Shaquem Griffin Doesn't Care About Being Your Feel-Good Story

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterApril 18, 2018

Central Florida linebacker Shaquem Griffin is seen at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine on Sunday, March 4, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The name is "Beast" here. Not Shaquem. No, at Sunrise Lanes this rain-soaked night, Shaquem Griffin goes by Beast on the digital scoreboard. And instantly you can see it's warranted. The ball shoots out of his right hand like a bullet, backspinning at the last possible moment to clobber the pins.

How long has he gone by Beast? The linebacker out of Central Florida turns to his twin brother, Seahawks cornerback Shaquill, and his friend Lidell Golden. "Years," he says. 

The Beast cannot be stopped this night, either, drilling one…two…three…strikes in a row. As Golden yells "Turkey! Turkey!" Griffin nods and lounges on a circular leather seat and taps through his phone, his right thumb and the handless end of his left arm dividing the work equally. His best game ever? A 217 in college. Seconds after, he called Golden in jubilation. The Griffin twins used to own $1 bowl nights in Orlando. This alley, in St. Pete, has been their home turf since childhood, and the Beast wins this one easily on it, double fist-pumping after a spare for a final score of 173.

Photo by Tyler Dunne

Shaquem doesn't talk any trash, instead sipping from a Big Gulp-sized cup of lemonade and taking a seat to relax.

Life is good as America's sweetheart.

Every day, he's doing something for the first time: attending a hockey game, sitting courtside at a basketball game, kicking it with Hulk Hogan and Charlie Sheen and Dennis Rodman earlier on this day. NFL Twitter nearly spontaneously combusted when Griffin ran that 4.38 in the 40-yard dash—the likes of J.J. Watt, Deion Sanders and Ryan Shazier all showering him with love.

He is universally beloved. A celebrity. The prospect who slew adversity to slay all prospects who slew adversity. His jersey will fly off the shelf the second it hits the shelf.

And it's all because Griffin was born with amniotic band syndrome, a congenital birth defect that prevented the fingers from fully developing on his left hand. He had the hand amputated at four years old, broke out as a star at Central Florida and is now, unquestionably, the feel-good story of draft season.

But here's the thing: Griffin does not want to be anyone's feel-good story.

At Sunrise's snack bar, he makes that clear before uttering another word.

"For me, I know it's more than a feel-good story," he says. "It seems like that to everybody else. But I want everybody to see me as a football player."

Pins clank in the background. Griffin's not smiling, not laughing.

"I've been doing it for so long. It's not like I don't know what I'm doing," he says. "I knew I had to work twice as hard as everybody else just to make a name for myself. And show everybody that I can really be a ballplayer. It's going to be like that at the next level. I can't get comfortable, or I can't feel that I did enough to get where I'm at."

So it's not the tweets from superstars with millions of followers that Griffin reads and re-reads and recycles as fuel. Nor the literal "thousands" of messages from strangers he's received on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Griffin stopped checking his direct messages. No, he ignores the novels praising him and is glued to the 140-character tweets ripping him.

The fan mail Griffin opens "all the time" and brings up tonight is comprised of pointless potshots from trolls.

Shade that leaks through the cracks, into his mentions, and ensures he'll remain "Beast" amid all the adulation.

"As soon as I get on Twitter and social media, there's always little comments with my name in it," he says. "Comments like, 'Why would we waste a pick on someone who has one hand?' Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. I can't tell anybody what they can't say.

"People say I'm a feel-good story. I'm just a guy who plays football. If I was just a feel-good story, I wouldn't be where I'm at right now. I'd still be a feel-good story who's just a feel-good story. Period."

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01:  Shaquem Griffin #18 of the UCF Knights celebrates after sacking Jarrett Stidham #8 of the Auburn Tigers (not pictured) in the second half during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on January 1, 2018 in Atlanta,
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Doubt has sharpened that edge since he was four.

That will not stop now.

Go ahead and enjoy all the fairy tales about Griffin's improbable rise, but just know this: All Griffin really wants is to kick some ass.

He can picture the doubt in NFL opponents' eyes now. That patronizing Get this kid off the field smirk he's seen his whole life.

And, man, it pisses Griffin off.

"I have to show them why they should respect me," Griffin says.

"So I always have that edge."

So even during this victory-parade-like trot to draft day—Rodman was a "cool dude," he says—Griffin makes a point to bring up two defining crossroads in his life: the day he fell in love with football and the three years when football was taken away from him. To understand that edge, understand what was going through his head those two periods of his life.

The first will be familiar to everyone already glued to this feel-good story. Griffin was four years old…in the kitchen…holding a knife…ready to slice off his deformed left hand. Every time he bumped it, it hurt. He couldn't play ball with his brothers. His mother seized the knife and had a doctor amputate the hand the next day.

What most may not know, though, is what happened when the Griffins got home. Mom instructed Griffin not to muddy up that bandage. He ignored her and played football. Needed to play football. And he was the happiest four-year-old on the planet.

No wonder he describes that second crossroads almost as an incarceration. Those first three years at Central Florida—under head coach George O'Leary—Griffin was stuck on the scout team as his twin flourished. Stuck in Unit 412, Room C. He's not letting O'Leary off the hook yet, no. He says he pleaded his case for playing countless times to coaches, and they'd say whatever they could to get him out of the room.

Under O'Leary, he felt like a charity case.

He realized they only granted him a scholarship so they could ink Shaquill.

"The way coaches would tell me, 'You're not going to be nothing but a shadow of your brother,' or, 'You're always going to be on scout team.' I had to hear that all the time," Griffin says. "They can't dictate how hard I work. They can't dictate what I'm going to do for myself. I had to remember that. Obviously, for any player, it's hard to have that negativity from coaches who are supposed to push you to be better than anybody wants you to be. But from that old coaching staff, I didn't have that feeling that the coaches wanted me to be good."

In his third year at Central Florida, 2015, O'Leary told Griffin to stay home in St. Pete for the summer while Shaquill trained in Orlando. He says O'Leary even considered banishing him to a junior college.

"I wasn't playing because I had one hand; I wasn't going to be naive anymore," Griffin says. "That's when I really felt that I was here for the wrong reasons."

Griffin spent the summer towing trucks for his father 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., working out and then cleaning offices 8 p.m. to midnight.

O'Leary wouldn't be around for long, though. After starting the 2015 season 0-8, he "retired." That offseason, Scott Frost was hired. And Griffin felt released into the wild, like that four-year-old kid again.

Working "twice as hard" as everyone else could now reap real rewards. He remembers hearing Frost's voice in the weight room. Feeling his presence. When they spoke, there was sincere eye contact. So Griffin kept running and running and chasing ball-carriers 60, 70, 80 yards every snap in practice to the point of literally throwing up. He'd vomit, wipe his mouth clean and run some more.

"Not every single day," he says. "Obviously, that'd be unhealthy. But I threw up a lot. It was usually on the hot days where it'd get me."

Many nights, before his senior season, he even slept at the team facility. He needed to eat, sleep, breathe this game.

As a result, habits were created. Everything, he says, "became second nature." Griffin points to one sack against UConn that was the direct result of his maniacal practice habit to chase quarterbacks back side. UCF went undefeated in 2017 with Griffin as the face of the program.

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01:  Shaquem Griffin #18 of the UCF Knights celebrates after sacking Jarrett Stidham #8 of the Auburn Tigers (not pictured) in the third quarter during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on January 1, 2018 in Atlanta
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Now, that O'Leary-like doubt could creep back into his world. Griffin reminds everyone that his edge has been meticulously building from age four to 22. That his father, Terry, never treated him like he had one hand. No, it'd get "ridiculous" with Dad starting at 150 pushups per night and adding 25 reps each week.

Be it sets of 20, 10 or five, both twins had no choice but to hit whatever magic number Dad picked. And if they dozed off for some reason, Dad woke them up.

Dad never allowed his son to feel an ounce of self-pity.

And that's why Griffin has never even considered reaching out to Jason Pierre-Paul or anyone who's ever played in the NFL with a club over his hand. There's nothing anyone could teach him because this is all he's ever known. Like someone born without sight, Griffin cannot fathom a better quality of life. Instead, all other senses heighten. Out of nowhere, Griffin lobs fightin' words to Shaquill across the table.

"I beat him in basketball!" Griffin says.

The words snare Shaquill's attention from his phone, and he turns his body around 180 degrees to debate.

"He can't beat me in basketball," Shaquill snipes. "He's letting this UCF undefeated thing get to him like he's never lost."

"I'm shooting it right in his face," Griffin says, undeterred. "I can shoot better than him."

And, naturally, he plays relentless, ravenous, run-till-he-pukes defense.

Shaquill scowls, repeats that he's king, and in his defense, how in the hell could Griffin ever win a game of one-on-one? Seriously. All defenders are taught to force players to dribble with their weak hand. For most, their left hand. Politely remind Griffin that he, uh, doesn't have a left hand, and he doesn't back down. He insists he still finds ways to create space.

"It's hard, but it seems to work every time!" he says. "I drive hard right and then pull back to get enough separation to shoot."

He doesn't back down, repeating that he gets his share of wins.

That's the kind of self-confidence that bursts out of Griffin on just about any topic. Especially the draft. Don't even bother asking who he thinks is the best defensive player available this year.

It's him, and there's no hesitation.

"I do feel that way," he says. "From a numbers standpoint, I did it. From a combine standpoint, I did it. From a winning standpoint, I did it. I did everything I had to do to be considered one of the top guys in the draft. There's nothing else I can do to prove myself to them. If I ran a 4.35, it'd be the same thing as the 4.38. I'm still going to be looked at the same way.

"My tape is there. My hustle is there. My passion for it is there."

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

He catches his breath.

"There's nothing I can do but keep doing what I'm doing."

Through a window, Griffin spots his head coach from Lakewood High, Cory Moore, sitting at a table in the cafeteria and beelines through a door. As wayward voices around the two—teachers, staffers—shout, "Good to see you!" and "How you doing?" Griffin wraps Moore in a bear hug. Moore is a coach who always believed in him. Never had a doubt, really. They laugh. Catch up. Moore points to that huge smile on Griffin's face to say, "I told you about that smile!" And Griffin tells him he and his brother are looking for a spot to train.

Moore leads them out the door, hallway to hallway, past a courtyard under construction, right to the Griffins' old home away from home.

There are the windowless walls of white cinder blocks. There are the old, rusty dumbbells still rusting. There are the four squat racks. There's the…air conditioner? What's this, Coach?

Kids these days, man.

"We used to do 1,500 up-downs!" Griffin announces. "Nice and hot. When you hit the ground, there's sweat. A pool of sweat. Now they have that AC blowing there. We liked it nice and hot!

"It was different."

Griffin recalls the glory days of bringing in a bag of six PB&J sandwiches a day to beef up, and that's enough chitchat. The twins get to work. Griffin, as always, does everything his brother can. A contraption hooked to that left arm allows him to fire up 225 pounds on the bench exactly as he did 20 times at the combine. He tosses the medicine ball against a wall and crouches low for excruciating one-legged front squats.

Photo by Tyler Dunne

It doesn't matter if it's a step-back J or, here, tying a shoe, fitting his dreads into a bun (the ones O'Leary once made him cut) and hurling weights around. Since dirtying up that bandage at four, Griffin has been hellbent on living a life without restrictions.

Now, it's simple: He's hellbent on dominating in the NFL.

If anyone believes playing without a hand will zap Griffin's game, he sternly states, "What I'm doing is not going to stop," and points to the numbers: 33.5 tackles for loss, 18.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, two interceptions and 10 pass breakups in two seasons with Frost.

There's no rocket science here. In high school, Moore learned it was best to play Griffin outside where he couldn't get held in the muck inside. And from there, Griffin explains his tackle is no different than any other textbook tackle from anticipation to gaining outside leverage to a traditional "wrap and roll."

But moments later, Griffin corrects himself. One aspect of his tackle is different.

The initial contact. The strike.

The fact that he wants to hurt you.

"The aggression I put behind it," he says. "The grit. There's just so much that I bring behind it. I bring out the passion, the hatred, everything that comes with every time I hit somebody. I want to make everybody feel it."

He replays all the doubts—coaches, players, fans all asking, How can he tackle?—and unleashes it all through his victim.

"And it feels good when you do it."

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01:  Shaquem Griffin #18 of the UCF Knights steps over Jarrett Stidham #8 of the Auburn Tigers after making a sack in the second quarter during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on January 1, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgi
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

He's an unmatched heat-seeking missile, too. No linebacker in the draft came close to touching his 4.38 40, and nobody in St. Petersburg is surprised. They remember Griffin rounding the bend as the third leg on his high school's 4x100-meter state championship track team in one of the country's fastest states.

Citing that NFL teams throw to their backs as many as "20 times a game," Griffin promises to be a chesspiece who can cover, rush in nickel packages and stick with wideouts downfield.

"I get one creative coach," he says, "and they can do whatever they want with me."

OK, so scouts and coaches haven't been grilling him about the lack of a hand. It's been all X's and O's, and that's encouraging. Still, Griffin has mastered the art of reading body language. He can sense when a coach doesn't believe. He remembers pleading his case to that first UCF staff and hearing gibberish back—"answers just for me to leave the room"—and, sure, there are hints of doubt in the rhetoric from some NFL teams.

"I knew that before I even got to this point," Griffin says. "I knew it'd be like that at every level. The only thing I need is one team that does. One team that does. That's all that I need. I'm not worried about everybody else.

"All I need is one."

Moore is similarly skeptical about NFL teams' intentions with Griffin. His phone has been ringing all day, every day, and teams aren't peppering him with questions about Griffin's hand, either. They only want to know what makes him tick…and Moore could go on for days. When the Griffin twins aren't around, he rolls one story to the next. The time the twins dumped a gunner on a punt return into the sand pit on the sideline and a kicker's net then fell on the kid. (The opposing coach was livid.) Those MMA-style workouts. Moore has all players rip through chaotic "rounds," in which there's screaming and loud music and violent lifts filling that weight room.

In Moore's decade coaching, Lakewood has become a cocky team full of what he calls "coachable buttholes." Griffin epitomized that bite. That edge.

He sees next week as a gut-check moment for the NFL.

"Shaquem is bringing awareness to how we evaluate players," Moore says. "Do we evaluate players by how they look? Their color, their height, their size? Or productivity? If it's the first, that's professional wrestling. That's entertainment. If it's legitimately wins and losses and production, then it's a no-brainer."

Griffin's plan to dominate is an ingrained "belief system," he adds, and Griffin "is not going to be intimidated."

"You better draft him," Moore says. "Because if you don't draft him, you have to play against him."

One team has shown a ton of love and makes perfect sense to Griffin: the Seahawks.

The twins have played together their entire lives—Shaquill even threatened to ditch UCF with his brother when UCF floated that JUCO idea. No Richard Sherman? Possibly no Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor? No problem in Griffin's eyes. There's major, mutual interest.

"It'd be a Legion of Griffins!" Griffin says. "Interest like crazy. Seattle loves me, and I love Seattle back. That feeling of being there is like being home."

The Legion of Boom, he lobbies, would not be dead.

"We'd be back in business!"

There's also a good chance Seattle's selections come and go. A good chance Round 1 bleeds to 2 to 3 to 4 to 5 with all 32 NFL teams unwilling to invest a premium pick in him. What if general managers agree with their contingents' spamming of Griffin's mentions? That he is a "wasted pick"? This league is rarely accused of thinking outside the box, often stagnant in archaic logic.

Griffin's entire family will be in that Arlington, Texas, green room, and you can picture the depressing sight now.

Teams will pass. Cameras will zoom in on Griffin. The nation will weep.

Well, Griffin is here to say he wants zero sympathy and sincerely does not care when he's drafted. His family will polish off a great meal. His mom will wear a killer new dress she was fitted for today. They'll cherish every second of the experience.

"And when my name gets called," Griffin says, "everybody's going to be crying."

Then, it's back to work. To practice. To puking. This is a kid whose celebrity could accelerate at Tim Tebow speeds. The world cannot get enough of Griffin, a 6'1", 227-pound beacon of light. This amount of attention, he's told, could easily go to anyone's head.

Maybe, just maybe, a draft-day fall is exactly what he needs to resharpen his edge for an eternity.

Griffin listens intently and scowls.

"The edge isn't going anywhere," he says. "That edge has been building since I was four years old. People start getting their edge when they start getting good at football—at an older age—but I got this when I was young. I've been doubted since I was four years old playing football.

"It only grows. It never weakens."

The home turf is as eclectic as it gets. George Michael's "Freedom" blares on a television above, adults rip through beers at the bar, teens share first dates, kids pinball in and out of the arcade, weathered Floridians smoke and curse outside and, at Lane 22 of 32, Griffin is now mocking his brother's bowling game.

The backspin on Shaquill's toss is high comedy, with the ball tip-toeing the edge of the left gutter before—"Hehhhhh!"—shooting into the right. Each time the ball does this twist-a-flex, Griffin howls out a scratchy "Hehhhh!" from the very back of his throat. Something like a donkey about to vomit.

With each sound effect, he pretends to crank a wheel hard right. Shaquill, ball in hand, nearly collapses in laughter.

For two hours, the fun never stops. The twins roast Golden for struggling when he is the one who took a bowling class in college. "It was an elective!" Golden pleads. And right then, in the crew's second game, Golden catches fire to stay neck and neck with Griffin. All those bowling classes start paying off.

Shaquill? A distant third, he kicks back on that circular sofa with a few things to say.

Photo by Tyler Dunne

He wants everyone to know his twin is an athlete like everyone else, that Griffin has "no limitations" and is "without a doubt" the best defensive player in the draft.

"The only thing he has to do is be Shaquem Griffin," Shaquill says. "If he can be Shaquem Griffin when he gets to the league, he has nothing to worry about.

"He's always going to have doubters. After he gets drafted, it's not going to stop. It's always going to be like that. The people who doubt him now—there's always going to be guys like that. So that chip is only going to get bigger. But that's why he continues to say, 'It's only the beginning.' This movement and everything he does is way bigger than himself."

In the darkness of this bowling alley, Griffin's gold necklace sparkles. The words "Against All Odds" hang from its base.

What began as a hashtag is becoming just that: a movement. And that's the phrasing Griffin prefers. A movement implies he's far from finished. He knows he's inspiring every kid with any type of birth defect. ("I'll set the path for them, and they'll just walk it.") He knows he can change the world. ("When people see me on the field, they'll think, Wow, he's really doing this.") Whereas a feel-good story is flowery and abstract, a movement never sleeps.

But a movement could also die off if Griffin doesn't play on Sundays.

In an epic 10th frame, Golden strings together three straight strikes and yells, "That's how you end it!" to hand Griffin the L, 152 to 138. Not that Griffin caught the heroics. He was sprawled on top of that circular cushion with his brother, tapping through Instagram, in a state of relaxation. "Sad case," he says, smiling, before walking off and perching a leg atop the back of another couch to relax.

A storm, he assures, is coming.

"Watch and see," he says. "If you blink, you might miss something important. It'll be like falling asleep at the beginning of the movie. You'll be lost."

Folks have been sleeping for a while. Not just those coaches at UCF. He was a late invite to the Senior Bowl and an extra-late invite to the combine. Surely, many scouts who gave Griffin lip service have an asterisk next to his name on their scouting report. Maybe a line drawn straight through it. Griffin doesn't care. Those hits, the ones he makes you feel, are imminent.

They can hit snooze if they want.

"The good thing is," Griffin says, "it's a long movie so you can catch up.

"I'm still writing it."

With that, Griffin turns in his bowling shoes, walks off into the muggy St. Pete air, slides into his car and drives away.