When Shaquill Griffin was starting to play competitive sports as a young child, his father, Terry, called him “the sleeper,” because people would never see him coming until the last minute.
He is a 6-foot tall defensive back from the University of Central Florida who logged the fourth-fastest 40-yard dash (4.38 seconds), the third-best vertical jump (38.5 inches) and the second-best broad jump (11 feet) in his position group at the NFL Scouting Combine, despite not being included among the “first wave” of prospects invited. He also was not invited to the Senior Bowl.
When he was 13, he promised his twin brother, Shaquem, who had his left hand completely removed at the age of 4 because of amniotic band syndrome, that he would not play football for a college that did not offer both of them scholarships. Three years later, Shaquill told Miami, his dream school, that he would not go there for this reason.
Last season, Shaquill led the Knights in interceptions with four. Shaquem, a converted linebacker who has one year of eligibility remaining, led the team in sacks with 11.5. And the brothers’ star continued to rise, with ESPN dedicating a feature to their inspirational journey.
Throughout his life, Shaquill has considered himself Shaquem’s protector and guiding light. He reports back everything he learns throughout the NFL training process.
“I’m just trying to take in how real this all is,” Shaquill told me this week as he prepared for UCF’s pro day, which is scheduled for Wednesday. “I’m just enjoying it. This is all so crazy.”
Taken apart, these scattered anecdotes make up a portion of a man, something you could glean from an NFL.com scouting report or a quick conversation with the affable Florida native. You could hear about his passion for motivational speaking or the love he has for his parents. But as we reach the one-month mark in the countdown to the 2017 NFL Draft, scouts who may have missed or overlooked the defensive back are working to put it all together.
While Griffin’s case is not rare, he represents a challenge for personnel departments this time of year: the late-in-the-process bloomer. The potential mid-round gem. The combine surprise. He had his first-ever conversation with a scout (from the Miami Dolphins) on Jan. 21, following the NFL Players Association’s Collegiate Bowl, and had no official visits set up with any team at the combine in Indianapolis.
But after his official combine numbers were posted, his calendar came to resemble that of your local CPA nearing the tax deadline. In the last week, he’s already met with and worked out for the Titans. Dinner with the Lions and meetings with the Colts and 49ers were planned for Tuesday. The Cowboys called Monday to set something up. Nineteen teams, including the Dolphins and Patriots, are set to speak with him at UCF’s pro day. He has visits lined up with the Seahawks and Steelers, among others, according to someone briefed on his itinerary.
For a player like Griffin, it’s thrilling but complicated. What might have happened if UCF head coach Scott Frost, who in his first season on the job finally figured out how to effectively use the Griffin brothers, had been there for all four of Shaquill’s seasons instead of just the 2016 campaign? When might outside perception catch up with his own reality?
“After the NFLPA game, coaches were coming up to me and saying, ‘We didn’t even know who you were, we didn’t even know your name; we weren’t supposed to be even looking at you, but man, we have no choice,’ ” Griffin said. “And, like, the NFLPA game, I wasn’t even invited until the last minute. In my head, I’m thinking, People don’t even want me here, so I have to show how good I am. Same with the combine — I didn’t even make it until the second wave.”
He added: “It just put a chip on my shoulder. I definitely use that to my advantage. I never let someone tell me what I can’t do.”
Griffin has always relied on faith and positivity. It helped him push Shaquem and guided him through some of his most significant decisions. He never thought twice about spurning the Hurricanes, even though at the time, he was at an age when other kids are mostly worrying about getting their driver’s license.
“It wasn’t a decision I made when I was 16, though — it was a decision I made a long time before that,” Griffin said. “[Shaquem and I] came up with the package-deal thing at the beginning of high school, and it was always something I wanted. It was never a doubt in my mind.”
He credits his parents, Tangie and Terry, who never missed a football game, for his ability to make the right decision. They still run an AAU track team they started in 2008, the St. Pete Nitro Track & Field Club, and help provide financial opportunities if kids cannot afford to run. Shaquill and Shaquem also assist with the club, and Shaquill said his parents have more than 100 participants now. Shaquill thought of the name from a logo on an energy drink.
Their foundational upbringing not only helped Shaquem seamlessly overcome amniotic band syndrome, but it made Shaquill believe anything was attainable if he was smart and worked hard. In rapid-fire, informal sessions at the combine, a handful of teams asked Shaquill what he would spend his first millions on if he were drafted. He did not hesitate.
“I told them, ‘Actually, I’m going to invest in real estate,’ ” Shaquill said. “One guy said, ‘No, man, you’re just playing with me.’ I said, ‘No, I’m serious.’ No one believed me.
“I think sports car is a common answer. And maybe that’s the answer they commonly get. But I surprised every single scout I talked to.”
No one saw “the sleeper” coming at that moment. But by now, that’s the way he operates best.
“I wouldn’t change this for anything,” he said. “I would never take anything for granted.”