NFL draft prospect Shaquem Griffin has already inspired a legion of young fans

NCAAF


Matt and Amanda Davis have never watched the NFL draft before, but this year, they and their twin toddler boys will eagerly tune in from Auburn, Alabama.

In Houston, 12-year-old Julianna Linton will do the same. So will 13-year-old Annika Emmert in St. Augustine, Florida, and 9-year-old Zachary Pamboukas in Seattle, and the kids on the St. Pete Nitro Track Club. They will be among the millions watching April 26-28, because they have a specific reason to follow along.

They all want to hear NFL commissioner Roger Goodell call the name “Shaquem Griffin.”

Though the former UCF linebacker drew national attention with his jaw-dropping combine performance, he connected all of these people well before he ran a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash and did 20 225-pound reps on the bench press.

His story is their story, one of hard work in the face of adversity, one of perseverance and patience, one of refusing to take no for an answer, one of kindness and acceptance, spirit and fire.

“I really hope the Seahawks pick Shaquem!” Pamboukas says.

“Texans!” Linton says.

“I just want to tell him good luck in the draft!” Emmert says.

“We will be tuned in and zoned in when that draft goes down,” Matt Davis says. “We’re going to watch every minute of it.”

The Davis kids

Shaquem Griffin was born 60 seconds after his identical twin brother, Shaquill, with a left hand that never fully developed. While still in the womb, he was affected by amniotic band syndrome, a rare condition in which strands from the amniotic sac separate and entangle parts of the fetus. His hand was ultimately amputated when he was 4 years old, but he refused to allow that to keep him off a football field, no matter how many times coaches looked at him with a raised eyebrow and wondered, ‘How is this kid going to do this?’

As last season unfolded and people started to take notice of undefeated UCF, Matt and Amanda Davis started getting texts and calls from friends and family members asking, “Have you seen the linebacker with the story like Jordan’s?”

Jordan Davis was born seconds after his identical twin brother, John, and suffered from amniotic band syndrome, as well as clubfeet. Jordan Davis has underdeveloped fingers and hands — only the middle finger on his right hand is fully formed. He began wearing braces on his feet at 1 week old.

Matt and Amanda started following Shaquem with amazement and wonder. He was living proof that their son could be anything and do anything. So when the pairing for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl was announced, pitting their hometown Auburn Tigers against UCF, the Davis family got to thinking: What were the odds they would be able to meet Shaquem and get an autograph for Jordan?

Through a family connection, the Davises got in touch with the UCF communications department. Shaquem agreed to meet the entire family in Atlanta, four days before the game. As soon as he walked into the room, Jordan ran into his arms. Matt and Amanda were shocked; their shy little boy was notably reticent with anyone beyond his parents.

As Shaquem cradled Jordan and Matt held John, the Davises felt a new comfort and overwhelming sense of peace. Shaquem told them stories about growing up with Shaquill, how sometimes he’d figure out how to do something before his brother even though he couldn’t fully use both his hands.

“It felt like a flash forward to our boys in 20 years,” Matt said.

“I think he’s more of an inspiration than he may even understand now,” Amanda said. “Shaquem’s inspiring all these kids going through similar situations as him, but he’s inspiring us as parents. … We felt so much more at ease about the whole situation just because you get to see an in-person example of the potential that you already know your child has. I know Jordan has that potential, but it’s incredible to know he’s going to have a role model who’s walked it and lived it, and someone he can look up to. And because of Shaquem’s generosity, [Jordan] can reach out to [Shaquem] one day when he’s ready to talk to him about it.”

UCF gave the Davis family tickets to the game. Jordan and John, who will turn 2 next month, wore special Auburn shirts with “Griffin 18” on the back that Shaquem later autographed.

Shaquem had 12 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks in the 34-27 win over Auburn to cap an undefeated season.

“The jerseys with Shaquem’s name on them — those are going to be in the family for a long, long time, that’s for sure,” Matt said.

The boys will wear them come draft day — under intense supervision, of course. “Can’t get them dirty!” Matt said.

Shaquem has received dozens of requests to meet children and families inspired by his story. But it wasn’t until he held Jordan in his arms that he realized how far and wide he can reach people.

“It finally set in: I’m really helping a lot of people right now,” Shaquem Griffin said. “It was an emotional moment. That’s one of the greatest moments I had. Because seeing them, it reminded me so much of me and my brother. It brought joy to me. It’s moments like that you live for. That’s the best trophy to me.”

The St. Pete Nitro Track Club

Shaquem and his brother, Shaquill, knew from a young age they wanted to help inspire people.

When they entered ninth grade at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg, Florida, they decided they want to do something to give back to their community. Shaquem remembers they were walking home from buying candy at the dollar store one day when they decided to start their own track club. They named it St. Pete Nitro.

Soon, their mother started getting phone calls asking where the track club would meet. “Track club?” she’d ask. She learned her boys gave out her phone number to anyone interested in joining.

They started with a few friends every day after school, and soon their practices morphed beyond just running track. They helped one another with homework or problems at home, and provided support for children in their neighborhood who needed it.

“My mom used to cook, we had dinners, we’d take kids to movies, so it wasn’t just a track team, it was becoming a family,” Shaquem said. “So if you want to hang out or just get out of the house, it was like your getaway from home. That’s what we started to create: a family-based thing where if you’re going through something, you have your second family that can help you work through everything you’re going through.”

A club that began in 2009 with a handful of members now has 80 kids from ages 5-18 participating and a wait list — a first for the group.

When the Griffin boys set off for UCF in 2013, their parents, Tangie and Terry, kept running the club, and the boys return to help encourage the kids any chance they get.

On a recent Monday, they were there to help a sprinter with her start off the blocks and gave tips on how to do the long jump.

“It’s been an inspiration from the beginning,” said Ronke Dipina, who helps manage the team. “I’ve seen certain kids come out here and get on the right track. Shaquem and Shaquill, their voice is so powerful within the community and the school. Their motivation, their charisma — you grow toward them, and with that we were able to create a track team.”

James Morrow joined the club when he was 5. He’s now 12 and one of the fastest middle schoolers in the area. “It’s been great fun,” he said. “Seeing Shaquem and Shaquill inspires me to do the exact same things they did so I can succeed.”

The bionic kids

Success has meant hard work for Shaquem, who redshirted his first season while Shaquill played. Within two years, Shaquill, now a defensive back for the Seattle Seahawks, became a starter while Shaquem waited to earn his opportunity to contribute beyond special teams.

“The first time you see him work out, you’re like, ‘This guy’s impressive.’ He’s quick, he’s strong — there’s nothing he can’t do,” UCF teammate McKenzie Milton said. “When you’re going against him every day, it’s kind of difficult. I’ve never been around a better practice player. A lot of people, they don’t like to practice, but Shaquem, he’s all gas every time. He doesn’t take any plays off even in practice. I think that’s why he’s so successful.”

While Griffin waited his turn at UCF, an organization down the street from Spectrum Stadium began work on a state-of-the-art lab to help children without limbs. Limbitless Solutions makes affordable 3D printed bionic limbs for those in need.

Julianna Linton’s parents first heard about Limbitless Solutions the way many families did — when a video featuring Robert Downey Jr. delivering an “Iron Man” bionic arm to a young boy went viral.

The Lintons contacted Limbitless Solutions and said they were interested in a bionic arm for their daughter, a gymnast and cheerleader living in Houston. An amniotic band had attached itself above her left elbow, so she was born without an elbow or forearm. When her bionic arm was ready in March 2016, the UCF cheerleaders presented it to her in Orlando.

At the time, the Lintons had only heard about Shaquem Griffin in passing — as the UCF player who also had amniotic band syndrome but rarely played.

Shaquem’s fortunes would soon change, after first-year coach Scott Frost saw the same relentless practice player Milton saw. Shaquem moved from safety to linebacker and soon became a breakout star. UCF traveled to play Houston in October 2016, and the cheerleaders had an entire day planned with Julianna and her family.

They invited her on the field to cheer with them, and after the game, Julianna had a request: Could she meet Shaquem?

Though UCF lost, Shaquem took the time to meet her and take a picture. Soon, the photo of the two of them went viral. A few months later, when Julianna needed surgery on her arm, he sent her an email message offering words of encouragement.

“He plays football with one hand, and that inspires me to want to continue doing competitive cheer with one hand, too,” Julianna said. “I think that if he played college football with one hand, I can do college cheer with one hand, too.”

The two saw each other again this past September, when Limbitless Solutions invited several of its bionic kids to participate in the coin toss between UCF and Memphis. Linton and 13-year-old Annika Emmert were among the kids who got to see Shaquem, and also cheer on the sideline.

Emmert has been on the receiving end of ugly remarks and mistreatment because of her right arm, where amniotic band syndrome affected her mid-forearm. She relates to many of the same situations Shaquem dealt with, when some believed it would be best for him not to play football. Even now, the debate leading into the NFL draft is about how Shaquem will best contribute with one hand, even though he already has proven he has exactly what it takes to succeed.

“Sometimes I think people are just blind,” said KaRon Bryson-Emmert, Annika’s mom. “They have a blind spot where they can’t acknowledge that something different will work as good or better than the normal. When Coach Frost showed up, he didn’t look at Shaquem physically, but he looked at Shaquem in the eyes and the heart, and he knew he had a player, and he put him on the team. When you look at a player in the eyes and in the heart, that makes a whole difference. Don’t look at what’s not there. Look at what is there.”

Zachary Pamboukas, another Limbitless bionic kid, knows exactly what is there, even though he has never met Shaquem in person. He knows everything there is to know about the Griffins, because he and his family love Shaquill’s team, the Seahawks. They grew into even bigger fans when they learned Shaquem overcame amniotic band syndrome, which forced Zachary to be born with a right arm that ends just past the elbow.

Zachary watched the UCF-Auburn game standing in front of the television, then had his dad rewind all the best plays Shaquem made. Like so many others, he watched when Shaquem turned heads at the NFL combine.

That performance boosted interest in Shaquem well beyond Orlando, St. Petersburg and his unofficial fan club. That interest is sure to grow even higher in the days leading up to the draft in Dallas, where Griffin accepted an invitation to attend.

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1:44

Annika Emmert shares what it feels like to have her opponents skip her in the high-five line after her soccer games due to her bionic arm and shares how Shaquem Griffin’s story inspires her.

No matter where he goes and when he takes the field, he will be the first player in the modern era to play in the NFL with one hand.

Zachary really wants Shaquem to go to the Seahawks. Not only would that reunite Shaquem with his brother, but Zachary wants to see him play in person and maybe even meet him. He already knows what he would say.

“Thank you,” Zachary says.

Why thank you?

“For doing your best and showing me I can do anything.”





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