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2019 NCAA Inspiration Award: Shaquem Griffin

Former UCF star became the first NFL player with one hand and a role model for others

An amputated hand did not hinder Shaquem Griffin’s potential — it strengthened it.

At age 4, his left hand was removed due to extreme pain triggered by amniotic band syndrome, which he had suffered in the womb. The day after surgery, Griffin was already playing two-on-two street football. Freed of the unusable extremity, he instantaneously discovered what would become a lifelong passion for football — one that would one day inspire a legion of others, young and old, to understand that a physical limitation didn’t have be one.   

Griffin was a star linebacker at the University of Central Florida and is now a member of the Seattle Seahawks alongside his identical twin brother, Shaquill. Shaquem is the first one-handed player in NFL history.

He wouldn’t have reached those lofty heights without the resolve and competitive fire that his parents imbued from a young age. Whether playing pingpong or card games, Shaquem’s mother, Tangie, and father, Terry, exuded intensity, which Shaquem was eager to absorb. “It was a competitive household,” he said. “If I wanted to win at something, I had to work for it. It made me understand I could do anything I put my mind to.”

Shaquem brought that mentality to the weight room. He had to if he wanted to keep pace with, even surpass, his peers. In middle school and high school, he used chains and other innovations to lift weights — finding ways to train where others may have given up. In 2013, that discipline, coupled with burgeoning talent on the gridiron, earned him a football scholarship at UCF.

The twins were inseparable at UCF despite Shaquem redshirting his first year while Shaquill earned time on the field right away. During his junior and senior seasons, Shaquem trained under former UCF head strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval, and Shaquem’s adaptive techniques in the weight room evolved. While at UCF, Shaquem completed his first pullup via a prosthetic. On the bench press, he used a prosthetic with a carbon fiber sleeve hooked to a clamp that grasped the bar. And by the end of his junior year, he was squatting 700 pounds — more than three times his body weight.

That tenacity and innovation set him apart: Despite the obvious hurdles, he refused to be defined by his disability, which helped him transform from someone with little playing time to one of the nation’s top defensive players. In 2016, he finished among the top 12 players in the nation in sacks.  

“His leadership and his ability to inspire others to competitive greatness — that’s probably his best quality,” Duval said. “He probably changed my life more than I changed his.”

In 2016, Shaquem started all 13 games as outside linebacker and was named the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. As a senior, if someone showed up late, no words needed to be exchanged between the coaches and Shaquem — they knew he would hold that person to account.

In his final season at UCF, Shaquem led the Knights to an American Athletic Conference Championship and Peach Bowl title. Then he garnered widespread attention at the 2018 NFL combine by bench pressing 225 pounds 20 times. He also posted a 4.38-second 40-yard dash — the fastest time recorded by any linebacker — prompting the Seahawks to draft him in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL draft.

Throughout his life, Shaquem hasn’t let his amputation be a hindrance, and now even plans to use it to his benefit. The Seahawk rookie is working hard to master the ability to punch the ball out with his left arm rather than his right, finding strength where others may see a disadvantage.  

“I can still get a piece with my left, even if the guy has (the ball) tucked tight, because I know I can fit my hand in there whereas my right hand might not fit into the hole,” he said.  

On the NFL stage, Shaquem motivates many, but his ability to inspire younger generations began in high school when he and Shaquill formed a track club in their hometown. The club, St. Pete Nitro, still operates today and offers tutoring programs and a family environment where children can exercise while learning about the importance of academics. Shaquem is an example to which they can aspire: He earned his undergraduate degree in human communication and began pursuing his master’s in psychology before he even completed his final season with the Knights.

“My dad always said you want to be able to get everything you can out of it,” he said about college. “They pay for your education, for your time to be there, so get everything you can.”

Shaquem also lends time to help others with similar disabilities. He has been involved with Limbitless Solutions, an organization founded at UCF that creates low-cost prosthetic limbs for children using 3D printers. To this day, he continues to provide feedback to improve those prosthetics. As he adjusts to an NFL lifting regimen, he is working to find a prosthetic that can be used for all movements, continually seeking ways to better himself, just as he did when he first fell in love with the sport 19 years ago. Shaquem’s message to others battling similar challenges is simple: stay positive.

“(I) never let doubters shape who I am,” he said. “You can’t allow that negativity to shape what you’re going to do.”

Shaquem Griffin will be honored with a 2019 Inspiration Award at the NCAA Honors Celebration on Wednesday, Jan. 23, in Orlando, Florida. The award is presented to a coach or administrator currently associated with intercollegiate athletics, or to a current or former varsity letter winner at an NCAA institution. It is reserved for people, who used perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome a life-altering situation, and most importantly, are role models giving hope and inspiration to others.