Born with amniotic band syndrome that resulted in the amputation of his left hand, Seahawks rookie linebacker Shaquem Griffin has overcome much in his young life. Now, he's inspiring other differently abled kids all over the country.
This is not another Shaquem Griffin story.
By now, you’ve probably heard how that one goes. Griffin — a 6-foot, 227-pound rookie linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks — was born with amniotic band syndrome, a congenital disorder that disrupted the development of the fingers on his left hand. Every time the hand banged on his bed frame or brushed against his twin brother, streaks of pain burned through his body. When he was 4 years old, the hand was amputated.
He played football and baseball and ran track anyway. He earned a scholarship to the University of Central Florida anyway. He was named 2016 American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year anyway. He was drafted by the Seahawks in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL draft anyway. He reunited with his brother — second-year cornerback Shaquill Griffin — on Seattle’s active roster anyway.
He told his story anyway, and in doing so, Shaquem became much more than an anonymous fifth-round pick. He became a symbol for countless kids subjected to similar circumstances. He became a running, tackling, pass-rushing personification of perseverance. He became the unlikely centerpiece of Nike and Gillette’s nationwide commercial campaigns. He became an example.
And, no, that’s not too much for a 23-year-old rookie in Renton to bear.
“I never felt that way,” Shaquem said this month of the pressure associated with his spotlight. “I do what I do. I live my life the way I’ve been living it. I haven’t changed anything.
“A lot of people say, ‘Do you feel a lot of pressure?’ There’s not that much pressure, to be honest. You meet kids. You talk to people and tell your story. If you’re a person who likes helping people, you’ll never be overwhelmed with all these people you want to help. I don’t feel like I’m overwhelmed from meeting people and telling my story over and over again.
“I’m not overwhelmed because that’s something I want to do. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. If that’s my way of giving back — if that’s my way of helping others — then that’s what I’ll do.”
So Shaquem will keep doing what he does — running, tackling, smiling, serving.
He’ll keep telling his story, so kids like these can tell theirs.
Blake Venier, 3 years old
Blake knows he’s different.
The 3-year-old boy from Gibraltar, Mich., with the dark blond hair and rosy cheeks — who was born without a left hand — will occasionally approach his mother or grandmother and give voice to an observation.
“You have two hands. I have one.”
Blake assembles Hot Wheels tracks anyway. He eats and dresses himself anyway. He holds onto a miniature football anyway.
“He can do anything. It’s amazing,” said Deborah Holland, Blake’s grandmother. “You just sit back and watch.”
Blake, too, has been watching. Every time Shaquem’s Gillette commercial comes on television, the 3-year-old boy points to the screen and says, “I want to play football with him.”
On Oct. 28, Blake didn’t play football with Shaquem.
But the alternative was enough.
When Holland — a Detroit Lions season ticket-holder — saw the 2018 schedule, she instantly decided to take her grandson to see the Seahawks. She sent an email to Seattle’s public-relations staff, which accommodated Blake with pregame passes on the Seahawks sideline. While the team was stretching on the field, assistant strength and conditioning coach Mondray Gee walked over, scooped Blake up and made an impromptu introduction.
Shaquem and Blake bumped fists — Shaquem’s right hand, and Blake’s right hand.
“Seeing that little kid in Detroit was amazing,” Shaquem said before a recent Seahawks practice, with a pink hand-made poster that reads “Shaquem Your Amazing!” displayed in the back of his locker. “I meet so many people and it’s always a different story. It’s always someone who’s trying to overcome something and living out their dreams.”
“(Blake’s) face when Mondray brought him back … he was just smiles from ear to ear,” Holland said. “It was so cute.”
America agreed. During the Seahawks’ 28-14 victory over the Lions, Fox broadcast Blake lifting his hand and waving at Shaquem. He also wore a Shaquem Griffin jersey, which the family had custom-made before his official jersey became available.
Unsurprisingly, the video went viral. Blake was an instant, unintended social media celebrity.
“We were just at the game and all of a sudden our phones were blowing up,” Holland said. “‘We just saw you on TV.’ ‘Blake’s on TV.’ I’m like, ‘What are you guys talking about?’ ”
In the weeks since, Blake has been written about multiple times. He’s been on television (just like Shaquem). He’s run around the house, holding that little football, yelling, “Go Seahawks! Go Seahawks!” He’s worn out that No. 49 jersey.
He’s dealt with adversity, too.
“There was a time at the park where some kids made a comment to him and he did kind of hide (the nub) behind his back,” Holland said. “They were playing a game — ‘Keep away from the monster,’ the boy with no hand.
“He got sad. But he bounced right back.”
Even at 3, Blake Venier knows he’s different.
He also knows he’s not alone.
“As he gets older he’s going to come across things that are going to be more difficult, and he’s going to have to deal with people not being nice to him,” Holland said. “So it’s always good to have someone to look up to and say, ‘Look, I can do this.’
“I think he will remember this even though he’s 3. I hope he does. We’re making a scrapbook with everything right now so he’ll have that for the future.”
Daniel Carrillo, 11 years old
Daniel couldn’t help but cry.
In September, the 11-year-old from Red Bluff, Calif. — who was born without a right hand, also the result of amniotic band syndrome — opened the lime green gift bag and pulled out a Shaquem Griffin jersey. He held the jersey against his face, the blue fabric concealing what was clearly a wide smile.
He cried. And his mother hugged him, and he cried harder. He cried and he smiled, and he wiped his eyes with his nub.
Then he said, “Thank you,” through the tears, and he put the jersey on.
But it wasn’t the first time he’s worn a football jersey.
“He has been asking me for years to play football, and about three years ago I finally gave in,” said Daniel’s mother, Maylissa Carrillo. “He only wants to play football, and now he has this vision of what he wants to do with the rest of his life.
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“It’s continuous football. He wants to be a Junior Spartan, which is where he is now, and be a Spartan in high school. Then he wants to go to Michigan State and be a Spartan. Then he would like to go to the NFL, and then coach.”
But first, the 11-year-old Spartan will travel to Seattle on the weekend of Dec. 2, to watch his favorite team (the 49ers) meet his favorite player (Shaquem).
Oh, and he doesn’t know this, but Daniel will meet him, too.
“He just knows that we’re going and we’re going to watch the game,” said Carrillo, who promised not to show Daniel this article and thus spoil the surprise. “He doesn’t know that we’re going to be meeting him on Saturday or that we have passes to go on the field. He doesn’t know any of it.”
It’s true, the offensive guard with big dreams from a small town in northern California doesn’t know everything.
But he knows why he cried.
“He says that it’s because he has someone to look up to,” Maylissa Carrillo said. “It gives him an idea of what he can do. He’s heard from people, ‘You can’t do that.’ Shaquem being drafted meant he can.”
Alex Hurlburt, 18 years old
Alex was born without nearly his entire left forearm.
He participated in football, baseball, basketball, wrestling, soccer and track and field anyway. He was named the Mountain Valley Conference’s back-to-back defensive player of the year at two different positions anyway. He flipped from defensive end to middle linebacker before his senior season and finished with 117 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and four forced fumbles at West Salem (Ore.) High School anyway. He deadlifted 500 pounds anyway.
He accepted a full scholarship to the University of Montana anyway.
But not everyone thought that was possible — Hurlburt included.
“I set my sights on (playing football at) a D-III school when I was early in high school,” Hurlburt told The Times last week. “That’s where I thought I could play. I never dreamed of playing at a high-level D-I school or a school like Montana. I never thought about that.
“I watched (Shaquem’s Peach Bowl win over Auburn) on TV and it was just incredible to watch that, because I was thinking, ‘Oh, that could be me in the future.’ It was just really, really intriguing. Seeing him do that just made me think in the back of my mind that anything is possible.”
Still, not all college recruiters agreed. Hurlburt earned just two Division I offers, from Montana and Portland State.
And in both cases, he had to prove that his film was not a fluke.
“It felt like, if I wasn’t in front of the coaches they wouldn’t believe what I was capable of,” said the 6-foot-3, 220-pound linebacker. “I think it did impact my recruitment a little bit.
“My two D-I offers, with both of them I had to go to the camp and do the whole camp and prove I am what the film shows. It’s not like that for everyone, but I’m blessed to be able to get that opportunity.”
Speaking of opportunities, Hurlburt drove to Seattle on Nov. 3, where he attended the Seahawks’ practice and talked with Shaquem 1-on-1. A day later, the Seahawks provided club seats for Hurlburt to watch the team’s home game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
This summer, he’ll arrive in Missoula, Mont., to continue an already improbable career. Regardless of appearances or physical limitations, he knows he can succeed.
He’s bringing the blueprint with him.
“(Shaquem) said watching my film reminded him of himself, and I had been thinking the same thing,” Hurlburt said. “The way he plays reminds me of how I play.
“He was saying how he had to put in that extra work, extra time, extra hours. That’s exactly what I do now. Really what I got out of it is to keep doing what I’m doing, but do it even better.”
Sam Kuhnert, 26 years old
Sam grew up watching Jim Abbott pitch.
Abbott enjoyed a 10-year major-league career despite being born without a right hand. He also inspired kids like Sam, who was born without a left hand and went on to pitch at Greenville (Ill.) University.
When he was 17 years old, Sam decided to start a non-profit organization aimed at teaching and encouraging kids with limb differences or amputations to play mainstream sports.
All he needed was a name.
“I had always called my left side my nub,” Kuhnert explained. “Growing up I heard that I had a disability, and it pissed me off. I’m like, ‘I’m not going to accept the term disability. The only disability is a disabled mind.’
“So I went, ‘What’s the opposite of disability? It’s ability. I combined those two words, and boom, start the T-shirts.”
The founder of NubAbility Athletics Foundation needs a lot more T-shirts now. The foundation’s first camp in 2012 featured 19 campers and seven coaches. Their most recent summer camp in southern Illinois was attended by nearly 200 campers and more than 100 limb-different coaches, offering more than 20 different sports. To date, they’ve hosted camps in eight different cities.
In August, Kuhnert and Co. held their first camp in the state of Washington at Bellevue Christian School. The campers also attended the Seahawks’ preseason finale against the Oakland Raiders.
After the game, Shaquem spoke with the group and posed for pictures for nearly an hour on the turf at CenturyLink Field.
He led the Seahawks with seven tackles, and then he celebrated by giving back.
“I never expected it to be like this,” Shaquem said of his suddenly prolific platform. “Anywhere I go — if it’s in the country, out of the country — someone is going to know you. If it’s not one (person) it’s probably going to be 30.
“I had no idea (this would happen). It’s cool. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh man, I need a break.’ But as it goes on, you embrace it, because of the kids.”
Those kids keep Griffin going. They keep Kuhnert going, too. What started as an improbable dream eventually brought Sam to Seattle.
“The word that comes to mind is surreal, because there’s not a word to describe how joyful it is,” Kuhnert said of the non-profit organization’s rapid expansion. “When I look back at the pictures, just to see how it’s grown from that fire pit the first year to filling up a football stadium, it’s unreal, man, honestly.
“This difference has allowed me to impact so many people.”
There’s that word again. Sam, Alex, Daniel, Blake, Shaquem — they’re all different. Not worse. Not weird. Different.
Shaquem’s difference is making a difference, one kid at a time.
“For the kids that are growing up now, he is their Jim Abbott,” Kuhnert said. “He’s the guy who’s setting the precedent for how they approach their athletics, how they approach their life. He’s not only living life as an athlete, he’s living life to serve others, man.
“I don’t even know if he understands the magnitude of what he’s done for these kids. Jim Abbott has inspired generations of limb-different athletes. Shaquem is on track to really just change the world.”