The Unstoppable Shaquem Griffin, UCF’s One-Handed Star Linebacker
The screams woke Tangie Griffin.
She bolted from her bed and ran toward the room where her four-year-old twins, Shaquem and Shaquill, shared a bunk bed.
She’d woken up like this before. Every time Shaquem thrashed in the bed and whacked what remained of his left hand, he awoke screaming. But this time, he decided he’d solve the problem.
Tangie reached the room, ready to rock her son back to sleep as she’d done many times before. This time, Shaquem shot past her and sprinted toward the kitchen. Tangie turned and ran. “When I got into the kitchen, he had a knife in his hand,” Tangie says. “He was getting ready to cut the digits off.” Tangie took the knife away, brought a crying Shaquem back to his room and rocked him to sleep.
The next morning, Tangie took Shaquem to the doctor’s office. He remembers dragging a red wagon through the office, and he remembers falling asleep. When he woke, the mass of tissue where his left hand should have been was gone. The next day, the twins went to day care. Tangie warned Shaquem to keep his bandage clean. No football, she told him. When she returned that afternoon, there was “blood all over his bandage. Everywhere,” she says. “And he was holding a football.” Says Shaquill, who is older by 60 seconds: “You could see this huge smile on his face.”
Now 22, Shaquem Griffin still has a huge smile on his face when he’s holding a football. Today, if the ball is in his hand—he only has the one on the right—it means the University of Central Florida’s strongside linebacker intercepted it or stripped it from a ballcarrier. Since winning a starting job last year as a redshirt junior, the 6′ 2″, 229-pounder from St. Petersburg, Fla., has recovered three fumbles and intercepted a pass. (He picked off that pass with zero functional hands. More on thatlater.) Last season, he was the American Athletic Conference’s defensive player of the year.
None of this seemed possible when Shaquem had his left hand amputated in 1999. It didn’t even seem possible two years ago, when he was languishing low on the depth chart at safety at UCF while his brother was starring at cornerback. Next year, Shaquem plans on joining Shaquill, a Seahawks rookie, in the NFL. “Instead of me just walking through the door,” Shaquem says, “I just knocked the whole door down.”
When Tangie Griffin was pregnant, an ultrasound revealed that a fibrous strand of the amniotic membrane had wrapped around Shaquem’s left wrist. If left alone, the band would keep his left hand from developing. Doctors could try to move the band, but if they did, the band might wrap around the neck of one of the twins. “I had a choice to say, ‘Let’s try it and pray everything is O.K.,’ ” Tangie says. “But in my mind, that is not an option at all.” So Tangie and her husband, Terry, discussed how they’d parent a son with a malformed left hand or no left hand at all. Their conclusion? Treat him no differently than their other children. Never let him consider his condition a hindrance.
For the first four years of Shaquem’s life, any jolt to his left hand brought waves of pain. The night he banged the bunk bed frame, Shaquem had enough. So had his mother. A nurse, Tangie called in a favor from a doctor she knew. He said he could get Shaquem on the schedule within the next month. No, Tangie told him. Tomorrow. The next day, after an operation, instead of feeling like something was missing, Shaquem felt relief.
The only time the Griffins remember anyone making fun of Shaquem was the day Tangie got called to pick up her boys from school. She arrived to find Shaquill furious and Shaquem laughing. A classmate had called Shaquem “pickle hand.” Shaquem found this hilarious. Shaquill did not. According to Tangie and Shaquem, Shaquill pushed the girl who had teased his twin.
Most classmates just had questions, and Shaquem never shied from answering them. He learned to tie his shoes before his brother, pushing his mother’s hand away as he pinned the knot against his leg with his left wrist. He learned to climb a tree before his brother, dropping grapefruits to the ground to goad Shaquill into joining him on a branch. When Shaquem swung on branches, Shaquill tried to copy him, and it was Shaquill who ended up on the ground on his back.
Terry put both boys through the same football drills when they were 10. When Shaquill learned to catch in the backyard, so did Shaquem. Terry threw just as hard to Shaquem as he did to Shaquill. “He didn’t want me to make any excuses for why I couldn’t catch the ball,” Shaquem says. “I took a couple footballs to the face before I learned to catch.”
When he was 12, Shaquem decided he wanted to play running back. Terry told him he had to prove to him that he could hold onto the ball when a defender tried to jar it loose. “We were probably out there for 30 minutes,” Shaquill says. “My dad was swinging my brother around in the air. He had the ball. He was holding on, and my dad was tossing him everywhere. He never let go.”
After the boys enrolled at Lakewood High and began lifting weights to bulk up for football, Tangie would wake to the sound of clanging in the garage. Determined to help Shaquem work out the way his teammates did, Terry built contraptions to allow him to do push-ups, curls and bench presses. “Like a mad scientist,” she says. There was something Terry called “the book” that attached to Shaquem’s left forearm and helped Shaquem stabilize both arms for push-ups and bench presses. A strap device helped Shaquem do biceps curls. Terry welded another contraption onto a weight bar so Shaquem could bench-press more naturally. He grew stronger and stronger, pushing his bench press to 260 pounds as a high school senior. When he came to UCF he got fitted for a prosthetic. It allowed him to do his first pull-up. Tangie cried when she heard news of that milestone. When he first started bench-pressing with the prosthetic, he could only lift the 45-pound bar. The weight rose quickly, though. One day early in his freshman year, Shaquem banged out reps at 185 pounds. So he added 20 more. Still easy. He then put two 45-pound plates on each side of the bar. He now had 225, the amount players lift at the NFL combine. He could lift it without any assistance.
When the twins were in middle school, they’d made a promise to each other: When it was time for college, they would stick together. More schools wanted Shaquill. His first scholarship offer came from South Florida, but the Bulls didn’t immediately offer one to Shaquem. So the brothers went to a USF camp in Tampa. When they arrived, Shaquill decided to sit out: He wanted the coaches focusing only on Shaquem. After Shaquem made plays all over the field at safety, USF coaches offered him a scholarship that day. He declined. They hadn’t respected him enough to offer when they first offered Shaquill but not him. “You’re not saying I’m not mentally capable,” Shaquem says. “You’re not saying I’m not fast enough. You’re not saying I’m not strong enough. The only reason you’re saying I can’t do something is because I have one hand.”
After the twins visited UCF, George O’Leary, then the coach, told them that he wouldn’t give one a scholarship without the other. That’s exactly what they wanted to hear, and they committed shortly after receiving their offers. But after three seasons in Orlando, the Griffins suspected the coaches had taken Shaquem to ensure they got Shaquill: Shaquem had played on special teams, but he remained buried on the depth chart at safety; Shaquill was starting. Terry and Tangie told Shaquem to stick it out. After O’Leary retired during an 0–12 season in 2015, a new staff saw Shaquem differently.
Linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt, who came to UCF with head coach Scott Frost when Frost was hired to replace O’Leary, swears he didn’t notice Shaquem had only one hand until he watched Shaquem when the Knights started spring practice. What Dewitt had noticed during drills in January was Shaquem’s speed. Though about 15 pounds heavier, Shaquem was just as fast as Shaquill. There had to be a place for him as a starter. The Knights were switching to a 3–4 defense, and the strongside LB in that scheme must be able to stuff a tailback, rush the quarterback and cover tailbacks and tight ends. Shaquem quickly showed that he had the tools for the position, rising from third team during spring practice to the starting lineup entering the 2016 season. Fast enough to cover receivers—not only tailbacks and tight ends—Shaquem allowed the Knights to change defenses without tipping off the offense by substituting players. He could confuse QBs by playing like a fourth linebacker or a fifth DB depending on the call.
“There’s not a player I’ve coached who practices harder than he does,” says Frost. Last year, leading up to UCF’s Oct. 29, 2016, game against Houston, Shaquem had fallen and broken his right hand. He arrived in Houston wearing a cast on the hand. Fearing he wouldn’t play, he cut off the cast. His coaches told him he could play, but he’d have to wear a soft cast that constricted the movement of his fingers. In a 31–24 loss, Shaquem made 14 tackles. He sacked Greg Ward Jr. twice by himself and assisted on another sack. He recovered a fumble and picked off a pass that had caromed off a defensive lineman. “I’ve played football one-handed,” he says. “I’ve played football with no hands.”
Shaquem already hated hearing excuses. After his no-hands game, he stopped accepting them. “A lot of people in our generation like to make excuses about little things that really don’t hinder them from doing what they want to,” he says. “It always comes down to the work ethic. God put you on the Earth for a purpose. I feel like my purpose is to get away from people making excuses.” That’s why Shaquem declined a disabled parking permit even though he’s eligible for one. “It’s not a deformity unless you make it one,” he says. “You’re not disabled unless you say ‘I’m disabled.'”
He won’t say it, and he hopes he can inspire others the way Jim Abbott—the only one-handed modern baseball pitcher to throw a major league no-hitter—did when an elementary school teacher showed Shaquem a video of Abbott. Shaquem tried to copy Abbott’s technique of shifting the glove from his handless arm to his hand. “I ended up throwing the whole glove,” he says, cracking up. “I just kept the ball inside the glove and threw the glove.” When the children who work with Orlando’s Limbitless Solutions—a company founded by UCF grads that uses 3-D printers to make prosthetic limbs—come to games, he wants them to understand that they’re not defined by what they’re missing. “If I keep doing what I’m doing, it’s going to create a better future for someone else,” he says. “It just goes on and on. … Maybe I can help this kid who can help another kid who can help a thousand kids later.”
Shaquem’s platform will get bigger next year, when he gets his shot at the NFL. At some point during the predraft process, a league general manager will take one look at Shaquem’s left arm and say, “No. Not him.”
That will only open an opportunity for another team to land a player who won’t stop until he proves all his doubters wrong.
“I’ve been ready since I was a kid,” Shaquem says. “I’m waiting for somebody to say, ‘You can’t do it.'”
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