and training with manic intensity. He had several offers to turn pro—"One guy offered me $75,000 cash up front," he says—but he dismissed them all. "I couldn't do it," he says. "The Olympics in '92 was still a dream. I wanted to get back with Bob, just like it used to be. That's how desperate I was."
The two men began talking, and they finally reconciled late in 1988. The boxer moved into Jordan's Houston home in early '89. "You can't box and hang around these same people," Jordan told him. "And you've got to go to church with me." Griffin also agreed to be tested periodically for drugs.
Jordan moved back to Jasper (pop. 2,670) in late 1989, and Griffin followed a year later. He trained for a spell in a gym above a hardware store and barber shop in South Pittsburg, Tenn. "They were complaining that Eric was knocking their ceiling tiles out and making too much noise," the coach says. Those were not the only complaints they were hearing. Living in Sequatchie, a burg outside of Jasper, they began getting late-night phone calls. "No niggers allowed in Sequatchie," the voices would say. "We're gonna burn you down." After one caller threatened to run the boxer down while he was doing roadwork, Jordan called the FBI in Chattanooga and asked for help. An agent started flashing his badge and making inquiries from house to house. "We never heard another peep," Jordan said.
Griffin is now living with his girlfriend, Kathy Benoit, and their 21-month-old son, Exavnear, and the man has become a celebrity in Jasper. He has been training lately out of a converted drugstore, and townsfolk regularly come by to watch him in his twice-daily toilings with the bags and ropes, peering through the plate-glass windows and gathering on the benches inside. He signs autographs and poses for pictures.
"It turned out the way it should have," he says. "Telling the truth to Bob was the most important thing I ever did in my life. He helped me put my things back together. Things are like I never used to have them. And I'm talking to kids about staying off drugs. I've got my life back."