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UCF's one-handed linebacker, Shaquem Griffin, is on the verge of making NFL history, a feat made possible by the love and sacrifice of his twin brother, Shaquill

By Chase Goodbread | Published Jan. 22, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The best $50 Tangie Griffin ever spent went for absolutely nothing. That's what the University of South Florida was charging for each of her identical twin boys, Shaquill and Shaquem, to attend a football camp in 2012 that represented a potential scholarship offer for them both. And on the short drive to the event from their St. Petersburg home to the school campus in Tampa, Shaquill announced in the car that he would sit this camp out.

For years, the twins had played football together, were coached together, excelled together and, now, they were being recruited together.

But on this day, they wouldn't be judged together.

If any coaches at the camp were going to doubt Shaquem's ability to play the game without a left hand, Shaquill, at least, wasn't going to show them the two-handed twin for comparison.

"Normally, I would've said, 'No, I paid $50, and you're going to be on that field,' " Tangie Griffin said. "But there was something about the way he said it. I told him, 'If that's what you want to do, I like that idea.' "

Born about a minute earlier than Shaquem, Shaquill has always played the protective big brother role in the twins' relationship. Now a starting cornerback with the Seattle Seahawks who just completed his rookie season, Shaquill has only begun to relax that role in the last year.

But what he'd really like to do is switch roles.

"All the time, even to this day, I still wish it had happened to me instead of him," he says.

"It" is Amniotic Band Syndrome, a prenatal condition in which a strand of amniotic membrane can wrap around and essentially strangle a fetal extremity, causing deformity that often results in amputation.

With a twin pregnancy, this particular strand had eight wandering limbs in Tangie Griffin's womb to choose from. It could have coiled around a foot instead of a hand, which would have begotten an entirely different set of quality-of-life concerns, much less athletic ones. It could have picked just a finger instead of a hand, as it did with Wisconsin TE Troy Fumagalli.

And, of course, it could have picked Shaquill.

Instead, it claimed Shaquem's left hand, amputated at age 4, although to call what he had removed a hand is to stretch the definition of one. What he had was a mass of tissue, painful to the touch, that offered him no real functionality.

Now, Shaquem is on a quest to join his twin brother in the NFL.

Shaquill thinks his brother was the ideal candidate to overcome the associated challenges. After all, it was Shaquem who was the first of the two to climb a tree. It was Shaquem who went on to become the 2016 American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. And who else but Shaquem could have positioned himself to be the first one-handed player in the modern era to be drafted into the NFL?

Shaquill isn't sure he could have done the same.

And as Shaquem continues to crash through the various glass ceilings separating him from an NFL career of his own, the more relevant question is this: Could anyone have done the same?

Shaquill never said a word. In his formative years, when children can be the most curious, he never once went to his mother with a question about his brother's deformed hand, or even what happened to it when it disappeared altogether.

Tangie and her husband, Terry, allowed Shaquill, as much as possible, to assemble his own understanding of it.

"At 4 years old, you don't really address what's going on. But what you do address is that, 'He's not in pain anymore,' Tangie Griffin said. "I didn't explain amputation to him at age 4, he wouldn't understand it anyway. But I made sure he understood his brother wouldn't be in pain anymore."

In the middle of the night, Shaquem struck it against the bedrail of the bunkbed he shared with Shaquill, and ran to the kitchen screaming. In tormenting pain, he gripped a knife in his right hand with the intention of performing his own amputation, and his parents reached the kitchen in time to stop him.

Shaquill stayed quietly in the bunkbed. He was paralyzed by the commotion, too afraid to seek it out When he couldn't get back to sleep, he sat with Terry in another room while Tangie comforted Shaquem. She had the amputation performed the following day.

The big brother in Shaquill was never afraid to defend Shaquem when necessary. He had rabbit ears for an insult or a cruel joke aimed at his brother, and policed whatever meanness might await around the schoolyard corner.

He didn't find the jokes funny, but Shaquem often did.

Shaquem disarmed apprehensiveness in his peers with the deadly combination of a dynamite smile and a sense of humor, and socialized easily.

Shaquill's intolerance for teasing flashed once at the twins' daycare center when, at age 7, he pushed a girl who called Shaquem "pickle hand."

Shaquem wasn't upset by it, nor were his parents.

"We had to get Shaquill to the point where he understood that if Shaquem is OK with it, is joking about it, then you've got to be OK with it, too," Tangie said.

Save your sympathy. Hang onto it for someone who wants it. Someone who needs it. Someone other than Shaquem Griffin.

The UCF linebacker is bound and determined to show scouts over the next several months what Chris Wiesehan has known for a couple of years -- that taking advantage of his missing hand, for an opposing coach, is a fruitless exercise.

The Temple offensive line coach is glad to have Griffin gone from the AAC. He was a thorn in the Owls' side as a UCF starter, where in two games he collected three tackles for loss, three pass breakups, an interception, a forced fumble and a sack.

"When you play against him, there are no limitations," Wiesehan said. "He plays with such a motor, and he understands his body and understands leverage very well. His ability to strike and get off a block is elite."

Shaquem enjoyed two wildly successful seasons as a pass-rushing outside linebacker at UCF, but at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, he's significantly undersized for that role in the NFL. Scouts project him as a valuable core special teams player on Sundays who likely will be developed defensively at weakside linebacker, or perhaps strong safety.

There is a conviction in the scouting community that he will not only be drafted, but will also have the requisite skills and mental fortitude to stick to a 53-man roster, which isn't a given for all draft picks.

"It's a certainty," said an NFC scout. "I've seen players with two hands get blocked all day against guys who Shaquem won't have a problem with, because he's an innately violent player. Those guys are hard to find. … There are a few missed tackles because he can't completely wrap up all the time, but he hustles his way into tackles other guys would never get to. His motor is rare."

For all the NFL scouts willing to pound the table on Griffin's behalf, there will be others who won't put their reputations on the line for a one-handed player.

"There'll be some hesitation, especially (with) younger scouts, or guys who are in a new place, a new team, or with a new GM," the NFC scout said. "Obviously, some will have trouble signing off on a guy trying to do something that hasn't been done before."

Griffin's reliability as a tackler improved from his first year as a starter at UCF to his second. According to Pro Football Focus, he missed 13 percent of his tackle attempts in 2017, down from 16 percent the previous year, although both figures are below PFF's national average for an edge defender.

Of course, there will be doubters. There always have been.

His youth coach, Terrell Holmes, saw how a missed tackle would motivate Shaquem by the time he was 8 years old.

"I could see it on his face, if he missed a tackle, he thought everyone would assume it was because he couldn't wrap," Holmes said. "I would just tell him he was too far out of position. But the next play, you'd hear the crowd ooh and aah, because he would lay a hammer on someone."

Shaquem is generally dismissive of doubters, content to prove them wrong without getting too upset about it.

Shaquill, on the other hand, is annoyed by them.

At Lakewood High in St. Petersburg, Shaquem roamed the middle of the field at safety, while Shaquill played cornerback. That often put Shaquill right beside the visiting sideline, where he would hear occasional trash talk or derogatory comments about Shaquem not only from opposing players, but opposing coaches as well.

Growing up, it was usually the adults who set off Shaquill's alarm for insensitivity, much more than children, whose curiosity was natural. And here he was, once again, witnessing taunts aimed at his brother from immature grownups.

"He'd hear them say, 'We're going to go after the kid with one hand. Throw it to his man. He's the weak link,' " said Spartans coach Cory Moore.

And how did he deal with it?

"Shaquill would make his man pay," Moore said.

As remarkable as an NFL career for Shaquem would be, it would not come without some precedent.

Old precedent.

The Boston Yanks drafted Ellis Jones in the eighth round of the 1945 draft. Jones was a two-way player at Tulsa, at offensive guard and linebacker, and made a college all-star team that squared off against the 1943 NFL champion Chicago Bears. At age 11, he fell from a tree and suffered a compound fracture of his right arm. Gangrene set in, resulting in an amputation eight inches below the shoulder.

"I played football before I got hurt," Jones once said, according to a New York Times obituary. "It never occurred to me that I couldn't keep playing. I guess I was too dumb to think I could not do it."

It didn't occur to Griffin, either.

It couldn't.

Former coaches describe Shaquill as more of a finesse player and Shaquem as a bully in a helmet, the harder hitter of the two and a true natural at linebacker.

"We used to tell him, 'You can't drop any balls. Not one. There's no excuse for you -- you have to take the hard road. If kids are giving 100, you have to give 110,' " said Andre Griffin, the twins' older brother by 10 years. "Shaquem was built for this."

The parental strategy for Shaquem's upbringing was to raise him no differently than if he'd been born with two hands. Terry took over the twins' athletic training, and his expectations were the same for them both. He hand-built a few workout accessories that helped Shaquem lift weights. One helped him bench press, another helped him perform biceps curls.

"He was a mad scientist in that garage," Shaquem said. "I don't think there's anything he can't build."

Some nights, Griffin would awaken to a banging sound or other noises in the garage, and settled back to sleep knowing that in the morning there would be something new for his workouts. He'd take the contraptions to the Lakewood High weight room, where only Shaquill served as his full-time spotter.

When he arrived at UCF, Shaquem was given a prosthetic to help him with his workouts. Former UCF strength coach Zach Duval arrived with the Scott Frost staff two years ago, by which time Shaquem had already been using the prosthetic for three years. He marveled when he first saw it.

"He just sat down, put a little lube (hand sanitizer) on it, and pushed 405 (pounds) on the bench press. It was impressive," Duval said. "We modified all the pulling exercises. With Shaquem, it was 100 percent a push. All the pulling exercises were modified into more plyometric stuff, banded stuff. Anything with a band, he could work with."

Duval, who has since moved onto Nebraska to join Frost's new staff in Lincoln, has worked with his share of top athletes in 22 years as a strength coach. He spent four of them training Oakland Raiders star Khalil Mack at Buffalo, and considers Shaquem to be Mack's equal from a work-ethic standpoint.

"As far as just going hard every day, and competing in every way, those two are at the top for me," Duval said.

Apart from workouts, there is a long list of everyday tasks that require a few things of Shaquem that can't be built in a garage: resourcefulness, imagination, and heavy doses of patience and persistence.

Tying shoes.

Putting on a belt.

Cutting food.

All instinctively two-handed tasks for others, Shaquem has developed his own techniques to do them with one.

"It doesn't help much to watch someone else do it with two hands. I have to figure out my own way," Shaquem said. "I could go after something for hours. But sooner or later, I'll figure out a way that's comfortable for me, then that's my technique every time. Tying shoes, I ended up pinning the string to my leg to make sure I could keep a loop together. Used my hand to wrap the lace around the first loop, and it was a go after that."

He once battled a necklace for 45 minutes before asking his brother for help, but just a day later, he had figured out how to do it alone. Shaquill had to learn how to strike a balance between being helpful, and letting his brother's burgeoning independence run its course.

When to step in, when to back off.

"You watched for the ways he reacted to things, and that would tell you when it's time to step in," Shaquill said. "There would be things he would struggle with, and he'd just continue to go after it over and over, with no frustration behind it. That's when you leave him be. When he'd get mad enough to walk away, like he's completely done with it, that's when you step in."

About the only thing Shaquem acknowledges permanently quitting out of frustration is golf. And in that stance, he's got plenty of two-handed company.

Twin bonding can be powerful. Griffin-twin bonding soared past powerful and landed on downright impactful.

The flashpoint came in the fall and winter of their senior year at Lakewood High, as college coaches jockeyed to complete their recruiting classes. Schools from all over the country offered one to Shaquill, but not Shaquem. The reason wasn't lost on anyone.

"College coaches didn't even notice Shaquem didn't have a hand on the tape, and they would come in saying they wanted both of them all day long," said Moore, Lakewood's coach. "And I purposely wouldn't say anything about it until after they'd seen tape. Then I'd tell them one of these twins is missing a hand, and that's when the conversation usually took a left."

Moore didn't let recruiters leave his office thinking Shaquem had two hands because that could have done more damage. Why expose Shaquem to the disappointment of an offer that would likely later be rescinded? Clearly, they would have learned before signing day, so Moore was up front with them after they'd seen the film.

And, in turn, they were up front with him.

"I just can't take that back to my head coach."

That was the common refrain Moore would hear after alerting them to Shaquem's amputation.

The twins had some awareness of which colleges were sitting down with Moore, but the high school coach didn't always have the heart to tell them exactly what was being communicated.

The twins had made a pact in middle school that they would be college teammates, so for Shaquill, it was a package deal or no deal. Their mother had heard the twins discuss it before, but didn't realize how serious they were about it until a coach from the University of Akron called and told her Shaquill had politely but firmly explained his hardline stance. When they couldn't convince Shaquill to leave Shaquem behind, they tried to convince Tangie to persuade Shaquill to step off the ultimatum.

She would have none of it, telling recruiters she supported their wish, even if that narrowed their options. Shaquill stuck to the pact in the face of some highly attractive offers, including Florida, FSU, and his childhood dream school of Miami. Some schools said no at first, only to later come back and bend to the twins' insistence. But when they came back with a second scholarship offer for Shaquem, they were told no thanks. Their initial reluctance was enough to raise suspicion about their intentions for Shaquem. For the twins, that was a dealbreaker.

"It made me work harder because I wanted us to get the best opportunity out there for us, whatever it was," Shaquem said.

UCF provided the only duo offer they took seriously, so the Knights scored two of the top future defenders in the AAC with one swoop.

They also added two fun-loving and inseparable friends who had a lot of typical twin traits, along with a few hard-to-explain ones. They've been known to dress the same independently of each other, share an uncanny intuition into each other's thoughts, and crave similar foods. They're both crazy about a family spaghetti recipe said to be so good it works its way into next-day sloppy Joes.

Moore recalled the Griffins strangely had a few minor injuries that were not only the same in nature -- a hamstring pull here, an ankle sprain there -- but occurring roughly at the same time.

Lakewood High track coach Anthony Snead had his own view of the Griffin bond. The twins could have run track in college had they wanted, excelling in the triple jump and the 4x100 and 4x400 relays. The latter event was star-studded with former Vikings WR Rodney Adams on the first leg, followed by Shaquill, Shaquem, and then TJ Holmes, who went on to become one of the top 400-meter hurdlers in the country.

Snead never made the twins practice their relay handoffs. No need.

"The first time I saw it, it was perfection," Snead said. "They wouldn't even put a marker down. You put a marker down in practice so when the runner with the baton gets to it, the next guy knows when to start running. They didn't even need it."

The last weekend in August 2014 was supposed to be a joyous, once-in-a-lifetime experience for Shaquem. The Knights were visiting Ireland for their season opener against Penn State.

That's where Shaquem developed an inkling that the decision by George O'Leary's staff to give both twins full-ride scholarships was still really just about signing Shaquill.

Shaquem redshirted and Shaquill did not, which is what eventually staggered their entry to the NFL a year apart. Shaquem doesn't question being redshirted, acknowledging it was what he needed at the time. But it was a year later, while trying to soak in the sights of Dublin with his teammates, that he realized he'd been put aside in the coaches' plans. He was demoted from second to third team without an explanation, then relegated to scout team.

He questioned his coaches if it was something he had done, if he was in some sort of trouble.

"But I never got a straight answer," he said. "The next year, we're getting transfers right before the season started and these guys who didn't even know the plays were put in front of me. At that point, it's like, 'What can I do to get out of here?' "

It got worse. During their second year at UCF, the twins cut the dreadlocks they had been growing together, at the same length, since middle school. As the story is commonly told, O'Leary ordered them to, and they weren't particularly happy about it. The rest of the story? Only Shaquem, a backup who wanted playing time badly enough to cut his hair, was asked to do so by O'Leary. Shaquill, a starter, was not, according to Tangie. But as an act of solidarity, Shaquill cut his dreadlocks at the same time.

The twins' purpose in signing with the same school, as they saw it, was being torn apart by the very staff that made it happen. It strained their relationship with O'Leary to a breaking point.

Tangie would say a quick prayer when they called home before she picked up the phone, because she knew one or both wouldn't be happy. Shaquem not only considered transferring to another school to play football, but he also contemplated running track at nearby USF and be done with football forever. He just knew he didn't want to play another day for O'Leary.

Meanwhile, O'Leary's tenure was engulfed in flames. He resigned his position as interim athletic director midseason in 2015, followed two weeks later by a midseason resignation as football coach, with the team two-thirds through an 0-12 nightmare.

And he hadn't just lost the Griffins; he'd lost the team. Many players reacted to the news of his departure with a party.

"Some people might think that's bad, but it wasn't just me -- a whole lot of guys were happy about it," Shaquem said.

Count Shaquill among them.

He was just as bothered by Shaquem's relegation to the bench as his brother was, and when a transfer became a real possibility, Shaquill considered his options outside the UCF program as well.

Instead, family members implored Shaquem to stay the course at UCF. Holmes, his youth coach, had heard well in advance that O'Leary would be out at season's end -- it was a poorly kept secret -- but didn't feel it was his place to tell Shaquem, even while his former player was agonizing about his circumstances.

"I told him to stick with it," Holmes sad. "I told him there would be something on the other side of the adversity waiting for him."

That something was Scott Frost.

The new UCF coach, whose staff had heard from other players that Shaquem was considering a transfer, made all the difference. He cleaned the slate, judged Shaquem strictly on performance, and positioned him to deliver the most convincing proof of all that O'Leary never gave him a real chance. In one season, he went from a special teams afterthought to the AAC Defensive Player of the Year, amassing 20 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks and seven pass breakups. Frost even moved him from safety to linebacker, where Shaquem had been more comfortable since his childhood.

"The day Scott Frost gave me a shot was the day I never looked back," Shaquem said.

He flourished throughout a two-year starting role, capped by Peach Bowl MVP honors in the Knights' toppling of Auburn on New Years Day. Griffin made 12 tackles, 3.5 for loss with 1.5 sacks, as UCF called for national championship recognition as the only undefeated team in the FBS (13-0).

It was one helluva well-timed exit for Shaquem, whose pre-draft hype is on the rise.

A year ago, Shaquill was largely an unknown. He had to build up his draft status from relative scratch, impressing NFL scouts without the benefit of a Senior Bowl invitation, and catching their attention with a sub 4.4-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Shaquem's draft profile, by contrast, is already in bloom. As the best defensive player on the nation's only undefeated college team, there is no overlooking him. One scout said there is "no possible way" any NFL GM is unaware of him at this point.

A little more than a year ago, Shaquill boarded a flight at Tampa International Airport headed for Dallas, where he began training at Michael Johnson Performance for last year's combine. The twins hugged at the gate, realizing they were writing the first page of a tricky chapter. After 21 years at one another's side, conjoined both in spirit and football, they were separating for the first time in their lives. Around the time Shaquill landed in Dallas, Shaquem was back at UCF in tears while taking photos of his brother off display in the room they shared.

"I was already upset leaving the airport, then I had to look at him all over again taking his pictures down," Shaquem said. "For a long time, my brother made a lot of good decisions for both of us. I knew I'd have to start making more on my own. It felt like a movie watching him get on that plane."

Their 12 months apart has been a growth experience for them both, but especially for Shaquem. He took on a greater leadership role for the Knights, going to the extreme of living in the UCF football building during fall camp last year. He literally slept there to more easily immerse himself in film study.

It also helped Shaquill concentrate on his day job with the Seahawks. The separation, however, was a distance measured in miles not in heart. Shaquill still carries the guilt of being the twin brother with two hands. The last year has allowed him to ponder it even more.

"I felt like I was the one who was supposed to go through this pain and gone through this thing he's endured," Shaquill said. "I wish I could have taken all that from him. I wish I could put it on my shoulders."

Tangie Griffin shed a tear. She knows the feeling. At one time, she wondered what she could have done. prenatally to prevent what happened.

"As a mother, the first thing you do is blame yourself. You ask questions like, 'What did I do wrong? Did I lay the wrong way? Did I lay on my side too much? Did I eat right? What did I do?" she said. "And not understanding that having identical twins, as they get bigger, they don't have much room. I didn't do that research right away."

Six years ago, at the USF camp where Shaquill decided to sit out and let his brother shine alone, Shaquem did exactly that. He put on the show of his life, in fact. He was the best defensive back on the field that day, forcing the Bulls staff to take notice and re-evaluate. USF assistant coach Vernon Hargreaves, the father of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2016 first-round pick of the same name, pulled the Griffins aside.

"He said, 'I didn't think Shaquem was that good until today. We apologize for not offering him the same as we offered Shaquill, and we'd like to offer them both a scholarship
now, ' " Tangie recalled.

Shaquem thanked Hargreaves and politely declined. They hadn't wanted him before, so why should he want the Bulls now?

On the way home, across the four-mile Sunshine Skyway Bridge that connects Tampa to St. Pete, a mother and her twins laughed and marveled at Shaquem's performance.

Best $50 ever.

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