INDIANAPOLIS — When Central Florida linebacker Shaquem Griffin came to the scouting combine, he knew he'd face skepticism from NFL teams. After all, Griffin's combine invite had come late—not until Jan. 30—despite an outstanding Senior Bowl week, his status as the 2016 American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year and an eye-opening 12-tackle, 1.5-sack game against Auburn in the Peach Bowl, which was punctuated by a late interception caused by yet another Griffin pressure of quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
Griffin knew he'd have doubters for one reason: He did everything he did in college without a left hand. Griffin's hand was amputated at age four because a rare birth condition called amniotic band syndrome had prevented his fingers from fully developing and caused great physical pain. That didn't stop Griffin, who attended UCF with twin brother Shaquill, who was selected by the Seahawks in the third round of the 2017 draft and is now one of the up-and-coming cornerbacks in the league.
None of that mattered for Shaquem's professional prospects, though. He'd have to come here and prove he could back up everything on his tape with a level of athleticism commensurate with NFL talent.
Griffin wasted no time doing so, amazing everybody—including his fellow linebackers—Saturday by completing 20 reps in the 225-pound bench press with a prosthetic device clamped to the weight bar.
If that wasn't enough, Griffin ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash Sunday on his first attempt at Lucas Oil Stadium, setting the amazement bar even higher. It was the same 40 time Shaquill had run a year prior—but Shaquem is 33 pounds heavier.
The historic achievement did not go unnoticed:
Not a bad way to dominate your combine experience. Griffin's second 40 time of 4.58 was more in line with what one would expect of a 227-pound linebacker, but it's the first time that will stick with observers. Moreover, it will have NFL personnel going back to his game tape with the Knights, hoping to match that track speed to field speed.
They will have no issue doing so. Whatever you may think of Griffin's NFL future, there's no question he plays with tremendous speed and maximum effort, careening around the field to stop plays far away from his point of origin too often for it to be a fluke.
Griffin recorded 44 solo tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, one interception and two forced fumbles in 2017 after he amassed 57 solo tackles, 20.0 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, one interception and two forced fumbles in 2016. He is nothing if not an impact player on the field.
"So many people are going to have doubts about what I can do, and obviously, it started at the bench press," Griffin said Saturday, a few hours after he completed his 20 reps. "Some people think I can do three, some people think I can do five, some people didn't think I could do the bench press. But I did it and competed with everybody else and did 20, and that's just one step closer to everything I need to accomplish. There's going to be a lot more doubters saying what I can't do, and I'm ready to prove them wrong."
That he did. Griffin owned his drills and his press conference, and judging from the ways top brass were speaking about him during the week—before they even met with him—you can imagine he was well-received in team interviews.
"I had somebody tell me they had met John Wooden before and that the feeling they got sitting down with John Wooden for five minutes was the same feeling they got from him," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said of Griffin earlier in the week, comparing him to the legendary UCLA basketball coach (Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll is a huge fan of Wooden's motivational tactics). "I haven't been able to do that personally yet, so I am pretty excited about that. He's a special dude. And I say that because he was at our Jacksonville game and everybody made a big effort to make sure that I just didn't bump into him and violate any National Football League rules."
Before meeting with Griffin, Vikings GM Rick Spielman said that, based on tape, Griffin would be evaluated as any other football player—which is all Griffin has ever wanted.
"Very unique player," Spielman said. "I haven't had an opportunity to meet him yet, but outstanding kid. He's very exciting to watch on film because he just plays with his heart, with passion, and he gives you everything he has on every snap. I don't think [his having one hand] should be a factor, just because he's shown he can be productive at a high level against some high-level competition. I think each team will make that determination, but we think he's a heck of a football player, and that won't be a factor for us."
In addition, Griffin has been a source of inspiration to the players he's spending time with this week, as former Washington linebacker Keishawn Bierria told me Saturday afternoon. Bierria was at the same podium where Griffin had his star turn a few minutes later.
"I was right there when he came down [from the bench press], and I went over and congratulated him," Bierria said. "That was impressive. Anyone who thinks he can't do something, that's his answer, right there. I bet a lot of people were wondering, 'How is he gonna do this?' I knew he'd have something in the bag, and he just got up there and did his own thing. He's a football player, and for him to go out there and knock out 20 reps, it was nothing to him. It's just another part of this combine. He's going to do whatever he can to be seen as a football player for the right team who says, 'OK—we can do something with this guy.'
"For a guy who's going through that kind of adversity, and he doesn't even flinch? It's pretty special. That shows the type of guy he is and what he's willing to overcome. He's breaking all barriers, really. He's willing to take every step, and I have nothing but respect for him. He stands out, but at the end of the day, he's a football player."
Cardinals general manager Steve Keim spoke more specifically to Griffin's attributes, saying it's about being creative with the talent you have on your roster.
"You have to admire the type of success he's had already with that impairment," Keim said. "But I think when you look at certain players like that, there is something to be said for what is in their heart. It's something you'd have to talk to the trainers about and see what his restrictions would be moving forward. Again, putting players in a position to succeed, that would be a key—can he do the things we ask him to do?"
Keim's words were intriguing, because the Cardinals have been outside-the-box thinkers when it comes to defensive players; they like hybrid guys who can do multiple things, and they have a specific precedent that could point to NFL success for Griffin.
In 2017, Arizona selected Temple edge-rusher Haason Reddick with the 13th overall pick in the draft. Because of injury issues, the Cardinals moved him from edge defender to inside pass-rushing linebacker. Reddick had 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in his rookie season.
Griffin might start his NFL career in a similar fashion—as a moveable chess piece in a versatile defense, alternating between blitzing and run-stopping and some coverage.
"After the weigh-in, I talked with a few teams, and they didn't think I was going to be able to gain weight from 227—getting a better feel of being a 'Will' or 'Sam' linebacker or in a stack or in a 3-4 where I can be that guy at the line of scrimmage or be a guy who moves around," Griffin said. "I have some teams tell me I move like a DB; well, I've been a DB most of my life. I still have the feet for it, and that's why I was able to be at the Senior Bowl and move and progress at each and every position.
"I want them to know that I don't have to be the guy who just rushes the quarterback. You need somebody to cover? I can cover not just tight ends but slots too. I got a few interceptions against some slots. I want to show NFL teams that, whatever you need help at, I'm the player. You want me to play kicker or punter? All I gotta do is get a good stretch in, and I can kick the ball too."
In a league that increasingly prizes versatility, that attitude will go a long way. But the truth of Shaquem Griffin is this: You can throw away the feel-good story, just as you can junk the narrative that he's somehow less of a player than others at his position because he has one hand. The real story is of a remarkable young man who has transcended what could be a massive limitation for others and shown he's every bit the equal of anyone in his draft class.
That's the story the NFL is going with, and that's the story that will follow Griffin through the rest of the predraft process, through his rookie season and through the rest of his life.
Of all the things Griffin has been—a brother, an inspiration—and overcome in his life, this week he made it clear he's also a damn promising football player.