The UCF football team recently wrapped up an undefeated 2017 regular season… Go Knights! For linebacker Shaquem Griffin, it was the perfect climax to his senior year. It’s not the first time, however, that the St. Petersburg native beat the odds to come out victorious. His skills – both on and off the field – are exceptionable but, because Shaquem has just one hand, he’s constantly worked to prove himself. And that he did… perfectly.
During pregnancy, parents-to-be Tangie and Terry Griffin learned that amniotic bands entangled Shaquem’s wrist. Born two minutes after his twin Shaquill, Shaquem was born with amniotic band syndrome with an underdeveloped hand. The condition was extremely painful. “Everything I touched burned,” he recalled in an interview with ESPN of his early years. Hoping to end his agony, then 4-year-old Shaquem attempted to self-amputate his hand using a kitchen knife but, luckily, Tangie intervened. She immediately scheduled his amputation surgery.
During recovery, Shaquem anxiously awaited getting back to football. And his father was eager to coach him. Terry admitted to being “hard” on the boys because of their potential and he never let Shaquem use his disability as an excuse. Terry was creative with his motivation; for example, he built an L-shaped brace so Shaquem could bench-press.
Aside from sports, Shaquem also appreciated the arts. He played the baritone and, with Shaquill, performed with a dance team. “After football practice, we used to practice choreography,” he recalls. Practice made perfect for most everything they did. The two were jointly named Tampa Bay Track and Field Athlete of the Year by the Tampa Bay Times. And football offers came surprisingly early. Shaquem expected resistance from scouts due to his disability but says, “I got my first offer in my sophomore year of high school and it kept coming from there.”
Accustom to being a pair, Shaquill turned down offers from high-profile colleges that wouldn’t grant his brother a football scholarship too. Unfortunately, some scouts only saw Shaquem’s amputated hand… and not his whole being.
The duo enrolled at the University of Central Florida. Shaquill suited up for game days while Shaquem redshirted, meaning he attended classes and team practices but didn’t compete. When Scott Frost replaced long-time UCF head coach George O’Leary in December 2015, Shaquem got his chance. “I wondered how he could function with just one hand,” Frost admitted in a Yahoo! Sports interview. But, “After two practices, it wasn’t even an issue.” Wearing the #18 jersey, Shaquem was about to become a UCF legend.
In 2016, the 6’1” 223-lb. junior started all 13 games as outside linebacker and dominated. Shaquem’s season included a total of 92 tackles (and a team high of 57 unassisted tackles), 11.5 sacks (the sixth most in a season at UCF) and was ranked 12th in the nation in sacks and 13th in tackles. He was named American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year and earned First Team All-Conference honors!
Then, his brother Shaquill was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the third round of the NFL draft. Thus, Shaquem’s senior year would be his first without his twin by his side. He kicked off the season earning way onto four pre-season watch-lists for national awards: Butkus Award for best linebacker, Nagurski Trophy for Defensive Player of the Year, Bednarik Award for best defensive player and Wuerffel Trophy for achievements on and off the field. Additionally, thanks to his volunteerism with the Boys & Girls Clubs, AAU track club and motivational speaking at schools and hospitals, Shaquem earned a nomination for Allstate AFCA Good Works Team which honors student-athletes for outstanding community service.
The final big win? An undefeated senior season, of course! Regarding the unprecedented success, Shaquem shared, “It’s an amazing experience. Not just being on the field but off the field. You get love from the students and everyone that supports UCF.”
22-year-old Shaquem holds a degree in human communication and is working on second major in interdisciplinary studies with a minor in sociology. At press time for this issue of AmeriDisability Services, Shaquem was preparing to compete with UCF in the Peach Bowl against Auburn. Afterward, he’ll start “training again and getting ready for the next level.”
Does that mean the NFL? “I am blessed to play [now] and that [NFL] is not the main focus. My whole thing is just to give everything I got,” he says. “The people making the choices about me playing [in the NFL], well it’s up to them. At the end of the day, if they want me to play, they’ll choose me.”
While Shaquem is humble and downplays his future in football, we’d double down that this single-handed superstar gets drafted. And perhaps sibling rivalry will turn into genuine competition. Or, maybe the Griffin twins will suit-up in Seahawks gear together. Regardless, Shaquem hopes he’s inspired others with impairments. “You can do anything you set your mind to and put the work into,” he says. “There are no limitations to what you can do! The only thing that can stop you is yourself.”