TAMPA — On at least one occasion in their blood-bound existence, Shaquill and Shaquem Griffin were more insufferable than inseparable.
The twins, then about 7, were fighting over an X-Men action figure on Christmas morning. Shaquill, a minute older than his brother, remembers trying to wrest it from Shaquem, who threw it against the wall and broke it.
"And I just completely lost it," Shaquill recalled.
"I remember trying to hit him and then actually when I hit him, I ran into the living room trying to hide … so he wouldn't get a lick in so I would win. He jumped right on top of me and started hitting me back, and my dad had to stop it."
The Griffins' history of sibling strife pretty much starts and ends there. Subtract that aberration and theirs is a story of fierce loyalty, of two youngsters conjoined at the soul. Competitive, sure, but rarely combative.
From their effervescent grins to their hairstyles (locks cascading down their shoulders) to their athletic sleekness, the Griffins are identical twins in virtually every sense. The only distinction is the absence of Shaquem's left hand, which he lost at age 4 due to a rare prenatal condition.
Octavio Jones | Times
Octavio Jones | Times
For the first 21 years of their life (they turned 22 on July 20), they roomed together, be it at home in a room with bunk beds or during their college career at UCF. In their prepubescent years, they dressed together. Heck, even their GPAs had a similar sparkle.
"Man, the closest (brothers) I've ever seen," UCF senior defensive lineman Jamiyus Pittman said.
"It was like cereal and milk, basically. They did everything together, and when they did things with other people, it was the both of them. It wasn't just one of them."
But late last week, Shaquill — the Seahawks' third-round draft pick in April — headed to Seattle to start his new job. Shaquem, last season's American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year (11.5 sacks), remains in Orlando, where he'll be a redshirt senior linebacker for the Knights.
For both, 2017 shapes up as the biggest season of their lives, accompanied by the biggest transition. Starting with their first youth team (Gibbs Gladiators at age 5), through their dazzling careers at Lakewood High and on to UCF, Shaquill and Shaquem always have been teammates and roommates.
Courtesy of Tangie Griffin
Courtesy of Tangie Griffin
"They've never, ever been apart," said their mom, Tangie Griffin.
"It's different," Shaquem said.
It's an adjustment not to be discounted. The rhythmic pulse of the pair's life has been disrupted, the onfield telepathy dissolved. In a sense, Shaquill has had to relinquish protective custody of his younger sibling by 60 seconds.
"Even though he's a minute older than me, he's always that big brother," Shaquem said. "So when it comes to me making decisions and him making decisions, it was always like, 'Hey, man, I think this is best for you.' "
Case in point: Four years ago, Shaquill refused to sign with any program that wouldn't also take Shaquem as a package deal. Tangie Griffin said then-USF coach Skip Holtz eventually offered Shaquem, but only after learning of Shaquill's terms and recognizing Shaquem's skill set at a combine.
By contrast, then-UCF coach George O'Leary insisted on signing both at the outset.
"Coach O'Leary was the first coach to say, 'I won't take Shaquill unless Shaquem accepts the offer. I won't take Shaquem unless Shaquill accepts the offer,' " Tangie Griffin recalled.
Now, adulthood and circumstances have put a nation between them. Two brothers joined at the hip for life have been separated by life.
Before a career-altering conversion to outside linebacker last season, Shaquem languished at safety for three years while Shaquill's career at cornerback (team-high four interceptions in 2016) progressed at a brisker pace. Hence the reason one is an NFL rookie and the other a college veteran.
"Even though he's not there in person, mentally, emotionally, spiritually also, I just feel like he's always going to be a part of me," Shaquill said. "I don't think he necessarily has to be there right next to me. But I definitely feel like it's gonna be nothing too big, not an issue."
For Shaquem, it can't be an issue. The Knights, especially green on defense, are counting on him too much.
"I feel like he's accepted his role as a leader," Pittman said. "He knows that at this point he can't be missing his brother, you know what I mean? He knows we've got way too many young people for one of the older people to feel down about anything."
As if to indicate his leadership, to convey he indeed can prosper as a solo act, Shaquem is living on his own — literally — this preseason. Last week, it was widely reported he intends to live in UCF's Wayne Densch Sports Center (which houses the Knights' football offices and locker rooms) for all of preseason camp.
For the extended stay, he brought along a mattress, comforter, plenty of snacks, and a laptop for his daily FaceTime visits with Shaquill.
"I'm on my own now, I can't look to my right and say, 'Hey, 'Quill, what's best for me to do right now?' " Shaquem said.
"It's not all negative being apart. You've got the positive aspects to it, because now I can grow as a person and as a man."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.