Telling this story involves a conundrum.
Central Florida’s Shaquem Griffin is a unique football player, but the junior linebacker would rather not talk about the reason that makes him unique.
“All he wants to do is play football,” UCF first-year coach Scott Frost said this week.
Shaquem (pronounced: sha-KEEM) and his twin brother Shaquill, a senior defensive back, have three hands between them. Shaquem’s left arm ends just above his wrist. When he was four, his left hand was amputated.
“I figured he wouldn’t be here if he couldn’t play,” Frost said when asked about hearing of Shaquem’s handicap. “He doesn’t want to talk about having one hand. He doesn’t look on it like it’s a liability and he doesn’t play like it’s a liability.”
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Shaquem was moved from safety to linebacker during spring football and has been a key performer for the Knights’ defense. He has 12 total tackles, a tackle for loss and a sack. He has also recorded a pass breakup, a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry.
Nope. It’s not a liability.
Shaquem, born 16 seconds after his brother, was afflicted with amniotic band syndrome, a congenital birth defect that occurs in about one of every 1,200 births. Part of the amniotic sac had become entangled around his left wrist.
For the first four years of his life, Shaquem’s left hand was useless, but anytime his jelly-like fingers and hand came in contact with anything, he suffered excruciating pain. He begged his parents for relief, and the amputation was recommended and performed.
Terry, the twins’ father, cut Shaquem no slack. Dad taught him how to mow the yard, rake leaves and bench press using one hand. Shaquem, 21, uses a prosthetic hand for workouts, driving and everything else except for football.
As one would expect of a twin, Shaquill is beyond loyal. The recruiting process was a package deal. Shaquill turned down schools who wouldn’t accept them both.
For the first three years at UCF, Shaquem spent was on the scout team and grew frustrated. Secondary coach Travis Fisher finally gave him a chance in the final game of a winless season.
“Just being here the last couple of years, it was kind of hard getting everybody on that page where I can tell them, ‘I can do this, just give me a chance,'” Shaquem said. “Coach Fisher gave me that chance. I told him I promise you next year I’m gonna show the world I can really do this.”
When Frost was hired as the team’s new coach, the defense changed from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme. Shaquem, a redshirt junior, was moved to linebacker to utilize his speed and athleticism as an edge rusher and in coverage.
“To be honest, before I got here, people kind of said, ‘Hey, there’s a kid running around out there, he’s got one hand, can’t play,'” said UCF defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. “When I got here, I said, ‘Ah, let’s see. I don’t know, maybe they’re right and he can’t play.’ We put him out with third string and then second string and then first string and he just said, ‘I’m taking this job.’
“I’m happy for him because when he’s out there, you don’t know he’s got one hand unless you’re really looking because he’s a beast.”
Shaquill and Shaquem started their own youth track club in St. Petersburg, their hometown. (In high school, Shaquem taught himself to triple jump by watching YouTube videos; his senior year he posted the nation’s 2oth-best leap.) Shaquem told the Orlando Sentinel that having one hand is a “gift.”
“It’s special what he’s doing but he doesn’t want to highlight having one hand,” Frost said. “He’s playing well enough that he just ought to be recognized for the type of football he’s playing.
“He’s an inspiration to other people. He’s just another guy on our team and a special football player. I love having him on our team.”