Shaquem Griffin is playing for a team, a cause and a population that make him soar.
Yet he has a twin that keeps him grounded.
The Seahawks rookie linebacker is in a most remarkable spot. Sunday, a mile high above level ground, the first one-handed player drafted into the modern NFL will start his first professional game when Seattle plays at Denver.
Griffin has been told so many times “you can’t do this.” That was after a congenital disorder known as amniotic band syndrome necessitated his left hand being amputated when he was 4.
Eighteen years later, this spring, the NFL didn’t initially deem Griffin worthy of an invite to its scouting combine.
Whatever. Sunday, Griffin will be the weakside linebacker partnering next to All-Pro Bobby Wagner.
“It’s everything you dream about,” Griffin said.
His dreams growing up with Shaquill, Seattle’s starting cornerback, while they were growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla., while they were roommates and teammates at the University of Central Florida, were this good?
Griffin laughed at that.
“You got a lot of dreams, but sometimes it don’t play out how you think it is,” he said. “We always thought about, we’re just going to play in the league, but it’s always going to be against each other. We didn’t think that far because we both play defense. So we didn’t know how that was going to work.
“To be beside each other again, it’s amazing.”
That word comes up when asking about and talking about Griffin. A lot.
“He’s been amazing,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., a three-time Super Bowl champion and Pro Bowl linebacker for the 1990s Cowboys and 49ers.
“It’s been fun to coach him. It’s been fun to watch his growth, the questions that he’s asked over the days and weeks have been improving and getting better. And it’s just amazing to watch his development.”
Here’s what else is amazing.
The 23-year-old fifth-round draft pick knows he is playing not only for the Seahawks. Nor just for himself and his brother, or their family, the Pacific Northwest, or UCF products everywhere.
He is playing for every man, woman and child with limb differences. Everywhere.
He met with about 100 of them last week, on the Seahawks’ home field in Seattle after Griffin started his team’s final preseason game. Kids and parents from the Northwest chapter of Illinois-based NubAbility Athletics, a non-profit organization that has in its mission statement “we instruct, inspire, and encourage congenital and traumatic amputee athletes,” were over the moon while Griffin signed autographs, posed for pictures.
He spent about 45 minutes inspiring more people who are just like him.
And vice versa.
“Definitely,” he said. “Each and every game I know that I’m playing for more than just myself and my family. I’m playing for a lot of people. I take that with me every single game. Me being able to do that and me being able to keep that on my shoulders allowed me to push harder even when I feel like I’m tired... It’s so many things that goes into it, but knowing that I have so many supporting me, it just gives me that extra push to go harder.”
All this, his national fame and meteoric rise from combine afterthought to NFL starter in five, whirlwind months, would make one suspect Shaquem Griffin might be a tad full of himself.
You don’t know Shaquem Griffin.
Or Shaquill Griffin.
They go home each night after Seahawks practices to their three dogs in suburban Seattle—it’s the same place Shaquill had last year by himself when he was starting for the Seahawks and Shaquem was finishing his redshirt-senior season playing for UCF — and watch film together.
And Shaquill rips his younger brother like he’s Vince Lombardi going after a rookie.
“You did this wrong!” Shaquill might critique Shaquem for a given play. “That’s the wrong gap! You can’t do this!”
And he’s not just on Shaquem for his on-field work. Shaquill has made a point of riding his twin hard on keeping himself in proper, NFL condition for the long haul of six weeks of training camp and the preseason then the 16-game regular season.
“Now, you’ve got to set a schedule that works for you,” Shaquill said. “You know, taking care of that a lot more. I feel like he didn’t do that much in college, because he was running around so much. But being a pro, you’ve got to take care of your body on and off the field.”
No one is as tough on you as your twin. (Full disclosure: I’m a twin, five minutes older than my sister. And I’m the father of twin teenagers).
“He’s like the hardest critic on me,” Shaquem said of Shaquill. “A lot of guys talk to me and they tell me what I do wrong, but they kind of go around it. They’ll be like, ‘I know you were thinking this, but we can do this better.’ Then me and my brother we go home and watch film together, and then he’ll have me stand up and he’ll have me go through fits. He’ll make sure I’m using my hands right.
“Or he’ll tell me, ‘Oh, they’ll tell you this way, but you know you messed up on this.’”
Shaquem’s reaction to his brother’s hard coaching? “I’m coming from the coaches telling me what I need to do better, then I got to go back home and now you telling me what I got to do better?”
“It helps me though because each day, I’m able to do better than what I did the day before,” Shaquem said. “So, that’s kind of cool when you can go home and watch film and walk through all the steps over again.”
On Sunday, the Broncos will be testing the rookie on his pre-snap communication with Wagner, and on what he struggled with at times during the preseason: his run-fit assignments, going to his assigned, proper gaps.
In his second preseason game last month, at the Los Angeles Chargers after leading Seattle in tackles in his first pro game the week before, Shaquem Griffin overran plays. He was undisciplined, trusting his 4.38 speed in the 40-yard dash instead of his assignments. He was anxious and nosy, recklessly going away from where the rest of the Seahawks’ defense expected him to be.
Coach Pete Carroll thought Griffin looked like a mess. He and Norton sat down the rookie, and slowed him down. Simplified what they were teaching him, and expecting from him.
The change of pace and simplicity worked. Griffin shined the rest of August.
“You have to crawl, then walk, then run in the development,” Norton said. “And he’s going at a really good pace right now.”
The Seahawks will find out how good on Sunday.
“Fortunately,” Wagner said of Griffin, “he’s very, very smart.”
Griifin’s not the only Seattle starter on the spot. He’s not even the only rookie who may be starting his first NFL game.
Tre Flowers, the team’s other fifth-round pick from April, is in line to start at right cornerback. That’s because Dontae Johnson went on injured reserve Saturday with a groin strain he got before missing practices Thursday and Friday.
Even with the return of Earl Thomas, who ended his holdout on Wednesday to return to free safety, the Seahawks could have eight new starters out of 11 on defense, eight who did not start the 2017 opener. Wagner, defensive tackle Jarran Reed and Thomas are the only returners (Shaquill Griffin took over at cornerback a few weeks into his rookie season last year).
Seattle’s key to this opener on offense is containing the often rampaging pass rush of Broncos All-Pro and 2015 Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. He alone can wreck game plans, games and in this game Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
Seattle right tackle Germain Ifedi has struggled for his first two seasons in pass protection. Ifedi, the NFL’s most penalized player in 2017, will be the primary blocker assigned to Miller Sunday.
“He’s one of the great defensive players in the league for a reason,” Ifedi said. “You have to be able to deal with him and throw a lot at him, and really attack him and get after him a little bit. Or he’s going to have his way. You don’t ever want him to get loose.
“We are aware of what he brings. But we have a great plan.”
That plan includes new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer establishing more of a running game with Chris Carson and rookie first-round pick Rashaad Penny than the Seahawks have had in two previous seasons. That would make Denver play Wilson and Seattle’s offense more honestly, not just focused on pressuring No. 3 as the Seahawks’ sole threat.
Schottenheimer’s plan is also likely to include Seattle throwing more out of two-tight end formations. That’s because the Seahawks now have two tight ends that can and will block: Nick Vannett and rookie Will Dissly. Look for one or both of them to stay in to help Ifedi with Miller, and left tackle Duane Brown with Denver rookie fifth-overall pick Bradley Chubb rushing off the other end.
Those are the keys to this opener for these changed Seahawks.
The most compelling player, though, is Shaquem Griffin.
“I’ve been to the point where I had football taken away from me. I had to work at home and stuff, so I got that feeling where you got to be grateful for the things you get. I was able to see that at an early age,” Griffin said on the eve of an NFL debut like no other.
“I’m just grateful. I’m never going to take anything for granted. I’m going to give everything I got, until I can’t.”