Each of the finalists for the 2018 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award will be featured here. In order to cast your online vote to help determine the 2018 Rare Disease Champion, you can visit our voting page. The winner will be announced Tuesday, January 9th.
University: University of Central Florida
Vitals: 6-2, 230-pound senior linebacker
Quick Hits: Born with the rare disorder amniotic band syndrome of his left hand, Griffin endured the pain for four years before his hand was surgically removed in 1999. … Has an identical twin brother Shaquill who is a rookie for the Seattle Seahawks after being drafted in the third round. … Chose UCF because the school was committed to giving both Griffins the opportunity to play. … Moved from safety to linebacker in 2016 and in his first year as a starter won the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Defensive Player of the Year award. … Finished 2017 regular season third on the Knights in tackles with 62, had 10 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks to earn First Team All-Conference. … Aspires to follow his twin brother to the NFL. … Was nominated for AFCA Good Works Team in 2017 for outstanding community service.
INSIDE THE STORY
The Griffin brothers made it perfectly clear they were a package deal coming out of high school. Shaquill was the more highly recruited and sought after prospect, but neither saw the other as better.
University of South Florida initially offered only Shaquill, who is older than Shaquem by 60 seconds, a scholarship then later offered one to his twin brother. That wasn’t good enough.
Only UCF promised equal opportunity to both Griffins to play college football. After three seasons (including a redshirt), Shaquem struggled to ascend up the depth chart beyond the scout team and special teams. Meanwhile his brother flourished as a corner for the Knights and was getting serious NFL attention.
After being told “you can’t” most of your life, Shaquem Griffin was ready when opportunity knocked in early 2016. UCF went through a coaching change and new skipper Scott Frost’s staff saw Griffin as an outside linebacker instead of a safety in the 3-4 defense they were employing.
The combination of speed, power and athleticism completely overshadowed the absence of a left hand. In his first season as a full-time starter Griffin soared well beyond expectations and became an impact player.
“I wasn’t ready. It was God’s plan and purpose for me. I had to gain weight to play in college so I did that. Then I had to really learn my craft,” Griffin said. “I was always faster than offensive lineman so I could run past them. I couldn’t do that anymore. So I learned from not only my position coach, but the D-line coach and the O-line coach to understand what it took. Not having a left hand made me become better, but I had to learn it.”
THE RARE JOURNEY
When identical twins Shaquem and Shaquill Griffin were in their mother Tangie’s womb, a fibrous tissue wrapped around Shaquem’s left wrist and prevented his hand from developing. When he was born, his fingers were only small nubs.
His underdeveloped left hand was extremely painful and sensitive. This rare disease became so painful that one night when Shaquem was four years old his mother found him with a knife in the kitchen wanting to cut his fingers off to end the pain.
That’s when Tangie knew her youngest son needed surgery right away to end his suffering. It was clear no left hand was better than enduring the pain of having a left hand was causing.
WHAT THEY SAID
“I never went into a practice or a game thinking about me having one hand. I never thought about how hard it must be to play that way. I just see the ball and go after it and make plays like anybody else. Yes I might look a little different, but I’ve played a game with a broken right hand and made 14 tackles so I can play with no hands if I have to. My big thing is to prove somebody wrong when they say I can’t do something because I only have one hand. I use it as motivation, go out and play as hard as I can to show others you can do anything you want.” – Shaquem Griffin
“I’m sure he’s had plenty of people in his life tell him football is not the right avenue to pursue. But if you want it bad enough, you can make it happen. And Shaquem’s done that. He doesn’t want to be seen as someone who has a disability. He just wants to go out and play football like everyone else.” – Former UCF head coach Scott Frost