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Lakewood's Shaquem Griffin maps out a life without limits

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Wed. April 4, 2012 | John C. Cotey | Email

Lakewood's Shaquem Griffin maps out a life without limits

ST. PETERSBURG — A 4-year-old boy walks into his parents’ room, wailing.

It’s past midnight and his left hand throbs, his fingers hurt.

“Cut them off,’’ he begs.

His mother tries to lead him back to his room, but he wants to go to the kitchen. To get a knife.

“It hurts,’’ he sobs.

Mom and son crawl into the lower bunk of a bed he shares with his twin brother. She wraps him tight. He is still crying. And so is she.

She rubs his hand to ease the pain as she has done countless times. But she lies there wondering, how many more times?

The next morning Tangie Griffin takes her son, Shaquem, to the hospital. He gets his wish.

They remove his fingers.

• • •

Shaquem Griffin, a 16-year-old junior at Lakewood High School, is one of Tampa Bay’s best football players, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound safety with almost a half-dozen offers to play collegiately.

He is also a track star. He runs the 4x100 relay, throws the discus and triple jumps farther than anyone else in Pinellas County. The first time he threw the shot put, just for fun and because his team needed points, it went almost 45 feet, for first place.

He is so good, so smooth, you barely notice he only has one hand.

“It’s something people might notice at first,’’ says twin brother Shaquill, “but it doesn’t take long for them to forget all about it.’’

• • •

When Tangie was pregnant, doctors told her one of the babies had Amniotic Band Syndrome, a rare condition in which a strand of the amniotic sac comes free and entangles itself with part of the fetus. A strand had wrapped around one of her babies’ wrists, effectively choking off any further development.

She could have chosen fetal surgery to untangle the hand, but because two babies were sharing such close quarters, the risk to the other fetus was high.

“It was really no choice at all,’’ Tangie says.

The twins were born a little more than 6 pounds each, healthy as can be, with one exception: Shaquem’s left hand had digits that never fully developed. They were nothing but soft muscle tissue.

Tangie would hold Shaquem when he was a baby, and whisper, “God made you like this for a reason, and whatever it is, we’re ready for it.’’

Her next decision would be harder.

“(Removing his fingers) was definitely tough for me,’’ Tangie says. “You don’t want your kid to suffer‚ and it’s one of those things you pray on, you pray on, you pray on, and you’re wondering: Am I making the right choice?’’

• • •

Shaquem learned how to tie his shoes first. He was also the first to climb the big oak tree in the family’s south St. Petersburg backyard.
Hanging from the arm without the hand, he encouraged Shaquill to join him.

“Once I saw that,’’ Tangie says, “I was like, oh, he’s going to be fine.’’

Shaquill was protective. He was born first, the big brother by a minute. When kids asked about the hand, Shaquill got angry.

But Shaquem was never teased, never came home crying. He did, however, come home laughing, like the time a little girl told him he had a pickle hand.

“He thought it was the funniest thing ever,’’ Tangie says. “It did look like a pickle. We all laughed.’’

Except for Shaquill. He got in trouble for hitting the girl. But his protective nature did not stop him from making Shaquem earn everything, as the two competed in everything.

“Always trying to beat me,’’ says Shaquill, volunteering that his grade-point average is 3.8, a bit better than Shaquem’s 3.7.

Shaquem was the defensive MVP and most improved player on his varsity pee wee team, and in mighty mites ran for 12 touchdowns and 20 yards a carry.

“He was always a hard worker, maybe because he knew he was outnumbered two hands to one,’’ says cousin Bernard Reedy Jr., a Lakewood grad expected to be one of the country’s best wide receivers this fall at Toledo. “You ain’t ever seen anything like him, but after you did, you knew he was just as good as anyone with two hands.’’

Being one-handed was only slowing him down in one area — the weight room. Shaquem knew he had to get stronger.

The family looked into a clamp-like device that would allow him to do bench presses and curls. Tangie brought home brochures touting devices that ran into the thousands of dollars.

“I will make something for you,’’ said his father, Terry. And he disappeared into the garage, night after night.

One of his many creations for Shaquem is The Book — a block of wood the size of a book, wrapped with a black-and-blue striped sock, with another smaller piece of wood nailed into it for stability.

Using that between the bar and his left arm, Shaquem was able to bench press smaller weights. Then, 100…135…165…180.

It has become something of a production at football combines, Shaquem settling into his spot under the bar, his brother there to spot him, other athletes gathering around to see just how the one-handed kid will jack 180 pounds into the air.

Then Shaquill calls for The Book. Tangie reaches into her bag and throws it to her son, who sets it into place as the room buzzes.

Thrilled by the spectacle, the other athletes count each press, “1 …2 …3…”

• • •

On the field, Shaquem can hit and wrap up tackles with ease, and another of Terry’s devices has trained him for catching any balls thrown his way. Jamming up receivers at the line of scrimmage is difficult, a weakness Shaquem devotes extra time to strengthening.

“The dream is too keep playing football,’’ he says. “My goal is to show people no matter what happens, if there’s something you love and want to do, you can do it.’’

While driving home from a combine in Orlando last month, where both brothers had terrific performances, the twins found out Massachusetts had offered them both a football scholarship.

“A blessing,’’ Shaquem says.

Other schools followed: Akron, Ball State, Western Kentucky, Bowling Green.

Clemson is interested, and Boston College called Saturday to request transcripts.

USF offered Shaquill a scholarship, but not Shaquem, who has also received letters from LSU, Miami and Purdue for track.

The brothers say they are a package deal.

Tangie marvels at how well things have turned out. She can smile now, thinking back to that sleepless night, bringing her bandaged son home from the hospital, then picking him up from day care the next day.

She remembers the little boy with one hand running outside in the grass, his bandaged left arm dirtied with blood showing through, smiling as he ran from the other kids, a football tucked under his arm.

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@tampabay.com.

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