DENVER — She knew they’d come. The place was big, and she was small, and there was a world of noise and bodies around her and around them, but she knew they’d come. Tangie Griffin, aka Mama Griffin, had pregame field passes to watch her twin boys Shaquill and Shaquem warm up before the season opener, Shaquem’s NFL regular season debut. Fireworks and introductions were coming soon, and the Seattle Seahawks were headed to the locker room, the Griffin twins among them. But they spotted Mrs. Griffin waving her arms on the sideline and made a beeline for a pair of hugs. She held them close and after a moment let them go, then she covered her mouth with her hands. Focusing her attention on the rookie, she kissed her hands and shook all over as she sent love his way. Then he was off, into the fray once more, minus one appendage we all assumed was required to play pro football until the first time we saw Shaquem Griffin.
Few people know this emotion, and some of them are here in the stands. They’re the mothers and fathers of boys and girls who are missing hands and fingers and feet. They’re about to watch one of their own land on the moon and plant the flag of the unlucky. It was chance—not heredity or malpractice or any of the other possible explanations that run through a mother’s mind when she finds out what afflicts her baby. Chance took away one of the twins’ hands, as it had for the man in the front row at Mile High, near the visitors’ tunnel, screaming, “Mama Griffin! Mama Griffin!” Like Shaquem, he had his boneless, stunted fingers amputated as a child, and like Shaquem, he played football. But Zack Kenney grew up in Colorado Springs, not central Florida, and he was a small boy. Football didn’t take him to UCF, or the fifth round of the NFL draft. It gave Zack confidence, though, and it forged an unbreakable bond between single mother and son.
“Mama Griffin! Mama Griffin!” Zack and his mom Jamie are shouting in unison now. She runs over and grabs their hands, beaming as she sings “Hellooooo!” He says he was born with the same condition as Shaquem—amniotic band syndrome—and she reaches over and grabs his amputated nub and shakes it the way you’d only shake a stranger’s nub if you’d held one dear to you before. “I know,” she says. The tickets were Zack’s 22nd birthday present, but they’re supposed to be sitting in the upper deck, section 534. They finagled their way to the front row closest to the field an hour before the game to see Shaquem. Jamie reached out to Tangie five years ago, on Facebook, when Shaquem’s story started making waves, and told her what an inspiration her son was. Tangie replied and thanked her, though neither of them counted on all this. The NFL. The Nike campaign. The Gillette shaving ad. The starting nod at linebacker as a rookie. It’s a lot.
“I’m trying not to cry and mess up my makeup,” Tangie says during a quiet moment. “Who would have thought? He’s been an inspiring kid from Day 1, but I never thought it would be worldwide like this.”
It’s going to be like this for a while. In Chicago Monday night, and in Arizona two weeks after that, and on and on, this is what the Griffins can expect: Everywhere he plays, there will be people in the stands so emotionally invested in Shaquem, a stranger, that his appearance will bring them to tears. This is the grand tour of What’s Possible, a showcase of the power of the mind over the frailty of the body. And they won’t just be amputees, the ones who weep. They’ll be mothers and fathers. And nurses too. “Mama Griffin! Mama Griffin!” This voice is coming from the front row as well; Tangie runs to it. It’s Carol Braig, who is waving the only NFL jersey she’s ever owned, No. 49, ordered three weeks ago. Braig is a retiree living in Longmont, Colo., who once worked for 15 years at Shriner’s Children’s hospital in Honolulu, where children from all over the Pacific sought expert medical care. She looks at Shaquem, and she sees the boy from Cambodia who stepped on a decades-old mine and lost a leg, or the Samoan boy, paralyzed in a football game. Some of the children walk out of the hospital, some don’t. Somehow, a boy just like them grew up to be an NFL player.
“It just took me right back to seeing all those kids in the past,” Braig says. “These kinds of things are incredibly hard for a family, they have no idea what the future will become. She’s got stories I bet that are really, really heavy. To me it’s what makes being a nurse really special. Some of those stories have a positive outcome that you couldn’t see coming.”
Some of the people that would like to be there to see Shaquem—in Oakland in October, then Detroit, then Los Angeles—won’t be there because tickets cost too much. They’ll watch at home, like Dylan Wood, the 17-year-old from Windsor, Colo., who made headlines a couple years back when he hit the high school wrestling circuit with one hand. He found out about Shaquem while watching UCF in the Peach Bowl last January. Wood tracked down a video interview in which Shaquem goes through his home gym and details his workout regimen and demonstrates how he lifts free weights with the aid of straps. After that, Wood found new straps to match the style and design of Shaquem’s. The Woods gathered in the living room Sunday and glued themselves to the flatscreen for the FOX broadcast. “They had the camera on him as much as possible,” Wood says of Griffin. “They talked about it more towards the beginning. Every time I looked at the screen he was either on there or they were pulling the camera away.”
Wood is about to graduate high school and make another leap, from wrestling to coaching at a new high school in his town. What he loves about Griffin’s story speaks to the challenge of big transitions and new environments for amputees. “It’s great to see what he did. He found a school that wanted to make him great. He found a place that accepted him.”
Griffin made one more leap into the unknown Sunday. If he had any doubts about his ability to compete at the next level, they didn’t show. He made two tackles, misplayed some coverages and executed others. In the process, he made some believers on the other sideline. “I watched him,” says Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall. “I can’t even imagine... it’s tough because you’ve got to get off blocks. Sometimes you have to grab with two hands. To be able to play at this level with one hand is special. The fact that he’s out there is just amazing. He’s got a lot to learn, but he’s athletic enough to be good.”
Broncos tight end Troy Fumagalli, on injured reserve and watching from the press box, watched Griffin wrap up fellow tight end Jake Butt on an open-field tackle in the second half. Fumagalli knows to a small degree the challenges facing Griffin; he too suffered from amniotic band syndrome, though surgeons were able to save all but one of his fingers the day after he was born. His hands are covered in scars, and there’s a nub where his left index finger would have been.
“It’s incredible what he’s been able to do,” Fumagalli says. “He’s obviously got the right mindset. You have to think ‘It’s not gonna affect my future.’ You do everything you can. You've got to do everything else right. And you can’t let people get to you. You can’t listen to people telling you that you can’t do it.”
“He’s gonna bless a lot of peoples’ lives,” says Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles. “You can never count out a guy like that. They’re stronger than you think they are, because of what they’ve been through. They know how to compete.” Bolles had been so touched by Griffin’s story he sought him out after the game, hugged him and shared some words. “I just said, ‘You’re a hell of a player. Just keep proving people wrong, because you have the ability to play in this league.”
Shaquem knows this, or else he wouldn’t be here. And he knows he’ll have to play better football than he played Sunday in order to hold down a spot in the linebacker rotation once K.J. Wright returns from a knee injury. But he can’t sulk from his locker to the team bus the way players do when they’re questioning their performance after a loss. He doesn’t have the freedom to. It is Shaquem Griffin’s unique burden that he’s expected to snap out of a personal funk and see the big picture. He represents a group of people now—not by choice, but by virtue of his success. Mom met the Kenneys in the stands, in seats they didn’t belong in, where Zack and Jamie told her they’d like to meet Shaquem in person—it was Jamie’s promise to Zack, and Mama Griffin saw it done. They met outside the stadium, the former high school running back and the NFL player. They took pictures, and they bumped nubs. “I wish I could’ve snapped a picture at that moment,” Jamie says.
Now Shaquem can get on the bus and think about what went wrong between the lines, and how to make this ride last longer than 17 weeks. He’ll let mom handle the big picture; she’s good at that. “Having all these people behind his back to support him, and to hear that people who love other teams are fans of Shaquem,” she says, “it leaves me overjoyed. It leaves me speechless.”
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