For three years, Shaquem Griffin was mostly stuck on the football scout team at Central Florida. He thought about transferring to another school.
Shaquill Griffin made a pact with his twin brother. They joined the Knights together. If one wanted to leave, so would the other. That was part of the brother bond.
"It was frustrating," Shaquem said. "I talked to my brother. He encouraged me to stay positive, to be patient.
"Things in life do not always work the way you planned, so you have to stay focused and keep fighting."
Shaquem knows all about perseverance. He has excelled in sports, mostly track and football, despite having just one hand.
Shaquem decided he could overcome this setback, too.
He stayed. So did Shaquill.
Now the former Lakewood High standouts are both starters. Shaquem, a linebacker, leads the team in sacks (11) and is second in tackles (80). Shaquill, a defensive back, has a team-high four interceptions and 41 tackles.
They have helped lift the Knights from a winless season a year ago to a 6-5 record and bowl eligibility. On Saturday, the twins return to the Tampa Bay area when UCF plays rival USF in the regular-season finale.
"Shaquem and Shaquill (Griffin) are awesome," first-year Knights coach Scott Frost said after a close loss to Houston on Oct. 29. "Our defense is a group of fighters."
Shaquem was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome, a rare condition in which a strand of the amniotic sac becomes entangled with the fetus. Shaquem's fingers on his left hand never fully developed. His hand was amputated when he was 4.
That did not stop Shaquem from playing sports. He did everything with his twin brother. They ran track. They lifted weights. They played football.
It was hard to tell them apart based on their athletic abilities. The scholarships in football came from all kinds of schools.
USF offered Shaquill, but not Shaquem. They insisted they were a package deal.
They decided on UCF not just because it was close to home but because the team was close knit.
But the two really wanted to start together. That took time — and a coaching change.
Frost's defensive staff turned Shaquem from a defensive back into a linebacker. The twins had an immediate impact. In the season opener, Shaquem had a sack and a forced fumble while Shaquill had an interception as the Knights beat South Carolina State.
"This is something that we've been waiting for," Shaquill said. "This was the idea all along when we started playing football, to be starting side-by-side at the same college. We came here because it was a family atmosphere. And now we're part of it as starters together."
Shaquem's rise has turned him into a media sensation. ESPN aired a feature on him during College GameDay. That segment helped him become an inspiration to others.
Julianna Nelson watched his story and became one of his biggest fans. The 11-year-old also was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome. In March, she received a bionic arm.
She met Shaquem when UCF played at Houston. Shaquem had his best game of the season with 14 tackles, 21/2 sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery. He was named the American Conference defensive player of the week.
"It's a feeling that everyone can't have," Shaquem said. "I'm blessed to have that feeling, that faith to be a positive, inspiring person for others, not just for young people, but for older people, men and women.
"I wouldn't change it for anything in the world."