UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks last week, making him the first one-handed athlete in NFL history. But the league has a troubled history with 'firsts'
You've seen images of him plastered across the sides of UCF 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. 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.
Now, you'll see Shaquem Griffin as he suits up with the Seattle Seahawks this fall.
The 22-year-old former outside linebacker at the University of Central Florida was selected in the fifth round of the NFL Draft on Saturday, making him the first one-handed athlete in the league's history. Adding to the Cinderella-story effect, he'll be teammates with his twin brother, fellow UCF football alum Shaquill Griffin, whom Seattle drafted as a defensive back in the third round of 2017's draft.
"I couldn't breathe," Griffin told ESPN following his selection. "I didn't know what to say. I was trying to get the words out, but I couldn't talk."
(Note: Despite numerous attempts to interview Griffin directly, his agent snubbed Orlando Weekly when Sports Illustrated came calling. But that's OK.)
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. But 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, since he was one of the few recruiters who wanted both brothers.
O'Leary's coaching regime didn'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.
The past couple of seasons are proof: In 2016, Shaquem earned the American Athletic Conference's Defensive Player of the Year award and first-team All-Conference honors. Following up that performance as a redshirt senior, in 2017 he earned first-team All-American honors and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Defensive MVP award as he helped 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 initially wasn't 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 the bench-press using a prosthetic hand (the 11th most for his position at the combine) and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds. (Griffin was originally clocked at 4.38 seconds, which would have been the fastest time by a linebacker since 2003, but the clock started late and combine reports were adjusted as a result, according to nfldraftscout.com.)
The narrative surrounding Griffin seemed to solidify by the combine's close. Based on his phenomenal performance, the sports world began treating him like a legend in the making.
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, some claim as a result of his ready-made sense of celebrity upon entering the NFL. 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.
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 last month.
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 most coaches and managers are concerned, there's a physical archetype for each position that seems set in stone.
But leave it to Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who's known as much around the league for his eccentricities as he is for his Super Bowl ring, to cut against the grain.
Following the draft, Carroll, who was visibly slack-jawed after watching Shaquem's combine performance in March, said of his defensive crew's newly acquired brotherly duo: "They own this extraordinary connection that I think also is a demonstration of love and heart and all of the cool things about what they represent."
Carroll continued, referring to the pre-draft interview with Shaquem: "I don't know that I've ever been in a more inspirational interview ... than that one. He was just so expressive and so open to tell his story and to tell what this opportunity meant to him in such a way that he moved us, just like those of you that have watched him. He's an extraordinary young man."
For Shaquem's sake, let's hope the extraordinary has a chance to become familiar, and the unprecedented can set a new precedent.