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Linebacker With No Limits

Shaquem Griffin, who lost his hand to a rare medical condition, is challenging what it means to be a pro football player

MAX FAULKNER/FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM/TNS VIA GETTY IMAGES

BIG NIGHT: Griffin celebrates getting drafted by the Seattle Seahawks.

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: What qualities help people deal with conflict, challenge, and adversity?

Shaquem Griffin is at the top of his game. Last year, this 23-year-old linebacker led his college football team to an undefeated season. He then went on to stun observers with his strength, speed, and charisma at a National Football League (NFL) recruiting event. Griffin’s skill on the field isn’t the only thing that makes him a standout athlete. He also recently became the first one-handed player ever drafted by an NFL team.

Griffin was born with a left hand that hadn’t fully developed. The condition was extremely painful, and his parents decided to have doctors amputate, or remove, his hand when he was just 4 years old. Afterward, Griffin and his family decided they’d never let his physical difference hold him back. When he fell in love with football as a child, some people didn’t think he should play the sport. But that wouldn’t stop Griffin. “Nobody was ever going to tell me that I didn’t belong on a football field,” he wrote in a recently published essay in The Players’ Tribune.

Today, Griffin is gearing up to start his first season with the Seattle Seahawks. With his pro career about to begin, Science World takes a look at how he got to where he is today.

Shaquem Griffin is at the top of his game. Last year, this 23-year-old linebacker led his college football team to an undefeated season. Then he went on to a National Football League (NFL) recruiting event. He stunned people there with his strength, speed, and charm. Griffin’s skill on the field isn’t all that makes him a standout athlete. This year, he also became the first one-handed player ever drafted by an NFL team.

Griffin was born with a left hand that hadn’t fully formed. The condition was extremely painful. So his parents decided to have doctors amputate, or remove, his hand when he was just 4 years old. After that, Griffin and his family decided they’d never let his physical difference stop him. He fell in love with football as a child. Some people didn’t think he should play the sport. But that didn’t stop Griffin. “Nobody was ever going to tell me that I didn’t belong on a football field,” he wrote in a recent essay in The Players’ Tribune.

Now Griffin’s pro career is about to begin. He’s getting ready to start his first season with the Seattle Seahawks. Science World looks at how he got to where he is today. 

A ROUGH START

Griffin’s medical condition began prenatally, or before birth. During his mother’s pregnancy, doctors took a routine ultrasound. The procedure, which uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image, revealed an unusual problem: a strand of fibrous tissue inside the womb had wrapped around Griffin’s left hand. This condition is called amniotic band syndrome, or ABS (see What is ABS?).

“We still don’t know exactly why it happens,” says Dr. Hanmin Lee, who studies ABS and other prenatal conditions at the University of California, San Francisco. “But when it does, it basically strangulates parts of the body—most commonly, the hands, arms, or legs.”

Griffin’s medical condition began prenatally, or before birth. When his mother was pregnant, doctors took a regular ultrasound. The procedure uses high-frequency sound waves to form an image. It showed an unusual problem. A strand of fibrous tissue had wrapped around Griffin’s left hand inside the womb. This condition is called amniotic band syndrome, or ABS (see What is ABS?).

Dr. Hanmin Lee studies ABS and other prenatal conditions at the University of California, San Francisco. “We still don’t know exactly why it happens,” he says. “But when it does, it basically strangulates parts of the body—most commonly, the hands, arms, or legs.” 

BRIAN SPURLOCK/USA TODAY SPORTS/SIPA USA

LIKE LIGHTNING: Griffin ran the fastest-ever 40-yard dash for a linebacker.

The fibrous strand cuts off the flow of blood and nutrients to the body part that it’s tangled around. This can cause the skin to swell, making the strand tighten even more. “When you don’t have that blood or those nutrients, the cells begin to die and the body part starts to wither,” says Lee.

It’s possible to treat amniotic band syndrome while a baby is still in the womb. Physicians like Lee can perform an operation to remove the band before it causes too much damage. In Griffin’s case, though, there was a complicating factor: Griffin shared the womb with his twin brother, Shaquill. A surgery would have risked injuring him. The Griffins and their doctors decided to let the condition take its course.

“Shaquem’s story is inspiring,” says Lee, who has followed the football player’s career. “I hope other kids with amniotic band syndrome can read about his success and know that it’s okay to be different—it’s about becoming the best version of yourself that you can be.”

The fibrous strand wraps around a body part, and it cuts off the flow of blood and nutrients to that part. This can cause the skin to swell. And that makes the strand get even tighter. “When you don’t have that blood or those nutrients, the cells begin to die and the body part starts to wither,” says Lee.

Doctors can treat amniotic band syndrome while a baby is still in the womb. Physicians like Lee can perform an operation. They remove the band before it causes too much harm. But in Griffin’s case, something made that difficult. Griffin shared the womb with his twin brother, Shaquill. An operation would have risked harming him. The Griffins and their doctors decided to let the condition take its course.

Lee has followed the football player’s career. “Shaquem’s story is inspiring,” he says. “I hope other kids with amniotic band syndrome can read about his success and know that it’s OK to be different—it’s about becoming the best version of yourself that you can be.”

DON JUAN MOORE/GETTY IMAGES

TWIN TIME: Shaquem (left) and his twin brother, Shaquill, are reunited on the Seattle Seahawks.

RAISING TWO CHAMPS

From the moment Griffin was born, his parents decided to raise him no differently than his twin brother. As the two boys grew up, they became inseparable at home, at school, and on the football field.

Griffin and his twin brother both trained to be football players from a young age, and Griffin refused to let his missing hand prevent him from tackling opponents or throwing and catching the ball. He wanted to play just as hard as anyone.

From the moment Griffin was born, his parents made a decision. They would raise him no differently than his twin brother. As the two boys grew up, they were always together at home, at school, and on the football field.

Griffin and his twin brother both trained to be football players. They started at a young age. Griffin wouldn’t let his missing hand stop him. He tackled opponents and threw and caught the ball. He wanted to play just as hard as anyone.

When he was in high school, Griffin’s parents built him special devices—like a cloth-covered piece of wood that made it easier to do bench presses and straps that helped him do bicep curls—to help him work out despite his missing hand. The training worked: By the time he was a high school senior, Griffin could bench-press 118 kilograms (260 pounds).

When it came time to graduate high school in 2013, the boys fulfilled a lifelong promise to always stick together, and both headed to the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando. There, they joined the school’s football team. Although Shaquill was given a starting position, Shaquem wasn’t. But after three seasons, his speed and strength couldn’t be overlooked. In 2016, he was picked to play in the team’s starting lineup, and scouts for the NFL began to notice.

When he was in high school, Griffin’s parents built him special devices. For example, they built a cloth-covered piece of wood to help him bench press. They made straps that helped him do bicep curls. That way, he could work out even with a missing hand. The training worked. By the time he was a high school senior, Griffin could bench-press 118 kilograms (260 pounds).

In 2013, it came time to graduate from high school. The boys kept a lifelong promise to always stick together. Both went to the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando. There, they joined the school’s football team. Shaquill was given a starting position, and Shaquem wasn’t. But after three seasons, his speed and strength couldn’t be overlooked. In 2016, he was picked to be in the team’s starting lineup. NFL scouts began to notice. 

MAKING THE TEAM

In 2018, Griffin was invited to attend the scouting combine, a special weeklong event hosted by the NFL, in which hopeful players endure physical tests in front of scouts, coaches, and team managers. An athlete’s performance at the combine influences whether or not he might be drafted into one of the league’s 32 teams.

Going into the combine, Griffin was still far from a household name. He had won many accolades for his final two seasons at UCF, but his brother, Shaquill, was the better-known player. That didn’t last long.

In 2018, Griffin was invited to the scouting combine. The NFL hosts this special weeklong event. There, hopeful players go through physical tests in front of scouts, coaches, and team managers. An athlete’s performance at the combine is important. It affects whether or not he might be drafted by one of the league’s 32 teams.

When the combine started, Griffin still wasn’t well-known. He had won many honors for his final two seasons at UCF. But his brother, Shaquill, was the better-known player. That didn’t last long. 

At the combine, Griffin ran the fastest-ever 40-yard dash—one of the main events—by a linebacker. His time of 4.38 seconds tied his brother, who weighs less and plays a speedier cornerback position. Next, Griffin bench-pressed 102 kg (225 lbs)—20 times—using a prosthetic hand. And just as important as his physical feats, Griffin’s attitude and spirit made it clear that he had what it takes to help teams win championships.

It wasn’t long after the combine that Griffin learned he’d been picked to play with the Seattle Seahawks. His brother had joined the team one year earlier. So starting this fall, they’ll be playing football together once again. Win or lose, Griffin knows that he’s made it. “I don’t define myself by my successes,” Griffin says. “I define myself by adversity, and how I’ve persevered.”

At the combine, the 40-yard dash was one of the main events. Griffin ran the fastest-ever 40-yard dash by a linebacker. His brother weighs less and plays a faster cornerback position. But Griffin’s time of 4.38 seconds tied with his brother. Next, Griffin bench-pressed 102 kg (225 lbs) with a prosthetic hand. He did it 20 times! And Griffin’s attitude and spirit were just as important as his physical acts. They showed that he had what it takes to help teams win championships.

Not long after the combine, Griffin learned he’d been picked to play with the Seattle Seahawks. His brother had joined the team the year before. So they’ll be playing football together again, starting this fall. Win or lose, Griffin knows that he’s made it. “I don’t define myself by my successes,” Griffin says. “I define myself by adversity, and how I’ve persevered.”    

CORE QUESTION: Why do you think Griffin was able to succeed in his dreams?

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