Virginia Military Institute welcomed Shaquem Griffin, retired NFL linebacker who played for the Seattle Seahawks, as he kicked off the Center for Leadership & Ethics 2023 Courageous Leadership Speaker series Feb. 1, 2023, before a packed house in Gillis Theatre.
The theme of this year’s speaker series is Courage of Convictions, and according to Col. Pat Looney, CLE deputy director, Griffin is a living testament to that theme. Born with a rare disorder called amniotic band syndrome, Griffin suffered so much pain in his left hand that, by the time he was four years old, he attempted to cut off his own fingers with a kitchen knife. His parents found him in time to prevent the calamity, but surgery was required to have his hand amputated.
The loss of his left hand did not deter Griffin from keeping up with his identical twin brother, Shaquill, who currently plays cornerback for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Soon after his surgery, Griffin was eager to play with his twin outside. His mother let him but warned him not to get his bandages dirty. Playing football, though, requires catching, which resulted in him coming back into the house with a bloody bandage. “That bloody bandage was the best thing that could have happened. I could dream, and I could play,” he reminisced. Even at 4, he did not let his “limb difference” devalue him.
Griffin has what he calls a “belief tool,” which is the mindset that one can accomplish anything he sets his mind to. “Our belief tool is strong as a young child. Kids truly believe they can be a firefighter, an astronaut, or football player. But as we get older, our belief tool gets attacked from others doubting us and from our own doubts. We need to keep it sharpened by overcoming all doubt,” he warned.
The twins played youth football. When they were 8, their team made it to a playoff game, but the opposing team’s coach tried to prevent Griffin from playing, arguing that football is a two-handed sport, and if he got hurt, he would be a liability. The twins’ coach let Griffin decide if he should play, and of course, he chose to play. He played defense, intercepting the ball and sealing the victory for his team. He gave the ball to the opposing coach so he would always remember the one-handed boy who never doubted his own abilities.
The twins grew up best friends and inseparable. “When we were 9, we made a pact. We would go to the same college, get the same degree, and marry twin girls,” Griffin recounted. After the audience’s laughter subsided, he continued. “We continued to play football, and by the time we were high school seniors, we were big men on campus. College recruiting went well, and I got offers, but Shaquill got more. True to our pact, he turned down scholarships to Florida, Alabama, and Texas A&M because they didn’t offer one to me. Finally, the coach from the University of Central Florida came along and said, ‘I can’t take one without the other.’ So, we committed on the spot.”
The first year of college, Griffin didn’t play, but he was diligent in working out and attended every practice. Being a freshman, he accepted that the older and more experienced team members played. In his second year, the coach still didn’t play him, and he started to question why. He did everything he was told to do but still had to sit out games. He grew discouraged and doubted his abilities. Meanwhile, his twin was flourishing in football.
"It takes grit, hard work, and determination to reach our goals. Rely on your support system. Mine is my family, but you have one, too. Use them. No one can accomplish things on their own.”Shaquem Griffin, retired NFL linebacker
Once during that season, when the team was out of town for an away game, Griffin stayed behind and tried to watch his brother play on his laptop, but the internet was down. He became disheartened and broke down in tears. He reached out to his support system for help and called his mom. “My mom has seven sisters, so she immediately called them all, along with my grandmama, and they started what we call a prayer line. I learned faith through my family, and right then and there, on that phone call, they all prayed for me and reminded me of all the accomplishments I have already achieved. When I got off that phone, I was recentered. It was a lesson for me that I am not alone,” he recollected.
Griffin’s optimism was infectious as he advised his audience of cadets, school-aged children and their parents, and other community members, “Everyone faces adversity and difficulties throughout life. It may be an injury, it may be heartbreak, it may be bad grades, but do not allow those setbacks to stop you from following your dream. It takes grit, hard work, and determination to reach our goals. Rely on your support system. Mine is my family, but you have one, too. Use them. No one can accomplish things on their own.”
Going into his third year of college, Griffin thought it would be his best year yet, but he was wrong. “The coach called me into his office and told me they were sending me home. I accepted that, thinking he meant my dorm room and just for the day. The following day, I was back working out in the weight room. The coach called me back to his office and asked me why I was still on campus. He told me if I didn’t leave campus immediately, they would call the police. Heartbroken, I called my mom, and she picked me up. Being sent home tested my faith.” Griffin learned later that the coach separated the twins to see if Shaquill could succeed without his brother on campus.
At home, Griffin kept busy working two jobs: Cleaning offices for his older brother’s janitorial business and towing cars for his father’s towing company. “I appreciated my support system, and Shaquill called me every day to see how I was doing and to encourage me to keep working out and to stay in shape. My brother believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself,” Griffin confessed. He hit a low point when he had to completely submerge himself into a puddle in order to hook up a car to be towed. When he successfully delivered the car to its owner, he was offered a five-dollar tip, but before the bill was handed over to him, the man tore it in two with the words, “This is a lesson; if you want something bad enough, you gotta go get it.” Griffin still has that bill as a reminder of the life lesson.
Soon after that incident, Griffin received a call from the coach at UCF inviting him back, but learned that offer came at his brother’s sacrifice. When Shaquill heard the coach wanted Griffin to play junior college football, he once again honored the pact the twins had made many years earlier and informed the coach that if Griffin was forced to play junior college, then he would, too. Since the coach wanted and needed Shaquill where he was, he agreed to let Griffin play on the team, as well. “I had forgotten that everything happens in God’s time, not my time,” said Griffin. The twins were thrilled to be back together. In Griffin’s final season, the UCF Knights went on to be undefeated, with Griffin being named the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Defensive MVP. The twins then went on to play together for the same NFL team, the Seattle Seahawks.
Griffin closed his speech by encouraging his listeners to never give up on their goals and dreams and never give in to self-doubt. “Have faith, believe in yourself. You have people who love you, reach out to them for help, and use them as a sharpening tool. The Lord works in mysterious ways and with each failure, there is a lesson to learn, and with each lesson, good things follow.”
Following the talk, Griffin autographed copies of the book he and Shaquill wrote called Inseparable—How Family and Sacrifice Forged a Path to the NFL.
Marianne Hause VMI Communications & Marketing