ORLANDO, Fla. — Shaquem Griffin was 4 years old when he picked up a kitchen knife and tried to cut off his fingers.
His mom intervened and that’s when she knew her son’s pain was too much. She planned surgery to remove his left hand altogether.
She didn’t tell the boy. His lasting memory of that time was dragging his little red wagon through a hospital corridor and then, sometime later, waking up with a bandage on his hand. All he wanted to know at that moment was, “When can I play football again?”
In the years since, that central question – “When can I play football again?” – has carried him well past any doubts about his ability and his disability. When Scott Frost met Griffin after arriving as UCF coach last year, he says, “I wondered how he could function with just one hand.”
“After two practices,” Frost continues, “it wasn’t even an issue.”
Griffin is a senior now, a “terror” on the field in Frost’s word, and the defending AAC defensive player of the year.
Strangers notice the hand and then notice everything else: his charisma, his energy, his quickness, his strength. The missing hand is so forgotten on the team that one of Griffin’s closest friends, Dedrion “Bam Bam” Bacote, says he’s never even talked about it with him.
“I never looked at it as something to hinder me for doing certain things,” Shaquem says. “I had to do it a certain way, and it got done.”
Griffin was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome, a rare birth defect (1 of 1,200) that kept his hand from fully developing. It caused his fingers to hurt intensely whenever he touched anything. The day after his attempted self-surgery, his mom, Tangie, called a doctor to plan the operation to remove his fingers. Shaquem was playing football even before the wound had healed. He played until his bandage was bloody and played on after that. “I didn’t care what my mom said,” Griffin says now. “It’s only blood.”
For much of his childhood, and even when he got to UCF, he was known for something else: he was Shaquill’s little brother. Shaquem’s twin, who was born 16 seconds prior, was always the star. As kids in St. Petersburg, Florida, Shaquill was the fullback, blasting through the line, with Shaquem following. They were (and are) so obviously full-throttle on the field that it’s contagious. Or perhaps viral.
“We used to celebrate so much,” Shaquem says. “We were 12 years old and he threw up on me after he scored. ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ and then he threw up all over me. I’m going crazy and then I’m like, ‘You threw up on my arm.’ ”
Shaquill turned down offers from higher-profile schools because they wouldn’t take Shaquem, as well. Even when they landed at UCF, Shaquill rose to prominence right away, while Shaquem toiled on the scout team. “It wasn’t time for me to be jealous,” he says. “It was time for me to support him.”
His time came when Frost arrived, as the former Oregon assistant moved Shaquem from safety to outside linebacker. Last season he finished in the nation’s top 10 in sacks and tackles for loss. The Knights went from 0-12 to 6-6. Now “Quem” is separated from his brother for the first time, as “Quill” is in camp with the Seattle Seahawks, but maybe the redshirt senior will get a shot in the pros next year. The stats and the highlights sure warrant it.
Frost says Griffin’s tougher road may give the younger brother a little something extra. “A little more grit because of what he’s been through,” the coach says. Griffin uses a prosthetic hand to drive and for other daily needs, but his dad helped him learn to bench press and do push-ups without it. He grins when asked if there’s anything he can’t do. He’s always looking for a chance to point out how he can braid his hair … though he admits it’s a work in progress.
For now, the season is a work in progress – so much so that he’s currently spending every overnight at the UCF football facility. It’s his way of soaking up every second of his final college season. Bam Bam decided to join him, and they both have air mattresses laid out in a team room. They go to Publix for snacks, watch film before bed, and in the morning they’re woken up by quality control coach Barrett Ruud (formerly of the Bucs) blaring Al Green tunes.
“I don’t even want to go back there,” jokes Frost.
There will be a lot of going back over the next year, as more media and eventually scouts and general managers ask about his hand and his story. Griffin is fine with that; he’s used to making people completely forget what’s missing.