Every player in this week’s NFL draft has a unique story, a path that brought them, often through challenging circumstances, to professional football. But there hasn’t been a player quite like Shaquem Griffin before. A twin, Griffin was born with an undeveloped left hand caused by amniotic band syndrome, a condition that can result in damaged tissue or, in extreme cases, even fetal death.
Griffin later had his hand amputated after the pain led him to try to cut off his own fingers at the age of four. Pushed by his father, Griffin didn’t let his situation hold him back, ending a standout high-school career by making second team All-State in football. While he could have pursued a track scholarship, both Griffin twins, Shaquem and Shaquill, elected to attend the University of Central Florida.
There are those who believe Shaquem was signed by UCF solely to make sure the college got the highly rated Shaquill, who now plays for the Seattle Seahawks, and Shaquem initially saw little playing time. It wasn’t until Scott Frost was hired as head coach – after a 0-12 season – that Shaquem got his chance. Named the American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year after his first season as a starter in 2016, Griffin followed that up with All-Conference first-team honors in 2017.
Griffin’s first step in convincing evaluators that he can play professionally came at the NFL Combine in March, an invite-only event that has players run, jump and perform position-specific drills. Running the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds, the fastest by a linebacker since 2003, Griffin also used a prosthetic hand to bench press 225lbs 20 times, a solid result. Despite showing game-changing speed, something NFL scouts generally salivate over, Griffin was only rated as a backup or special teams player.
NFL evaluators found weaknesses which they believe will push him into the later rounds of the draft, despite his college accomplishments and Combine numbers. For NFL.com scouts, those limitations primarily relate to his tackling ability: “Griffin’s physical limitation should be discussed as it pertains to areas like tackle disengagement and consistency of finishing, but his instincts, play speed and technique have all been major factors in helping him thrive at his position.”
Johnny Nansen, linebackers and assistant head coach for the USC Trojans, says those doubts may be due to the huge step up from college to professional football. “In the NFL, particularly at linebacker, great tackling technique is expected,” says Nansen. “The ball carriers will be faster and stronger than those at the college level, requiring the defensive players to have good technique to bring them to the ground and end the play.”
Nansen emphasizes that poor technique not only leads to missed tackles but can result in injury. “A player can be the strongest or fastest guy on the field but if he puts his head down or leaves his feet when tackling, his strength and speed will not mean anything. If he leads with his head, it’s the first thing to make contact and makes concussions and neck injuries much more likely.”
Justin Tuck, the former two-time Pro Bowl defensive end for the Giants and Raiders believes Griffin can carve out a solid career. “He proved through his play in college that he has the skills to play the game at a high level,” says Tuck. Though there might be more uncertainty for a player like Griffin – he would be the first in NFL history with one hand – Tuck believes that Griffin could be a steal for a team as a fifth- or sixth-rounder. Four-time Pro Bowler Richard Sherman went even further and wrote on Twitter that if Griffin “doesn’t get drafted in the first two days the system is broken”.
“I think the challenging part for him will be the obvious – shedding blocks and tackling NFL caliber athletes,” says Tuck. “He has obviously found a way to overcome this so far though, so it will be exciting to watch him develop even more.”
The only player comparable to Griffin, at least as it relates to limitations, is a former team-mate of Tuck’s in New York, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Paul lost much of his right hand after a fireworks accident in 2015 and has played portions of the 2016 and 2017 seasons with his hand wrapped up like a club. Pierre-Paul finished last season with eight sacks and 47 tackles.
While Pierre-Paul has remained effective with one hand, differences in positional responsibilities make Griffin’s challenges unique. In that respect, Tuck gives the immediate advantage to Griffin. “Though there are similarities, I believe Griffin would have the advantage here because he has dealt with this for far longer than Jason.” However, Tuck also believes that Pierre-Paul will overcome this obstacle as he continues to adapt and learn how to use his hand.
The NFL, like any other professional sport, is a results-driven business and players pursue any advantagethey can against an opposing player, something that Tuck envisions happening.
“I’m sure many teams will try to attack his left hand and there are many ways that blockers and ball carriers will attack it,” Tuck says. “But if he has been this successful dealing with those same attacks in college, I’m guessing that he has some tricks of his own to combat those attacks and set himself apart.”
Historically, NFL talent evaluators tend to shy away from the different – the short quarterback, slow wide receiver, or undersized offensive lineman – afraid to take a chance on a player that doesn’t fit the mold, a factor which works against Griffin. But one aspect of Griffin’s game which can’t be measured at a Combine or Pro Day is his drive and motivation to prove his doubters wrong, a powerful tool that has fueled the ascent of many late-round picks before him.
In that, Tuck figures that Griffin isn’t finished. “Griffin has already proven himself with what he has accomplished in college and I’m sure he is extremely motivated to continue proving people wrong.”