His was a debut like no other in NFL history.
He wowed the scouting combine, and said: “Don’t set limits on me.”
In the spring he became the first one-handed player drafted into the modern NFL. By September the extraordinary linebacker was starting his first game in the league, for the Seahawks, a few yards in front of his brother. They became the first twins to start as teammates in the NFL since Earl and Myrl Goodwin, on offense with the 1928 Pottsville Maroons.
He inspired different-limbed athletes and people from all over the world. When he saw in London immediately after an October game a video of a boy in California overjoyed to tears at getting his jersey as a birthday gift, he invited the kid and his family to one of his games in Seattle.
For all that and more Shaquem Griffin has been nominated for sports story of the year in the Pacific Northwest by the Seattle Sport Commission for its 84th annual Sports Star of the Year awards.
His nomination reads: “Fifth-round draft choices rarely get much attention, but Shaquem Griffin was a rare exception. He was a star linebacker in college despite having just one hand. When the Seahawks picked him, it was the feel-good story of the NFL draft, uniting him with his twin Shaquill and inspiring amputees everywhere.”
“It’s been a crazy year,” Griffin told me near the end of it.
Coach Pete Carroll said “he’s come miles from where he started.”
But Griffin knows he has so much farther to go in 2019.
With his parents there to watch their twins debuting together for the Seattle, Shaquem struggled in his chance to start that opening game Sept. 9 in Denver. Playing weakside linebacker with Pro Bowl veteran K.J. Wright out following knee surgery, Griffin overran plays. He missed his run-gap assignments. He was overanxious trying to make all the plays, to prove himself to coaches and teammates.
By the second quarter, the Seahawks replaced him on run downs with second-string middle linebacker Austin Calitro. Days later, the Seahawks signed veteran Mychal Kendricks as a free agent to play weakside linebacker in Seattle’s base 4-3 defense. Kendricks, not Griffin, started there in week two at Chicago.
Griffin didn’t start again. He played in all 17 games, but on special teams. He got three snaps at outside linebacker in the rout of Oakland in London on Oct. 14. He got one play there in the home win over Minnesota Dec. 10. And that was it for him in 2018 on defense.
Even when the NFL suspended Kendricks indefinitely for insider trading, returned for that Vikings game in Week 14, then got hurt and went on injured reserve for the rest of the season, Griffin stayed on the sideline while Seattle’s defense played. Even while Wright missed 11 of 16 games.
From sudden starter to sideline learner.
Griffin finished tied with reserve safety Shalom Luani for fourth-most tackles on special teams for the Seahawks in 2018. He collected seven stops covering kickoffs and punts in every game.
Asked in late November how his rookie season had gone for him since that extraordinarily quick splash, Griffin said: “Up and downs, like for anybody. But mine kind of started at the beginning of the season. ...
“I feel great now, opposed to when I first started.”
He said he was disappointed in going from starting to bench 15 minutes into his rookie season. But then he took on an immediate, second challenge: his response.
“Obviously, you are not going to be happy with starting then not starting,” Griffin said. “But it’s all about how you handled it as a player. At the end of the day I can’t be selfish: ‘Oh, I’m going to act this way because I am not starting.’ It’s never like that. It’s all about waiting for your opportunity until you get your turn to play.
“I’m grateful that, even though I wasn’t starting at linebacker anymore, they gave me the opportunity to be part of the special teams and asked to contribute and play a part in that. And as I go through the weeks doing that and progressing, me making plays and making tackles on special teams solidified myself as a person who is not going to allow if something is not going right to dictate whether I am a good teammate.”
His twin brother, the Seahawks’ starting cornerback, is proud of how Shaquem handled it.
“Like a pro,” Shaquill said.
“Some people go through that situation and just fall off, to the point where they feel like their role doesn’t matter anymore. I like that he hasn’t been like that. Everything, he took it like a pro. He’s carried himself like a pro.
“Whatever spot he’s been put in, whatever role they’ve needed him to play, he’s played it to the best of his abilities. Right now, it’s special teams.”
What will it be in 2019, the second year of Griffin’s four-year rookie deal?
Wright’s contract has expired. He can become a free agent March 13. He turns 30 before next season. Wright said in the locker room following the season-ending loss at Dallas in the wild-card playoffs Jan. 5 the Seahawks have not made any effort, yet, to re-sign him. It’s a 50-50 proposition, or less, that he returns.
The team has as its first priority re-signing leading sack man Frank Clark to a contract extension that increase his salary from $941,000 to $17 or 18 million per year.
The Seahawks drafted Griffin last spring with at least a thought of him someday replacing Wright as the starting weakside linebacker next to All-Pro middle man Bobby Wagner. But his rookie season showed Griffin and his coaches he wasn’t ready yet.
Kendricks impressed Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. in his four games for Seattle this past season. The Super Bowl starter for Philadelphia last February has a sentencing hearing late this month in federal court in Pennsylvania. Some legal experts there have been assuming a plea deal that could leave him serving months in prison, not years.
If that happens, the Seahawks will likely seek to re-sign Kendricks to be the veteran starter next to Wagner for at least some if not most or all of next season. Carroll said the team wants to bring back Kendricks as he recovers from knee and leg surgery.
Norton sounded all positive talking about Griffin three weeks ago.
“Very impressed and excited about what he’s doing and his future with the team,” the defensive coordinator said.
“The biggest progress for him is confidence. Really understanding the pro game. Learning how to use his speed. Learning how to use his footwork. Learning how to study. Learning how to take care of his body over a long period of time. Really sitting back and watching the veterans, how they prepare and approach games and how they consistently stay at a high level.
“I think for young players to see how serious the older players are is a shock for them. But he’s a quick learner and he understands how to do it.”
When asked two days after the team’s playoff loss about Griffin’s debut season and prospects for 2019, Carroll mentioned the support the rookie got from Shaquill.
“I think you guys watched him. I think he handled it really well. I think the two of them gaining strength from each other made their way through it with all of the attention and the focus on the brothers and all of that,” Carroll said.
“I think (Shaquem) Griff gave himself a chance to be a factor in a lot of ways on the team. He showed up. He played hard. He worked hard. He learned a lot playing his linebacker spot.
“He’s come miles from where he started. I think he handled it really well.
“But it’s hard to separate them handling it together. They just kind of, they’re peas in a pod. And I thought it was a very successful year under all of the attention.”
But this season was a success for Griffin for more than football reasons. His isn’t just a football story, and Griffin is so much more than just a football player.
He’s a phenomenon, an inspiration to more than he or we know.
There are kids like Shaquem across the country who couldn’t care less if Griffin doesn’t start on Seattle’s defense in 2019. To them, he’s already made it. They’ve wear Shaquem’s No. 49 Seahawks jersey—because they, too, have one hand.
Kids such as Daniel Carrillo, a grade-schooler and youth football player in Northern California. Daniel got a Shaquem Seahawks jersey for his birthday during this past season.
When Shaquem’s mother showed her son that video moments after the Seahawks’ win over Oakland in London in mid-October, Shaquem started crying. Right there in Wembley Stadium.
The Griffins then set in motion plans to get Daniel and his family up to CenturyLink Field for the Seahawks’ home win Dec. 2 against San Francisco.
“I didn’t watch the whole thing,” Griffin said of the Daniel’s video, “because I was getting emotional watching.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, man!’
“So I sent him a video.”
He made it for Daniel on the Seahawks’ way out of London, before the team’s 10-hour flight home that night.
“It makes me feel good,” Griffin said. “It makes me feel like I am doing something right. When you’ve got kids who are emotional and who are very passionate about what I am doing on the field and they are very passionate about what they are doing—and Daniel, he plays ball, too—it’s kind of like us colliding together as one.
“Because we are both living our dreams.”