One game. One play. One catch can make all the difference.
Dropping back into coverage, Shaquem Griffin watched as a St. Petersburg (Fla.) High School quarterback shuffled his feet and looked downfield for open receivers.
Shaquem positioned himself to make the play – either on the receiver or the ball – just as he does on every snap.
Photo by TheePhotoNinja.com.
The result: a game-saving interception that prevented the go-ahead touchdown.
From a distance, it seemed the Lakewood (Fla.) High School defensive back had done the unthinkable, as Shaquem has had only one normal functioning hand since age 4.
The crowd – which knew better – went crazy. Lakewood fans had watched this talented athlete overcome the odds and grow into one of the best defensive backs in Florida.
Shaquem switched the ball from his left, fingerless, hand to his right palm. His twin brother, Shaquill, experienced the moment in all its glory.
Shaquill knows through his brother that anything is possible – in life and on the football field.
Born with amniotic band syndrome, a condition that restricts the growth of a baby’s developing body parts during pregnancy, Shaquem felt sharp pains in his fingers at age 2, an ache that hurt so much he asked his mother to remove the fingers as soon as possible.
“At night, I used to cry a lot,” Shaquem said.
Growing up, Shaquem watched his two older brothers play football and basketball. He desired to be just like them.
“I always wanted to have fun,” Shaquem said. “I had the operation to remove my fingers so I could do what I love. At age 6, I started playing Little League (baseball) and flag football with Shaquill.”
The twins continued to learn and grow as football players throughout their youth, junior high and high school careers. Both appreciate having the other as a teammate.
“We are together 24/7, and it is comforting to know that Shaquill always has my back,” Shaquem said. “We are competitive by nature but always push each other to the next level. For us to play on the same field is a joy.”
Their high school football careers now over, the twin brothers will compete together as members of the U.S. Under-19 National Team in the Feb. 5 International Bowl in Austin, Texas. After graduation, they will remain teammates, both earning scholarships to the University of Central Florida.
Shaquem and Shaquill enjoy the entire atmosphere that surrounds football. Their excitement levels build as game time approaches.
The energy inside a stadium cannot be found anywhere else for Shaquill.
“I just love the intensity during games and in practice,” he said.
Both brothers perform on the field well enough to earn full athletic scholarship. Lakewood head football coach Cory Moore credits their talent, attitude and work ethic.
“These two young men have been three year starters on the varsity football team. Both have a very, very good knowledge of football,” said Moore, a U.S. Under-19 assistant coach in 2012. “A high football IQ gives them the ability to just react on the field and utilize their game instincts, which you need to have to be really good at football.”
Shaquem’s abilities make it easy for fans and opponents to quickly forget about his hand.
“It really has never been an issue at all,” Moore said. “He is no different from his other teammates.”
Some college recruiters questioned whether Shaquem could play football with a fingerless hand. But after seeing him in action at football camps, any lingering doubts quickly subsided.
Shaquem doesn’t think about adversity or the challenge of playing with one hand. He instead speaks of his ambition of playing football as soon as the day after the operation.
“I was out on the football field playing the game of my life,” Shaquem said. “Being able to play your heart out for something you love is amazing.”
The recruiting process may have started slow for Shaquem, but in the end multiple colleges made offers before both brothers chose the Knights.
“It was one of those moments where recruiters just had to see me in person and talk to me to know what I was all about,” Shaquem said. “After the recruiters saw my raw talent, they felt that I could succeed at the next level.”
The twins decided to be a package deal, because, as Shaquem put it: “It just would not feel right any other way having grown up in St. Petersburg around each other.”
Their coach knows they made the right decision.
“Both men will do great things in life and on the football field,” Moore said. “They have their heads on straight. It has been an honor to coach them.”
Being selected for Team USA is an opportunity both brothers cherish. They look forward to meeting their teammates, their coaches and opponents from five continents.
“Being selected to play in the International Bowl is an honor,” Shaquem said. “Having an opportunity to meet new people, serve our country and represent the United States with my brother is something I never imagined I would be doing.”
Shaquill also looks forward to learning how others practice, prepare and play the sport of football.
As the International Bowl and National Signing Day loom, the twins can now look back on their journey while anticipating what comes next.
“We have come a long way,” Shaquill said. “We are both very grateful for the opportunity to play at the next level.”
Shaquem looks forward to his dream becoming a reality – a college football career. He earned this opportunity by consistently tackling opponents, catching footballs and making highlight plays – including that memorable one-handed interception.
“I always pictured myself going to the next level and continuing to pushing myself toward that goal,” Shaquem said. “I know that when we both arrive on campus, we will have to face other talented football players, and we both must be ready to compete on the football field.”