He knew it all week. He heard the whispers and the rumors. He knew he had to keep his head focused on the task at hand. He knew his teammates were looking at him and how he would lead.
Shaquem Griffin had a sense Scott Frost might be coaching his final game at UCF as the undefeated Knights were to face Memphis in the American Championship. But the linebacker and defensive leader could not and would not let his teammates down and practiced harder and spoke louder and never wavered on what was the priority. Find a way. Just find a way to win.
And yet there he was almost four hours after kickoff with a chance to keep a dream season alive. After 117 combined points were scored and 167 plays, there was one final play. UCF led Memphis 62-55 and the Tigers had the ball at the UCF nine yard line in the second overtime. If Memphis had scored on the drive, the Tigers may have elected to go for two to win the game. But on this play, Griffin did what he did best. Find a way to get to the quarterback. When Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson dropped back he had an open receiver, but he pumped to let the receiver make a cut and then off the edge Shaquem Griffin was charging towards him like a rhino in rage. Ferguson had to get rid of the ball a half-second before he wanted and threw off his back foot because Griffin was about to clean his clock.
Ferguson got rid of the ball. Griffin knocked him down with a ferocious forearm and Tre Neal picked off the pass to secure victory for UCF.
Griffin would do it again a month later when UCF, with Frost coaching his final game, had a chance to secure an unbeaten season. As the Gus Malzahn-led Auburn Tigers marched down the field looking for a game tying score, the ball sat at the UCF 21 yard line with just over 30-seconds left. It was 1st down and Auburn's Jarrett Stidham was in a rhythm. Then it happened again. Griffin came blazing off the snap to plow past a left tackle and race towards Stidham who looked down field. He had no time. Griffin closed and Stidham threw off his back foot hoping for a prayer to fall in his favor. It didn't. Antwan Collier picked off the pass and UCF secured victory and clinched a perfect season.
Shaquem Griffin willed his team to win in those final two games of the 2017 season and was named Defensive MVP of the Peach Bowl and the heart and soul of a team that was winless two years before now stood as the only unbeaten in the country.
That is who Shaquem Griffin, the football player, was and how he went about playing a sport he loves. So when Griffin announced his retirement from football on Wednesday, I thought about those two plays but I thought about so much more.I thought about the person who I watched touch the lives of so many people with his performance on the field but even more so off the field.
Griffin, the player, made you not look at him for what made him different from others but instead you just watched a great football player who impacted the game. But Griffin is different in that he understood what he meant and means to so many.
The day before that Peach Bowl win over Auburn, I watched Shaquem Griffin meet a young child with a handicap that made her different from other kids. But for a brief moment, Griffin kneeled to sit face-to-face and made that child smile and laugh and heard Griffin talk about believing you can be whatever your heart desires and never let anyone tell you that you are different. While the child smiled, the parents cried. They saw joy in their child's eyes. Oh, did I mention the parents were Auburn fans? But that day, they were Shaquem Griffin fans.
I saw parents travel a long distance to a UCF road game with the hopes of meeting Griffin and just maybe he could talk to their daughter who likely would never be able to get out of her wheelchair and run like the other kids. Griffin was there when needed and for a short time shared his story and made the child's day by posing for a picture, signing an autograph and just laughing and smiling when most days did not include that for that family.
I could go on and on with stories I have been fortunate to see away from the playing field for Shaquem Griffin. And I can recall dozens of football moments where he shined.
I have been a Heisman Trophy voter for years and take my ballot quite seriously. I update my list of candidates weekly throughout the season and I also put an emphasis on how a player does on the field and how they conduct themselves off the field. I said years ago, and admit again today, I was biased in 2017 when it came to my ballot. I voted Baker Mayfield, the Oklahoma quarterback, third on my ballot. I had McKenzie Milton second. I voted Shaquem Griffin for the Heisman Trophy and believe I was the only voter in the country to do so. The Heisman's mission statement says the following:
"The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. The winners of the trophy epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work. The Heisman Trophy Trust’s mission is to ensure the continuation and integrity of this award."
I thought then, and still today, Shaquem Griffin was worthy of winning the award.
On that December 31st morning in Atlanta back in 2017, before Griffin met the media and shortly before he met that family, I opened my phone and showed him a picture of my Heisman ballot. He smiled and thanked me. No Shaquem, thank you. Thank you for being who you are and thank you for the football memories and thank you for inspiring others as you have done for years and the many you will in the future.
While Shaquem Griffin's football playing days may be over, he is just getting started when it comes to leading and impacting people and I can't wait to see what's next.
Final note: While in high school, Shaquem Griffin won the state triple jump title.