Shaquem Griffin might not be the biggest name at the Senior Bowl this week, but the Central Florida linebacker is the most inspirational.
Griffin doesn’t have a left hand. He has defied odds to this point by excelling as a college football player, and now has his sights set on the NFL.
Griffin stole the show during the opening news conferences of the Senior Bowl, providing inspirational messages to anyone who has a physical or mental disability.
“It’s not a disability unless you make it one,” Griffin said succinctly.
It’s the reason why he is among the finalists for the inaugural Jason Witten Man of the Year award to be handed out next month in Frisco.
The award, named in honor of the Dallas Cowboys’ living legend, is given to a college football player who has demonstrated exceptional courage, integrity and sportsmanship both on and off the field.
Along with Griffin, Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph and Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick are the other finalists.
“It’s a tremendous honor for me,” Griffin said. “Being able to attend the awards ceremony [on Feb. 22] is going to be something special. Being able to have my family there and everybody supporting me, there’s nothing more I can ask for.
“Everything I’ve been doing is the right way.”
It’s hard to question that, especially with how he handled a packed news conference Monday evening.
Griffin joked about UCF absolutely deserving the national championship label and trash talking his twin brother, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Shaquill Griffin, if he gets drafted higher.
Oh, and he has no concerns about playing in front of NFL scouts with one hand.
“As long as I’m going fast and making plays this week, they’re going to forget how many hands I have,” Griffin said.
Griffin has served as one of the more remarkable stories throughout the college football season. Not only did he help the Knights complete an undefeated season, something he described as national championship worthy, he did it with what most would describe as a crippling disability for a football player.
Griffin had his left hand amputated at the age of 4 because of a rare birth condition known as Amniotic Band Syndrome.
That didn’t stop Griffin from pursuing his passion of football, and he’s excelled at every stop. He was an all-state player in high school and went on to star at UCF.
He is fresh off leading UCF to a victory over Auburn in the Peach Bowl, racking up 12 tackles — 3 1/2 for loss — with 1 1/2 sacks in a performance that earned him the bowl game’s defensive MVP.
“One of the most amazing stories of this whole college football season. It was quite an honor to be able to invite him to the game,” Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said. “This is a highly unusual circumstance where you’re talking about someone trying to make the jump from college football to the NFL with one hand.”
Griffin is expected to do it although his upside remains a question. At worst, Savage views Griffin as a special teamer and sub-package linebacker. At best, who knows?
“He can come off the edge,” Savage said. “He’s very effective as a pass rusher.”
Griffin, who combined for 18.5 sacks these past two seasons, could become football’s version of baseball great Jim Abbott.
Abbott pitched 10 years in the big leagues, including a no-hitter, despite missing his right hand. It’s hard not to think about — or root for — a future just as bright for Griffin.
“I want to be known as a guy who is going to give everything he’s got no matter what it is. I want to be known as a guy who is going to have a motor and just run all over the field,” Griffin said. “I’m not going to look at myself as a guy with a disability.
“I’m not going to look at myself as having a handicap ‘cause if you have a handicap that means you’re only limited to certain things. I’m not limited to nothing,” Griffin said.
“After this week, everybody will know who I really am.”