A few minutes earlier, Tangie Griffin had awaked to screaming; she was used to young Shaquem crying when he bumped his partially developed left hand. But this had been different. She had found the boy in the kitchen with the family’s biggest knife, ready to cleave off his hand.
She worked at a hospital, so that night she called a surgeon she knew and said she’d be there in a few hours. The doctor tried to calm her, and until that moment the family hadn’t considered amputation. But what if Shaquem again attempted to end his recurring pain this way? What if no one was home? No, the hand had to be removed immediately; yes, she was certain.
Now she was soothing the boy in his bunk, and her husband had led Shaquem’s frightened twin brother, Shaquill, into another room as they attempted to wait out the night.
Tangie rubbed Shaquem’s hand even after he drifted off to sleep, and she would recall talking to God until the sun came up. She was certain her decision was the right one. But if she asked for anything, it was for Shaquem’s comfort as the next few hours came and went, and as the years passed and the challenges gathered, maybe something or someone would watch out for him.
It’s 18 years later, and on this Thursday the twins are sitting outside at a trendy Italian place, waiting for their identical lunches and sipping ice water with lemon through identical straws.
The food arrives, identical plates of spicy pizza with Calabrian chiles, and the server asks whether they’d like crushed pepper or grated cheese.
“Parmesan cheese,” Shaquill Griffin says.
“Parmesan cheese,” Shaquem Griffin says.
They’re 22 now, Shaquill already an NFL player and Shaquem about to be, and there aren’t many differences between them. In high school, before they played at the University of Central Florida, they would emerge from different bedrooms wearing the same clothes, and even now one will call the other to learn that one just turned the television to “South Park” and, wouldn’t you know it, the other did, too!
There are subtle physical differences — Shaquem, a linebacker, is 29 pounds heavier than Shaquill, a Seattle Seahawks cornerback — and a distinct one: Shaquem, since he was 4, has navigated life and indeed thrived as a football player without the benefit of a left hand. At the end of the month, Shaquem — following an impressive performance at the NFL Scouting Combine — is expected to be selected in the draft, and this autumn he could become a powerful symbol in the United States’ largest sports league: the first player to appear in an NFL game despite an amputation.
“People all get tackled the same,” he says, and indeed Shaquem has never had much patience for perceived limitations.
It’s part of why his performance at last month’s scouting combine was so astonishing: Wearing a prosthetic that suctions onto his wrist and is heavier than it looks, Shaquem hoped to bench-press 225 pounds at least 11 times and instead completed 20 repetitions, more than some offensive line prospects. The next day, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds, faster than any linebacker in 15 years but identical — of course — to Shaquill’s time a year earlier.
Shaquem, who initially wasn’t even invited to the combine, became a social media sensation and saw his Instagram followers balloon by 150,000 over the next 24 hours. Over the next few weeks, he would dine with Hulk Hogan and chat with Charlie Sheen and FaceTime with Ric Flair. So many interview requests would pour in that Tangie had to make time to unload a full voice-mail inbox.
“It’s okay to sometimes say no,” Shaquill says, and this is perhaps a window into the biggest difference between the twins.
Shaquill was born 60 seconds before Shaquem, and that makes him the older brother, and that makes him the protector. He is calculating, organized, cautious. Shaquill was the brother who, in high school, would beat on Shaquem’s door to keep him from oversleeping; the toddler who, in day care, once smacked a girl for calling his brother “Picklehand”; who, now as an adult, is a Type-A worrier who warns that his brother’s newfound fame has led him to skip meals and cut into his sleep.
“I was the responsible one,” Shaquill says, and during this lunch he will remind his brother — playful, spontaneous, free-spirited — of an upcoming call with Nike, about the dangers of wasting free time, how NFL players must learn to protect themselves.
Shaquem rolls his eyes. Sometimes things just work out, and the last six weeks, and maybe his entire life, are examples of that.
“I’ll run through the tree; he’ll run around it,” he says.
“He’ll run into somebody and get tackled, and I’ll score,” Shaquill says.
“That’s about right,” Shaquem says, and a moment later they’re on to a new debate, laughing into the Tampa Bay breeze about which of them is the pretty one.
Separated, but never apart
A little less than a year ago, Shaquill disappeared inside the airport and into his rookie season with the Seahawks, and Shaquem felt like half of himself was gone, too.
He volunteered to pack his brother’s bedroom, but he couldn’t bear to look at the face in the photographs, so he turned the frames upside down as he carried them into the closet.
As recently as two years earlier, the twins had never spent more than a night apart. Then George O’Leary, the former UCF coach, sent Shaquem home for the summer in 2015 while Shaquill remained in Orlando — something, depending on who’s answering, between a motivational tactic and a cruel social experiment. How would Shaquill, at the time a starter for the Knights, react to the absence of his brother, a reserve player — and, the twins say coaches indicated, the removal of a distraction?
“To see,” Shaquem says now, “if he could adjust without me.”
“It was horrible,” Shaquill says.
“Terrible,” Shaquem says.
Indeed, Shaquill’s instinct was always to shield his twin, no matter the perceived offense. When he slugged the girl at day care, their parents picked the brothers up and on the drive home Shaquem agreed with the insult — his hand kind of did look like a pickle, and soon Tangie and Terry Griffin were laughing, too.
“That’s not funny!” Shaquill snapped from the back seat, and other times he would notice someone at a restaurant staring at his brother and demand the gawker just get on with it and ask what happened.
Ultimately, the loss of Shaquem’s hand “was harder for Shaquill than it was for Shaquem,” their mother says now, and maybe that’s why he’d never stop standing up for his brother.
When O’Leary, who did not respond to an interview request for this story, indicated that Shaquem might play more if he cut his long hair, the young defender indeed cut off eight inches — and so did Shaquill.
During that summer apart, Shaquill made time to call his brother and counsel him; they’d play video games and spend hours talking about life, and invariably Shaquem would tell his brother how much he hated working for their father’s towing company. Climbing a tree or tying a shoe or even swinging a golf club with one hand? That was easy compared with rescuing some broken-down vehicle in the rain, and though his parents might help him negotiate a necktie, they wouldn’t abide him just sitting at home.
“I don’t ever want to do this again,” Tangie remembers Shaquem saying a few times that summer, and that was precisely the conclusion they all wanted him to reach.
“If I was you, I wouldn’t miss it,” Shaquill says he told Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll before the 40-yard dash at last year’s combine.
“You blink, you might miss it,” Shaquem says he told Carroll before his 40 this year.
Seattle prefers swagger on its defense, known in recent years as the “Legion of Boom,” and Shaquill believes that’s one reason the team drafted him in the third round last year. Those first weeks away from home were challenging, and at one point he confided in coaches that he was out of sorts — homesick and, 3,000 miles from his twin, feeling powerless.
He found therapy as a human NFL cheat sheet for his brother, and when the twins talked each day, he’d tell Shaquem what he’d learned and experienced. Film study and massages weren’t optional at this level, and free hours could either be an opportunity or a trap.
Shaquem, who was beginning his senior season at UCF, could follow his brother’s lead; then again: “If you want to be average,” Shaquill told him, “then don’t.”
Shaquem listened, and during practices at UCF his goal each day was to end the session “dead tired,” a way to lead teammates using more than just his voice. During late-night workouts, he’d suction on the prosthetic arm the school commissioned for him — because his left arm kept growing stronger and larger, he’s on his fourth prosthetic — and fasten its latch around a barbell, occasionally bench-pressing upward of 405 pounds.
He watched game and practice footage, ate fruits and lean proteins, adopted an NFL lifestyle in the college ranks. By the end of the 2017 season, Shaquem tallied 74 tackles and seven sacks; he was a unanimous all-conference selection and became the versatile heartbeat on the nation’s only unbeaten team.
Though the NFL waited until late January to invite him to the combine, Shaquem — always the family’s lighthearted showman — promised to make it memorable. “If that was impressive,” he liked to say, “just wait.”
He kept working, and by February he had increased his number of bench-press reps from six to 10. After a few weeks at a training facility in Texas, Shaquem started wondering whether he could match Shaquill’s 17 reps from the year before.
On the morning of March 3, he downed fruit and eggs at the hotel in Indianapolis and made his way to Lucas Oil Stadium. He called Shaquill on the way, and then it was showtime. He rolled his neck, took a breath and snapped the prosthetic’s latch around the bar.
“I need all you got!” Shaquem’s energetic spotter kept saying, and that was never in question.
He reached 10 reps, and by then the crowd was cheering and the spotter was losing it. By 14, Shaquill’s total from 2017 was in reach, and so were bragging rights.
“I just wanted to beat his number,” he’d later remember thinking, and back home his mother was crying and another brother screamed so loud it startled a nearby cameraman and his father was so emotional he stayed home, knowing how emotional he’d be.
Shaquem’s muscles kept firing, so he kept pushing — 19 and then 20, and on the 21st attempt, his chest and arms failed, and he unhooked his left hand and headed toward a news conference that had so many cameras in attendance that he thought he’d wandered to the wrong podium.
His only formal combine interview was with the Seahawks, and Shaquem told Carroll that indeed he talked big but backed it up, swagger coursing through a beautifully imperfect package, and his goal before running the 40 was to make sure Carroll’s eyes were on him.
“I just need the opportunity,” he says, and that of course applies to the other 31 NFL teams, though the idea of the “Legion of Griffins,” as Shaquem calls it, is too just tantalizing.
“If they wanted something shaking in Seattle, they know what to do,” he says.
Soon J.J. Watt would be tweeting at him, and Magic Johnson would call, and Ben Simmons would offer to trade jerseys with him, and the Tampa Bay Lightning would make personalized jerseys for the twins, and through it all a twin one minute older than the other would reveal the unmistakable instincts of a big brother.
“I knew everything was going to be different with him,” he says. “He’s so nice of a person that he’ll just accept anything, even if it hurts him.”
So many reporters visited that Shaquem sometimes forgot to eat, and it was up to Shaquill, naturally, to put them off while his twin refueled his body or send word through his agent that a meeting must take place over a meal. It was Shaquill who would show Shaquem the time on his phone and issue reminders that a pro athlete requires sleep.
This, Shaquill knows by virtue of experience or personality, is an opportunity with so much on the line, and not just for Shaquem. He is a dramatic example now, of odds and physical barriers smashed — he runs through the tree, after all — and recently he experienced this at his nephew’s youth football game.
There was another boy out there, and like Shaquem he was missing a hand. Shaquem called him over and introduced himself, and when the boy looked down to hide his tears, the one-handed linebacker who ruled the combine and is on the verge of making history nudged his little chin upward.
“Don’t let anybody tell you what you can’t do,” Shaquem said.
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