MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Shaquem Griffin won a race to the top of a backyard tree as a young boy, and he hasn’t stopped climbing since.
Now, the one-handed UCF linebacker is tackling the loftiest target yet: The NFL.
Griffin has been auditioning for scouts, coaches and team executives all week leading up to Saturday’s Senior Bowl game. In an all-too familiar scenario, he entered the week aiming to turn their focus from the absence of his left hand to his abilities as a football player.
“It’s been like that throughout my entire life, where I have to make sure that really showing what I can do on the field can dictate what people see when they see me playing,” Griffin said. “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.”
Just to get the story out of the way, the versatile 6-foot, 223-pounder lost his hand at age 4 as a result of amniotic band syndrome. It’s a rare condition where strands of amniotic membrane wrap around parts of the fetus, limiting blood flow and often resulting in amputation.
Griffin arrived in Mobile fresh from an MVP performance in the Peach Bowl against Southeastern Conference Western Division champion Auburn that cast a bigger national spotlight on him.
He was the American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year as a junior when he had 11.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. Griffin followed that up with a strong senior season for a team that has declared itself national champion instead of Alabama, which had one loss.
Senior Bowl South coach Bill O’Brien called it “very special” that Griffin earned this NFL and Senior Bowl opportunity.
“I’ve been doing this for a pretty long time now and I’ve been fortunate to meet some very special human beings that have overcome a lot of different things,” said O’Brien, the Houston Texans’ head coach. “We have David Quessenberry in Houston who overcame really a horrible form of cancer (lymphoma) to play football this year and to play at a high level.
“When you look at a guy like Griffin … He plays the game very fast. He plays very aggressively. He doesn’t let his handicap slow him down. He does what he needs to do to be able to make plays on the football field, and that’s really what this is all about.”
About the only thing that could wipe the smile off Griffin’s face this week is calling it a disability.
“It’s not a disability until you make it one,” he said.
Twin brother Shaquill, a starting cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, helped ensure he never made it one. He never took it easy on his twin in their frequent competitions.
Shaquill won the first, being born about a minute before his brother. They never stopped competing in everything from how fast they could walk and run to how much they could eat.
Shaquem was just a 7-year-old when he was the first to successfully climb that grapefruit tree in his back yard. Sure, he fell a few times but he kept trying until he made it.
Just like at UCF — and now.
The brothers were a package deal coming out of high school. Shaquill wouldn’t sign with any team that wouldn’t take his brother, too.
He got onto the field quickly while Shaquem redshirted and didn’t make a tackle until October of his third year before finishing with the two big seasons under coach Scott Frost, now at Nebraska.
Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage called Griffin “one of the most amazing stories of this whole college football season.” Savage, an ex-NFL general manager, thinks he’s at the very least a “demon” on special teams and backup defensive player. But he also feels Griffin can be an effective edge rusher with the ability to play in space.
“Scott Frost said the first practice they were on the field, they were like, ‘We don’t even notice anything about him. We think he can play football,'” Savage said. “Hopefully that’ll be the same thing that happens with the league.”
It’s certainly what Griffin expects. He just wants to be known as the guy with the big motor running all over the field making plays and having fun doing it.
“I’m never going to look at myself as a guy with a disability,” Griffin said. “I’m never going to look at myself as having a handicap because if you have a handicap, that means you’re limited to certain things. I’m not limited to nothing.
“After this week, everybody will know who I am and what I’m really fighting for.”
It’s just another tree to climb.
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