MOBILE, Ala. — Shaquem Griffin was four years old when his left hand was amputated, the result of pain he was experiencing from a rare birth defect known as Amniotic Band Syndrome. Just three years later he was told for the first time that being one-handed precluded him from playing the sport he loved.
“When I was in little league, I remember the coach telling me [football] is for two-handed players,” the Central Florida linebacker said at the Senior Bowl, where he arrived as one of the nation’s most productive defenders and the game’s most inspirational story.
“Hearing things like that, I had to take it upon myself —no matter if I had one hand, two hands or 30 hands — to prove I can play football.”
Griffin recalls notching his first interception later in that little league season in a game before the playoffs. “I’m pretty sure that coach is looking in now and saying, that guy really changed the game,” he said.
Now, Griffin is coming off an undefeated season for the UCF Knights, punctuated by him earning MVP honors at the Peach Bowl for a dominating 3.5-sack outing in Central Florida’s 34- 27 win over Auburn.
“Watching him play, it’s unreal how fast he is — and his motor,” said Auburn long snapper Ike Powell. “He ate our offense up all day. He’s obviously a great player, and I’m expecting him to really do big things here. You just can’t help but be inspired by something like that.”
Added Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, "He was one of the best football players we faced this season."
The level of respect Griffin commands from his peers — even ones he’s competed against — helps in telling his story.
“I think about Shaquem and the things he’s done, and they really are the true inspiration,” says Wisconsin TE Troy Fumagalli, himself an amputee, having lost his left index finger one day after being born. “To me, nothing I really do changes on a day-to-day basis. But I can imagine people that he inspired, his story ... he’s the true inspiration.”
Griffin acknowledges that his story can help others. The team that drafts him, he says, is getting a player who “not only can play football but change the environment — not only for himself and the players in the locker room but the city and the state itself.”
But what about Griffin, the football player, you ask? That’s, of course, what NFL teams are most concerned about. He credits his ascension to not only dogged determination and faith but his adaptability and eagerness to learn.
"I was always that person [who] if you can help me win versus an offensive lineman or win in coverage, I'm going to take all the advice I can get," he said.
And NFL teams were treated to Griffin’s edge-wrecking potential early in the first day of South practice, when he badly beat Humboldt State offensive tackle Alex Cappa off the snap and around the corner for a would-be sack during full-team work on Tuesday.
Griffin was named AAC defensive player of the year in 2016, when he amassed 20 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. He played outside linebacker, defensive line and safety during his college career. Griffin’s versatility, he said, plus his speed and his motor, are what he’s determined to display for NFL clubs this week.
“As long as it’s a defense I can make tackles in, I think I can fit right in,” Griffin said when asked about what scheme he best fit, adding that he played in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses at UCF. “… I’m going to be a guy that you can literally put anywhere and have success.”
Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, who called Griffin “one of the most amazing stories of this whole college football season,” views his floor as a “special-teams demon,” but said Griffin's upside is that “he can rush the passer. He can walk out and play in space. He’s actually got quite a bit of versatility.”
Griffin is the twin brother of Seattle Seahawks’ 2017 third-round CB and fellow UCF product Shaquill, who turned down other scholarship opportunities because he and his brother were a package deal. "It just goes to show that no matter the circumstances, no matter what a team feels about us, at the end of the day it's going to be us."
Griffin’s inspiring story, from mostly a special-teams contributor on a winless team during his sophomore 2015 season to star of the Senior Bowl, will be told countless times by countless media members this week, but he knows it’ll be his play on the field that helps shift and keep the focus on his football ability.
“In a way, I do feel it that way," he said. “It’s been that way my entire life, where me showing what I can do on the field can dictate what people see when they see me playing. It’s going to be like that this week. As long as I’m going fast and making plays, they’re going to forget how many hands I have. It’s not going to matter after that.”