MOBILE, Ala. – Shaquem Griffin doesn’t yet have an invitation to the National Football League scouting combine, which tells you everything you need to know about the league’s public-relations cluelessness.
The one-handed Central Florida linebacker isn’t just a good story, he’s a great story. He was a running, tackling inspiration. And he can play: He was the 2016 American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year, a unanimous all-conference selection this season and a one-man/one-hand demolition crew against Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Yet somehow the NFL, which seemingly has a bottomless supply of self-inflicted P.R. wounds, hasn’t gotten around to including Griffin among the hundreds of players scheduled to be in Indianapolis in late February for draft evaluation. The Senior Bowl at least had the good sense to invite him here to its game.
“Shaquem is one of the most amazing stories of this whole college football season,” said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage.
Ask Griffin about the current combine snub and you get his customary response: a dimply smile and a lot of optimism. He believes an invitation will eventually come his way. He’s really not wired to complain.
Here’s how combine selection works, according to the NFL’s combine website:
“All 32 NFL teams are invited to provide input on draft-eligible players which is used by the Player Selection Committee to select each year’s participants. The Directors of both National and BLESTO scouting services, which combined represent 28 NFL teams, are joined by members of various NFL player personnel departments to form the committee. The participating NFL executives can rotate on a yearly basis, and remain anonymous. ALL eligible players are reviewed and voted on by the committee members. Each athlete receiving the necessary number of votes, by position, is then extended an invitation. While it is not a perfect science, the goal of the committee is to invite every player that will be drafted in the ensuing NFL Draft.”
Clearly, a number of people involved in the selection process don’t see Griffin as a likely draft pick. He’s a bit of a tweener from a position standpoint, undersized for an outside linebacker at 6-foot-2, 222 pounds and perhaps not fast enough to play safety. (A missing hand obviously calls into question his ball skills in the secondary as well.) But the combine selection committee should be able to recognize the positives generated by showcasing one of the most laudable people playing their sport.
Think of all the people working to overcome physical disabilities who could gain motivation from watching Griffin compete for a position in the NFL. Think of the feel-good feedback. Unless, you know, they’d rather hear more talk about concussions and the national anthem and why Colin Kaepernick doesn’t have a job.
For Griffin, this is simply one more layer of doubt to smash through, like he’s done all his life.
He was a twin born with Amniotic Band Syndrome, a rare birth defect (1 of 1,200) that kept his hand from fully developing and causing intense pain in his fingers. At age 4, Shaquem’s mother, Tangie, found him attempting to cut off his fingers with a knife. The next day, she scheduled surgery to have his hand amputated.
Before his left arm had even healed from the surgery, Shaquem was back playing football with his twin brother, Shaquill. (He came out of UCF a year before Shaquem and is now a cornerback with the Seattle Seahawks.) The two spent their entire youth competing with each other, with Shaquem never asking for or receiving sympathy or special treatment.
“If you take pity on me,” Shaquem said, “I’m going to have to pick you up off your back.”
The brothers waged friendly battles over everything – who could walk fastest, who could push toy cars farthest, whatever competition presented itself. One early contest Shaquem remembers winning: climbing a grapefruit tree in the family’s backyard at age 7.
“I was the first one to do it,” he said. “If you can get up the tree, you get the fruit.”
How exactly does a one-handed child climb a tree?
“Find a good, strong limb to grab on,” he said. “You’ve got to use your arm, and your feet. Obviously, I fell a few times before I got up there. But I did it.”
Persistence and an endless motor have taken Griffin a long way since then. He was the emotional engine that drove UCF through an extraordinary season, capping it with the breakthrough bowl victory over Auburn. In that game, Griffin played all 90 snaps against an offense built to exhaust defenses, and recorded 12 tackles, including 3½ behind the line of scrimmage.
When that game secured UCF’s undefeated season, Griffin joined the cheeky chorus proclaiming the Knights national champions. They were the only team without a loss, and they beat an Auburn team that thumped College Football Playoff winner Alabama. So why not crow about it?
“At the end of the day, we’re national champions,” he said. “Sorry they chose the wrong team. Auburn, I bet they’re still worrying about UCF when they do to sleep at night.”
Griffin’s relentless performance against the Tigers showcased his fierce playing style, which is built on a simple premise: keep competing until the other guy quits. Even in a sport where effort is a constant, Griffin’s motor is noteworthy.
“If you stop, that means you were tired,” Griffin said. “If you keep going, you’re going to win. Somebody’s going to keep going, and it’s usually going to be me.”
Griffin hasn’t slowed down much in Mobile. In two days of practice he has seen time at outside linebacker, safety and on kick coverage. Even if NFL teams are unsure where he might fit in a defensive scheme, they do see him as a potential weapon on special teams.
“A special teams demon,” Savage said.
“He plays hard,” said Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien, who is coaching Griffin’s South squad here this week. “He’s all over the field. He loves to play. What a story.”
Griffin is happy to line up wherever he’s asked. All he wants is a shot.
“There’s no limit to what I can do,” he said. “They need me to play kicker? Let me warm up my leg. I’ll do that, too. Just put me in a rover position and I’ll be running around the field like a madman.
“I enjoy every moment. I’ve been to a point where I didn’t think I would play football again. I have no reason to be sad, no reason to be upset.”
Shaquem Griffin’s unsinkable attitude will help put him in an NFL training camp next summer, even if he doesn’t get drafted. But it would be a shame if a tone-deaf league doesn’t at least extend him an opportunity to show what he can do at the combine next month.
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