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ARLINGTON, Texas—Shaquem Griffin’s whereabouts were being diligently tracked and relayed into the earpieces of NFL staff waiting at AT&T Stadium.
Shaquem Griffin has just departed the hotel. Just over 20 minutes. … Shaquem Griffin is getting off at Collins Street. … Shaquem Griffin is turning onto Randall now. Should be just a few minutes away … They have arrived and are unloading out of their vehicles…
It was just before 3 p.m. local time, and Shaquem Griffin’s NFL draft moment was almost here. For everything he had done his entire football career to prove he was no different from any other player, now it was time to celebrate like no ordinary fifth-round pick.
The stage was set; the crowd had been alerted of his impending arrival; boxes of Seahawks hats were waiting for him and the 17 family members he’d brought with him for the biggest weekend of his life. There was one last reminder, from one NFL staffer: “Make sure his brother is right next to him.”
For most of the past 22 years, that’s exactly where his brother had been. Shaquem and his twin brother, Shaquill, were born just a minute apart in June 1995. They chose to attend the University of Central Florida because it met the most important criteria—the football team wanted both brothers. They were always, Shaquill says, a package deal.
No one could have guessed that would extend to, of all places, the NFL. But then again, Shaquem Griffin, the first one-handed player drafted into the NFL, has spent his entire life defying the odds.
Shaquem and his extended family had spent Thursday and Friday night at AT&T Stadium, walking the red carpet, sitting around a long rectangular table in the green room positioned near the 40-yard line, listening to 100 other players’ names get called. On Saturday the Griffin family instead stayed at the players’ hotel in downtown Dallas, packed into Shaquem’s suite. He was wearing a sweatsuit, an outfit that was more relaxed than the person wearing it.
One year earlier, Shaquill, a cornerback, had been drafted by the Seahawks with the 90th pick, in the third round. The 2017 season was the first one they’d spent apart, Shaquill starting 11 games for the Seahawks, while Shaquem, who had redshirted their freshman year, helped lead UCF to an undefeated season. Living on opposite coasts prepared them for what they thought was the inevitability of playing on different NFL teams.
“I continued to tell him,” Shaquill said, “it was a one percent chance that this could actually happen.”
Some would have put much lower odds on Shaquem playing in the NFL at all. His left hand was amputated at age 4, the result of a congenital condition called amniotic band syndrome, which had stunted the development of the appendage and caused excruciating pain. But the reason he’s become such an inspiration for not just other limb-deficient athletes, and not merely football fans, is the way in which he rejected the idea that he was ever at a disadvantage.
That came good stead in the months leading up to the draft. Griffin did not originally receive an invite to the combine. That changed once he turned heads on the practice field at the Senior Bowl. Phil Savage, who was responsible for inviting Griffin to Mobile as the all-star game’s executive director, was beaming on Saturday afternoon at AT&T Stadium. “I’m just happy to play a small part,” he said.
And once Shaquem got to the combine, we all know what happened. Using a prosthetic hand, he bench pressed 225 pounds 20 times, a full three more reps than Shaquill had one year earlier. He then tied his twin by running the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds, which registered as the fastest time for a linebacker at the combine since 2003. Pete Carroll, his future head coach, grinned widely and fist-pumped up in the Seahawks’ box.
That was just a precursor to what would become one of the most remarkable draft weekend stories. Seahawks GM John Schneider said at the combine that someone who had met legendary UCLA coach John Wooden told him they got the same feeling from Shaquem. When team brass sat down with him, “he moved us all,” Carroll said. Afterward, they let Shaquill know how much they loved his brother—but, as he knew from one year earlier, the draft can go any which way.
When the phone call came, around 1 p.m. local time, Shaquem was occupied. “The process was definitely getting long,” he said. “I was waiting for a while, and I had to use the restroom.” But Shaquill instinctively recognized the 425 area code lighting up his brother’s phone and busted open the bathroom door. “Answer your phone!” he yelled. On the other end were Schneider and Carroll: They were taking Shaquem with the No. 141 pick, four selections into the fifth round, a special-teams player who will work in at weakside linebacker on the same defense as his brother. What Shaquem wanted to say was, Thank you so much. All he could get out was, I can’t breathe. The wait was worth it.
“If I had to do it all over again, I definitely would, to have the opportunity to be with my brother once more,” Shaquem said. “I think I’m in the best spot ever now.”
They were soon on their way back to AT&T Stadium, the arrival of the extended Griffin family being tracked by the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell had already departed the Dallas area, so the presentation would fall to the league’s highest-ranking football operations employee, Dave Gardi, who had spent the rest of the weekend making “The Pick Is In” announcements.
The Griffins were met in the tunnel by NFL officials. Both brothers would be going on stage, they were told, followed by the rest of the family. The extended family erupted in cheers, and Shaquem and Shaquill simultaneously undid their matching buns and flipped their heads over to shake out their braids, preparing to slip on the Seahawks ball caps up on stage. Then, they leaned over to gently fix the cuffs on the bright blue suit of their young nephew. This was a moment meant to be shared—with their family, with the 12s, with the entire crowd in Dallas.
“All the things we went through, the ups and the downs—this journey has just been crazy,” said Tangie Griffin, who 18 years ago found her 4-year-old son in the kitchen, trying to cut off his hand with a knife because of the relentless pain, and scheduled Shaquem’s amputation the next day. “So to experience this, I’m trying not to start crying right now.”
Shaquem has been adamant that he wants to be more than a feel-good story. “I want to be a guy who is a football player,” he said, “and a good one at that.” No one doubts he can be known as both.
Moments before Shaquem finally walked out in front of the crowd, standing in the tunnel between the green room and the stage, an events producer named Dan Arndt told Shaquem that he works the NFL’s four biggest events. First is the draft. Next, he wants to see him at the Pro Bowl. Then, the Super Bowl. “And the last time you’ll see me,” he said, “is when they take the towels off your bust in Canton.”
Shaquem nodded quietly, his eyes wide.
“We got three more,” he replied. “Thank you sir.”
Soon his walk-up music began playing—Drake’s “Do Not Disturb”—and it was time for Shaquem Griffin, draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks, to take his much awaited walk across the stage in front of a roaring crowd. He took a deep breath, patted his heart and looked over at his brother, who was standing right next to him.
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