ARLINGTON, Texas – The best pick of the NFL draft will sit around Thursday night and watch all the other players here get selected before him.
He’ll almost certainly be last in the green room, which is usually the mark of failure and ignominy. He’ll see first-rounders all get the call, get their congrats, get big hugs from the commissioner.
And he’ll wait until Friday, maybe even Saturday, until some team is smart enough to take him.
Shaquem Griffin doesn’t mind. Only a few months ago, the undersized linebacker got snubbed by the scouting combine before an invite was extended. Only a few years ago, he was working all summer in a tow lot with his dad, pushing cars in the Florida heat, watching his twin brother Shaquill live their shared football dream on UCF’s campus.
Now? Shaquill and Shaquem were walking through a Florida mall recently when someone asked Shaquill, a cornerback with the Seattle Seahawks, to snap a picture of him and Shaquem. After they posed together, the fan politely asked the NFL starter, “What school do you go to?”
“I had to walk away and start laughing,” Shaquem said Wednesday.
Even that brother had his doubts. When Shaquem told him what he would run at the combine in the 40-yard dash, Shaquill said, “You’re too fat to do it.”
Shaquem ran a 4.38, which is what he said he would run. Shaquill blew up his phone with “I’m so proud of you!” but failed to mention the “fat” comment.
Griffin is a first-round talent who has likely fallen out of first-round talk because he has one hand. What he lacks in that single sense, he more than makes up for in speed, strength, will, football acumen and overall force of personality. Whichever team drafts him will watch the Griffin jerseys fly off the shelves. He’s a celebrity-in-waiting, as evidenced Wednesday when he entertained a gaggle of Play60 kids and then a group of media that included a Chinese reporter who asked question after question about everything from Mickey Mouse to Scott Frost.
“Scott Frost is magical like Mickey,” quipped Griffin, as if he had thought of the answer before the question was asked. He flashed his easy smile and everyone laughed.
The man is more than a draft pick. That’s why he’s here, already a face of the NFL even before he enters the league. He’s here to watch others get drafted before him and still walk away as the top story of the weekend. The Play60 kids who gathered here for selfies and drills did not gawk at Josh Rosen or Sam Darnold; it was Griffin who got the eyes bulging. He had a grin and a high-five for everyone, and sat right in the front of the group photo as if he was a Manning brother rather than a Round 3 possibility. Then the media rushed in and the first question was about whether he saw any future NFLers in the group of kids. Right on cue, Griffin said, “A lot of them were girls.”
The NFL could not have manufactured a better story. By now it’s known worldwide: his hand was amputated when he was a child, and he went on to lead UCF to an undefeated season anyway. He was downgraded again and again, most brutally when Shaquill was chosen to start and star with the UCF team while Shaquem had to go home to St. Petersburg before his third season and help his dad in the tow yard.
Most every draftee has an up-from-nowhere story, but Griffin tells his so well, and it’s a tale that’s relatable to anyone who knows anyone with a disability.
“I can do whatever I want,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything I couldn’t do. I’m never going to let someone put a label on me.”
When USF coach Charlie Strong used the word “handicap” to describe Griffin’s missing hand, the linebacker fumed and it became a lesson for a lot of people following the two teams. Strong, who used the term as a means of praise, later apologized for the word choice.
“I don’t have a chip on my shoulder,” Griffin said Wednesday. “I have chips. I have a bag of chips. Everyone else can have a chip. I need more than that.”
The thrill and risk of the draft is that anything can and will happen. There will be a Peyton Manning and there will be a Ryan Leaf. There will be injuries and misfires, the unexpected and the unexplained. It’s football. Griffin could be a Hall of Famer or out of the league in a year. But Griffin brings fans who don’t much care if he plays off-the-ball linebacker or rush end. The moral of the story is already there, only cemented by the reaction when he makes his first tackle and, yes, his first interception. Maybe he’s not the right football fit for your team, but he’s the right fit for any NFL city.
“My name is Shaquem Griffin and I play football,” he said. “You can say I have one hand and look at me whatever way you want. At the end of the day I play football.”
After the allotted interview time Wednesday, the players were ushered off the field and most of the media followed. Yet there was Griffin, still surrounded by cameras and microphones, still grinning, still talking. Sometime in the next few days, perhaps with him alone in the dreaded green room, he’ll get that call from an NFL team.
“I hope I’m not crying too much,” he said, “and people see snot in my nose.”
There will be a lot of people crying with him.
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