If you haven’t been paying attention to UCF football, you’ve done yourself a disservice.
The Golden Knights are 11-0 and headed for the American Athletic Conference Championship game. Not only are they undefeated, but they’re an absolute joy to watch. Their high-powered offense currently leads the FBS in points per game (48.3). On defense, UCF is anchored by redshirt junior Shaquem Griffin. The 6-foot-1, 213-pound linebacker has a nose for the football and was named the AAC’s Defensive Player of the Year last season after recording 11.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. He’s done it all despite not having a left hand:
Griffin was born with a disabled left hand due to amniotic band syndrome, a birth defect that occurs when a part of the fetus is trapped in fibrous amniotic bands in utero. It affects about one in every 1,200 births. When he was 4 years old, Griffin’s family elected to amputate what remained of the hand due to the extreme pain it was causing him. He was back playing football at daycare just days after the surgery.
Shaquem grew up alongside his twin brother, Shaquill. The two never stopped moving, playing baseball, track and football for much of their childhood. Shaquem was always determined to do what his brother did, and he occasionally did it better. Thanks to his father, Terry, Shaquem became a gym rat during his teenage years. From Sports Illustrated:
“Terry built contraptions to allow him to do push-ups, curls and bench presses…There was something Terry called ‘the book’ that attached to Shaquem’s left forearm and helped Shaquem stabilize both arms for push-ups and bench presses. A strap device helped Shaquem do biceps curls. Terry welded another contraption onto a weight bar so Shaquem could bench-press more naturally. He grew stronger and stronger, pushing his bench press to 260 pounds as a high school senior.”
The Griffin brothers were star athletes at Lakewood High School (St. Petersburg, Florida). Shaquem was a second-team All-State selection in football his senior year as well as state champ in the Long Jump. The two eventually committed to UCF together and they both started on defense last season. Shaquill, who was was drafted in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks, played as a true freshman. It took longer for Shaquem to earn consistent playing time, as he was largely relegated to the scout team for his first three seasons.
When a new staff took over after the 2015 season, they decided to switch Shaquem from safety to linebacker. He dominated in spring ball with his combination of size, speed and instinct, and eventually went on to earn a starting spot.
“There’s not a player I’ve coached who practices harder than he does,” UCF head coach Scott Frost told Sports Illustrated. While his numbers are down a tick from last season, Shaquem currently ranks first on the team in TFLs (8), sacks (3.5) and forced fumbles (2). He’s also totaled 56 tackles and intercepted a pass this season. He has his sights set on one day joining Shaquill in the NFL.
“A lot of people in our generation like to make excuses about little things that really don’t hinder them from doing what they want to,” Griffin told Sports Illustrated. “It always comes down to the work ethic. God put you on the Earth for a purpose. I feel like my purpose is to get away from people making excuses.”