MOBILE, Ala. — The little league football coach was ready to crush a dream, except he didn't know who he was dealing with.
Shaquem Griffin isn't one to let words take from him what a rare genetic condition managed to do when he was a child. That was his left hand.
The little league football coach took one look at Griffin's deformity and pointed out that "this game is for two-handed players."
Really? Griffin had read all of the rule books. There was nothing in there about being required to have two hands. But the little league coach's narrow-minded thinking and similar comments from others hardly discouraged Griffin. They only inspired him.
"Hearing things like that, I had to take it upon myself to make sure that I show them no matter if I have one hand, two hands or 30 hands, I can play football," Griffin said.
He was talking with reporters here this week covering the Senior Bowl college all-star game. Yes, the 6-foot-2, 223-pound Griffin is part of the showcasing of talent for NFL scouts and coaches to inspect for April's draft. He has overcome his disability to become a standout linebacker for the University of Central Florida and now finds himself with a chance to make a living as a professional football player. He would become the league's first one-handed player.
In the last two years, Griffin has had 18.5 sacks, 33.5 tackles for loss and forced five fumbles. That's the sort of production that says having one hand hasn't presented any sort of serious obstacle for Griffin.
Now, his task is to make that same case to NFL teams. Sure, they'll look at his stats and video of his games and realize there is something there worthy of their attention. They'll see the versatility that allowed him to play defensive back and defensive end, as well as linebacker. They'll see the speed and athleticism that has allowed Griffin to excel in coverage.
This week's Senior Bowl practices, which are considered more valuable to pro scouts and coaches than the game itself because it shows how the prospects respond to their first taste of NFL coaching, will give Griffin a final opportunity in pads to enhance his stock. Between workouts, there will be meetings with team representatives wanting to know more about his background and gain insights into how well he knows the game.
After that, there is next month's NFL Scouting Combine and individual workouts for teams. In each phase of the pre-draft process, Griffin's primary mission is to demonstrate that he isn't a football player with a handicap but rather simply a football player.
"It's not a disability until you make it (one)," he said. "It's been like that through my entire life, where I had to make sure that me showing what I really can do on the field can dictate what people see when they see me playing. It's going to be like that this week."
"Shaquem's one of the most amazing stories of this whole college football season," said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, former general manager of the Cleveland Browns. "It was quite an honor to be able to invite him to the game. I mean, this is a highly unusual circumstance when you're talking about someone trying to make the jump from college football to the NFL with one hand."
The only time he uses a prosthesis is when he is lifting weights. Otherwise, Griffin relies on the many gifts, physical and mental, he does have.
"I'm able to grasp things really fast when it comes to coverage," he said. "Throughout in my years in college, I've been able to move back to safety and be in hot man coverage where I'm covering man-on-man on slot receivers. Speed was never a thing that I lacked. I'm very good with running with different receivers, running with running backs and feeling comfortable in what I'm doing and no matter what level I'm on."
Savage said "the floor" for Griffin in the NFL is making an impact as a "special-teams demon" and reserve defensive player, perhaps at linebacker.
"But the upside for him is that he can come off the edge," Savage said. "He was very effective as a pass rusher at different times in his career. He can walk out and play in space. He's actually got quite a bit of versatility."
Griffin — whose twin brother, Shaquill, is another UCF product and a cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks — seems extremely comfortable in this high-stakes job fair. Despite heavy media attention, he smiles easily and patiently answers question after question about his missing hand. He's soaking it all up, enjoying the chance to tell his inspirational story.
And Griffin wants to be someone who inspires others, something he knows he will be able to do on the larger stage the NFL would provide.
"As long as I'm going fast and making plays, they will forget how many hands I have," he said. "As long as I'm going fast and making plays and I'm doing what the coaches telling me to do and paying attention to details, then I'll be just fine. I want to be known as a guy who's going to give everything he's got no matter what it is. I want to be known as a guy who's going to have a motor and just run all over the field. And not only just having a motor on the field, but enjoying it while you're doing it.
"I'm not going to look at myself as a guy with a disability. I'm not going to look at myself as having a handicap, because if you've got a handicap that means you're only limited to certain things and I'm not limited to nothing. So after this week, everybody will know who I really am and what I'm really fighting for."
The journey will be far from over. There will be many more team interviews at the Combine. There will be plenty of poking and probing from club doctors. There will be plenty of running and jumping, timing and measuring.
How does Griffin intend to handle it?
"Just having faith, just trusting everything that's going to happen," he said. "You can't worry about the outside talk. You can't worry about what's going to be said and what the circumstances are going to be. The only thing you can do is control what's controllable and that's why I'm here.
"The one thing I do is focus on what's (immediately) in front of me and not what's ahead."