Twelve tackles in 17 games — hardly stellar statistics for an outside linebacker in the National Football League.
But, for a linebacker with one hand, these statistics are truly amazing, as is the player who recorded them, Shaquem Griffin of the Seattle Seahawks.
For those unfamiliar with Shaquem’s story, it transcends football or any other sport. It is a powerful, poignant, and inspirational playbook for confronting and tackling disabilities or adversities with incredible courage, dogged determination, and boundless optimism.
Shaquem was born with amniotic-band syndrome, which affected the normal growth of the fingers on his left hand. At age four, the excruciating pain became so intolerable that he snuck into the kitchen one night and attempted to self-amputate the digits on his left hand with a butcher knife.
The next day, this hand was amputated. Undeterred by the surgery, Shaquem was running in the backyard with his identical-twin brother, Shaquill, the following day with a football tucked between his right hand and the bloody bandage on his left arm, according to Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated TV.
This incident foreshadowed the relentless can-do spirit that Shaquem would later display on high school, college, and professional football fields. No surgeon could remove his no-excuse work ethic or iron-clad will to play sports during the next 19 years, despite the constant chorus of doubters who told him that his physical impediment would severely limit his athletic achievement.
In middle school, Shaquem and Shaquill made a solemn promise to each other: When it came time for college, they would stick together, according Byron Drahold of SEAHAWKSWIRE.
After forging outstanding, multi-sport high school careers side by side, Shaquem and Shaquilll once again became teammates at the University of Central Florida. True to his word, Shaquill turned down several football scholarships including a chance to play on his dream team, the Miami Hurricanes, so he could play college football with Shaquem.
During his remarkable college career, Shaquem was a dominant defensive force. He won the 2016 American Athletic Conference (AAC) Player of the Year award for amassing such statistics as 92 tackles and 11.5 sacks. The following year, his 74 tackles and seven sacks helped to propel the UCF Knights to an undefeated season. During his final year at UCF, he was named the 2018 Peach Bowl Defensive MVP, an All-American, and the AAC Defensive Player of the Year.
Still, the doubters weren’t convinced that he could advance to the big leagues.
In a game against the Houston Cougars in 2016, Shaquem had to play with a cast on his broken right hand, which constricted the movement of his fingers. Still, he made 14 tackles, sacked the opposing quarterback twice, recovered a fumble, and picked off a pass that had caromed off a defensive lineman.
″ I’ve played football one-handed. I’ve played football with no hands,” he emphasized after the game. ” I’m waiting for someone to say: ‘You can’t do it.’ ” – – play professional football, Staples reported.
After graduation, Shaquem was a late invitee to the NFL-draft combine, a test for undrafted hopefuls. His extraordinary showing included performing 20 reps in the bench press while wearing a prosthesis and completing the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds, the fastest time for a linebacker since the NFL has released official statistics.
In April 2018, Shaquem became one of 253 NFL draftees from a pool of more than 16,000 NCAA-eligible players. He was picked in the fifth round by the Seattle Seahawks, allowing him to once again play alongside Shaquill, now a second-year cornerback on the team.
Jim Nagy, former Seahawks scout, had been keeping an eye on Shaquem since he began scouting Shaquill. He remembers clearly what he saw on a sweltering August afternoon in Orlando that convinced him to draft Shaquem, he told John Boyle of SEAHAWKS.COM. After a grueling practice, Shaquem spotted an offensive lineman who was struggling as he was leaving the field. He knelt next to his teammate, let him rest on his shoulder, and held him.
“You saw it, you saw the leadership, you saw the type of teammate he was … you saw the energy he practiced with. That’s all I needed to see, ” explained Nagy.
During the 2018 NFL season, Shaquem started only one game as a replacement for an injured teammate. He made three tackles and played in 41 defensive snaps. He spent the remaining games as an outside linebacker on special teams, logging only nine more defensive snaps.
Shaquem received mixed reviews on his rookie season.
Many pundits characterized his performance as sub-par and unproductive, “not good at getting bunches of snaps . . . and very bad in pass coverage,” believes Lee Vowell of 12thManRising.com.
But Seahawks’ coach Pete Carroll is more optimistic. “We threw him in there so early . . . for anybody coming off the big transition that he was making (from college to professional football and from defensive back to pass rusher) . . . . He’s way better schooled now than he was earlier,” he told SEAHAWKS.COM.
Fair assessment? Maybe, from the perspective of professional football.
But, in the larger game of life, there are other more authentic and meaningful measures of success. And, for this football fan, Shaquem’s actions off the field make him a true champion.
Shaquem used his NFL platform to encourage and inspire young athletes across the country and around the world.
His seven tackles powered the Seahawks’ defense in defeating the Oakland Raiders in their final 2018 preseason game. Well after 11 o’clock that night, Shaquem walked back on the field of a nearly empty stadium and was swarmed for hugs and photos by 30 young campers from NubAbility Athletics, a non-profit group that encourages, inspires, and instructs “limb-different” youth by “getting them out of the stands and onto the playing field,” according to Boyle. “He wasn’t just another adult telling those kids that they can accomplish anything – – he was living, breathing proof of it,” explained executive director Sheila Trznadel.
Shaquem also met with “limb-different” children during the regular season at games and practices in Seattle as well as in cities where the Seahawks played on the road.
Three year-old Blake Venier of Gibralter, Mich., was born without a left hand. Every time Shaquem’s Gillette commercial (discussed later in this article) airs on television, he points to the screen and insists: “I want to play with him.”
Blake’s wish hasn’t come true yet. But, thanks to his grandmother and Seahawks’ staff, he got the next best thing. On the sidelines before a Seahawks-Lions game, Blake and Shaquem bumped fists with their right hands. This fist bump helped to erase the sadness that Blake felt after a playmate warned other kids to “keep away from the monster, the boy with no hand,” as reported by Mike Vorel of the Seattle Times.
Similar inspiring stories about Shaquem’s impact on “limb-different” children and adults were repeated across the country last season and continue into the post-season.
In mid-February, Shaquem was given true rock-star treatment at Brooks Rehabilitation’s annual Celebrate Independence 2019 event in Jacksonville, Fla.
Among the many excited fans of all ages and abilities who met their hero at the event was seven year-old Shepherd Reavis who, like Shaquem, was born with amniotic-band syndrome that affected his left arm. Too excited to sleep the night before, Shepherd nervously gave his idol a football marked with his handprints and a message: “Thank you for being a great example ! Your biggest fan . . . Shepherd.”
Wearing his million-dollar smile, Shaquem then scooped up and held his young fan, a heart-melting moment captured in a photo that immediately went viral, according to PEOPLE.com.
Wherever he goes, Shaquem’s message is the same: “For those of you who have dreams and aspirations to be great in life, do not let negativity dictate who you’re going to become.” Work hard. Give it your all. Don’t quit when times get tough. Eventually, you can achieve anything, Shaquem told SEAHAWKS.COM.
As a disabled person for more than 25 years due to severe rheumatoid arthritis, I was immediately drawn to Shaquem’s story.
My disabilities are far less severe than the life-long loss of a vital body part. But I can relate to the difficult emotional challenges that all disabled persons experience to varying degrees: anger, acrimony, resentment, self-loathing, a diminished sense of self-esteem and self-worth.
It’s so easy (and understandable) to be consumed with self-pity, to let your disability define you, and to fall into that dark hole where your disability can become a convenient cop-out. In this dark hole, you can readily absolve yourself from taking the initiative and mustering the will to overcome obstacles that can ultimately lead to a more productive, purposeful, albeit imperfect life.
I applaud Shaquem for not allowing himself to fall into that dark hole, starting in pre-school. I admire his guts, grit, sweat, mental toughness, and grueling persistence that collectively compensate – – I strongly believe – – for his missing left hand.
“It’s not a deformity unless you make it one. You’re not disabled unless you say: ′ I’m disabled, ′ ” Shaquem often emphasizes. Is there more powerful proof of the axiom: “mind over matter?”
Thankfully, Shaquem’s compelling story has now reached well beyond football and athletic circles.
Last fall, Nike included Shaquem in its special 30th anniversary celebration of its signature slogan, “Just Do It.” The text of Shaquem’s advertisement asks: “Who would ever think a kid like me would go pro? Me.”
Gillette recently redefined its long-running “The Best a Man Can Get” campaign by introducing a new series of advertisements with the tagline, “Your Best Never Comes Easy.” The first advertisement of this campaign focuses on the Griffin family with father, Terry, teaching Shaquem and Shaquill to play football and to shave, according to Chris Jasurek of The Epoch Times.
At this point, no one knows what Shaquem’s football future will look like: Will he survive a second season or forge a Hall of Fame career?
But a few things are already certain. During his young life, he has become a tireless advocate and charismatic role model, proving that those who are physically “different” are no longer doomed to spend their lives sitting on the sidelines.
And Shaquem ” will keep doing what he does – – running, tackling, smiling, serving,” believes Vorel.
Shaquem could have played the victim card, spending his life seeking sympathy and lamenting about what he couldn’t do. Instead, he chose to “Just Do It” – – and he did.Norine P. Bacigalupo, an avid sports fan, taught journalism at Suffolk University in Boston for 28 years.