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Thursday, April 26, 2018

The curious case of UCF's Shaquem Griffin

Posted By on Thu, Apr 26, 2018 at 6:11 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JEREMY REPER
  • Photo by Jeremy Reper
You’ve seen images of him plastered across the sides of campus patrol cars and in college sports advertisements. You’ve seen him in interviews on the NFL Channel, on the Today Show and in virtually every publication that even remotely covers sports. You’ve seen him perform under the glaring primetime lights, when it feels like the world is watching. For those lucky enough to witness him compete on the field, chances are you’ve seen him flash across the instant replay screen following a big play, too.

Tonight, however, you’ll see him sitting in the green room at the NFL Draft. Like the others, Shaquem Griffin will be waiting.

Griffin, the one-handed wunderkind and former standout linebacker at the University of Central Florida, may very well hear his name called in the coming days, as professional football teams make their picks amid the wheeling and dealing of the annual draft. Some experts even have him going as high as the third or fourth round. But where he ends up and when he’ll be chosen – both of which are questions on the minds of football fans far and wide – remains to be seen.

By now, you’re likely familiar with his story: At age 4, Griffin's left hand was amputated due to complications from a rare birth defect called amniotic band syndrome. With his twin brother, Shaquill, the Griffin brothers’ father pushed them to compete alongside each other, never allowing Shaquem’s physical hindrance to act as a drawback. At Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, both brothers earned All-State honors before electing to attend UCF under the tenure of then-head coach George O’Leary.

O’Leary’s coaching regime wouldn’t last, however. He was fired midway through an eventual 0-12 season in 2015. But with former head coach Scott Frost’s subsequent hiring (Frost left UCF for his alma mater, the University of Nebraska, earlier this year), Shaquem found himself in a defensive scheme that allowed him to excel.

In 2016, Shaquem earned the American Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award and first-team All-Conference honors. His brother, who earned All-Conference honors as well, chose to head for the NFL and was drafted as a defensive back in the third round by the Seattle Seahawks.

During the 2017 campaign, as a redshirt senior, Shaquem followed up his previous performance by earning second-team All-American honors and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Defensive MVP award. It wasn’t the worst way to cap off UCF’s undefeated season, which included an AAC championship and a bowl win over Auburn University on New Year’s Day.

Then came the NFL Scouting Combine in March, which Griffin wasn't initially invited to attend, regardless of his stellar performance throughout his junior and senior years.

There, he measured and weighed in at just more than 6 feet tall and 227 pounds – which many consider undersized for a linebacker, by NFL standards. Even so, Griffin went on to stun scouts and fans alike as he tossed up 20 reps of 225 pounds on bench-press using a prosthetic hand (the 11th most for his position at the combine) and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds (the fastest time by a linebacker since 2003.)

Again, as if it were second nature, Griffin defied expectations. His bench-press results came in the face of one NFL franchise’s general manager reportedly saying he’d still be excited about Griffin as a player even if he only managed five reps. He did four times that.

(Note: Despite numerous attempts to interview Griffin directly, his agent snubbed Orlando Weekly when Sports Illustrated came calling. But that’s OK.)

The narrative surrounding Griffin seemed to solidify by the combine’s close. As a result of his success, the sports world began treating him like a legend in the making. If he is in fact drafted, Griffin would be the first athlete in the NFL’s history to compete with just one hand.

Still, the league has an awkward history when it comes to “firsts” – in part because professional sports is as much a part of the soulless, optics-driven entertainment industry as it is a results-driven business.

One glaring example in recent memory is former defensive lineman Michael Sam, who became the first openly gay player when he was chosen by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Throughout his college career at the University of Missouri, Sam earned honors similar to Griffin's, including being named a consensus All-American and sharing the Southeastern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award. But Sam’s professional career was cut short: First, the Rams released him from their preseason roster; then the Dallas Cowboys signed but eventually waived him from their practice team in October 2014.

Sam officially announced his retirement on Aug. 15, 2015, citing mental health issues and following a brief stint in the Canadian Football League.

As a result, speculation among NFL-watchers pointed to Sam’s coming out – and becoming a ready-made national celebrity in the process – as a distraction that warded off teams prior to the draft, thus pushing him down in the order of those taken off the board, which drove down his value as a player. Others would argue that it was purely Sam’s inability to physically compete in the league that eventually led to his career’s demise.

The celebrity that came with Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests is another stunning example of how “distractions,” as these hot-button topics are often referred to in the league, are akin to cancer in the minds of NFL owners and executives alike. No one disputes Kap's prowess, but he's radioactive, as a leaked recording of an owners' meeting proved earlier this week.

Griffin, as his profile continues to grow, could face a similar situation.

Simply stated, those involved in the political machinery of the NFL have historically shied away from anyone who's different – not just for, ahem, "lifestyle reasons" or political opinions but also physical aspects, whether we’re talking about a short quarterback who has trouble seeing his passing lanes, a slow wide receiver or an undersized offensive lineman.

As far as coaches and managers are concerned, there’s a physical archetype for each position that seems set in stone.

As for addressing Griffin’s physical ability – now we’re talking about how he’s missing one hand, so, I guess, "disability," though as we've said his performance is phenomenal – he actually wouldn’t be the only athlete in the NFL who’s competing with less than two fully functional hands.

Since he mangled his right hand in a fireworks accident in 2015, New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has at times played in the past two seasons with a wrapped-up nub. (Jokingly, some football fans now refer to him as “Jason Pierre-Claw.”) He finished the 2017 season with eight sacks and 47 tackles – far from subpar.

Whether we’re talking celebrity status or physical ability, these are arguably fair comparisons – and they're part of the obstacle course Griffin will have to navigate in the coming months.

That’s not taking into consideration the factors about Griffin that can’t be taught or coached up, such as the blinding speed he displays for his size or his bold prove-them-wrong attitude.

Four-time Pro Bowler Richard Sherman, who played alongside Griffin’s twin brother in Seattle in 2017, agrees: On Twitter, he wrote that if Griffin “doesn’t get drafted in the first two days, the system is broken.”

Maybe it is. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s more complicated than that when you dive into the nuance of how thousands or millions of dollars are invested in each individual player, and for a single purpose, too: Compete and win or get yourself a new job.

It should be said that this isn’t a naysaying essay about how Griffin could still fail in the end, because he has damn well proven himself. Rather, it’s a nod in the direction of Murphy’s Law – “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” – and fate, that fickle bitch that defines success and glory in professional sports.

Even more, it’s an essay about how the media – yes, we understand that for every finger pointing to someone else, there’re three more pointing back at us – can hijack one athlete’s story for the greater good, yet set them up for a further fall from grace if worse comes to worst.

It’s to say: Look, Shaquem Griffin has defied every obstacle in his path over the past 22 years. But his most biggest test is yet to come.

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