Shaquem Griffin was the feel-good story of the 2018 NFL season before the 2018 season even began.
Despite having his hand amputated at the age of 4, the result of amniotic band syndrome, which kept his hand from developing properly, Griffin starred at UCF, where he earned AAC Defensive Player of the Year Honors; he then wowed everyone at the NFL scouting combine, and eventually became a fifth-round pick in the 2018 Draft.
All of that would have been amazing enough if not for not-so-minor detail that he was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, the same team that a year earlier drafted Shaquill Griffin, meaning twin brothers and best friends would be teammates at the game's highest level.
Then the season began, and a story that already seemed too good to be true got even better, with Griffin starting at weakside linebacker in place of an injured K.J. Wright, putting him on the field at the same time as his brother, Seattle's starting left cornerback.
Then the sometimes harsh realities of being a rookie in the NFL happened. Griffin made some plays in his NFL debut, but he also struggled at times, and was eventually replaced in the game by Austin Calitro. With Calitro passing him on the depth chart, and with the Seahawks eventually bringing in Mychal Kendricks while Wright was injured, that opener represented the only significant playing time Griffin saw on defense all season, though he did work his way back onto the field late in the season to spell Wright or in special sub-packages.
Asked about Griffin's progress late in the season, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll acknowledged that "we threw him in there so early. We might have done that too early for anybody coming off of the big transition that he was making."
Griffin wasn't just making the transition from college to the NFL, he was also doing it at a new position, having first been a defensive back before later becoming a pass-rusher who lined up on the line of scrimmage for UCF.
"I remember he was at DB just a couple years before and all of that," Carroll said in December. "He's doing good and he's ready to jump when we need him. He's way better schooled now than he was earlier, but he still hadn't had a lot of playing time. It's going to be a big offseason for him."
So no, the story of Griffin's rookie season didn't quite match its remarkable arc from the offseason to Week 1 of the regular season, but it was still a successful one in a lot of ways.
"I had no reason to be down on myself," Griffin said a day after Seattle's playoff loss to the Cowboys. "Just being able to have an opportunity to be a part of this team, part of this group and this organization, I was very grateful for whatever position I was in. I've always said, no matter where I play, as long as I'm a part of something and as long as I'm given a chance, that's all that matters to me. I'm extremely grateful to be around good guys and the coaches who gave me the opportunity to be here, and especially playing with my brother, I have nothing to be upset about."
And just because Griffin didn't see a lot of playing time on defense, that doesn't mean he didn't contribute to Seattle's success in 2018—he was one of Seattle's core special teams players all season long, and finished the year with seven special teams tackles, tied for fifth most on the team. As his head coach noted, this is a big offseason for Griffin, who plans to return to the team in 2019 prepared to take on a bigger role.
"I feel like I can come in, go to work, know what I need to work on to not only be a special teams player, but a key player on defense," he said. "... Working on being able to call out plays before I see them, being able to communicate well. Those are the most important things, because if you can communicate and get guys in the right spot, there's no reason why you can't get things done. I feel like that's a very important part of my game, and make sure I keep the speed and make sure I keep the aggressiveness."
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., a former linebacker himself who coached that position for most of his coaching career before becoming a coordinator, saw a lot of growth from Griffin even if it didn't always translate to playing time.
"The biggest progress for him is confidence," Norton said last month. "Really understanding the pro game, learning how to use his speed, learning how to use his footwork, learning how to study, learning how to take care of his body over a long period of time, really sitting back and watching the veterans—how they prepare and approach games and how they consistently stay at a high level. I think for young players to see how serious the older players are is a shock for them, but he's a quick learner and he understands how to do it."
And even if Griffin's season didn't go quite as smoothly as he might have hoped, it was, in ways that go far beyond football, an unambiguous success.
Nearly every time the Seahawks went on the road in 2018, a story would emerge about a limb-different boy or girl who had been inspired and motivated by Griffin's story. Despite the high demands that come with being an NFL rookie, he made time, week after week, to meet with kids at practice or games to provide a little bit of inspiration. That was never more evident than after a preseason game when, long after the game had ended and most players had left the stadium, he was on the field with a group of kids from NubAbility, a non-profit that aims to "encourage, inspire and instruct limb-different youth in mainstream sports."
"At NubAbility, we teach them courage and confidence and tell them, you can do anything you want to do, but he showed them that you can," Sheila Trznadel, the executive director of NubAbility Athletics, said after that preseason game. "It was this realization for them—this is what we drill into their heads every day—you guys can do this, don't let anybody take you down, there's no excuses. Our thing is, 'don't need two,' that's our hashtag. We constantly push them to be their best, no excuses. But then he went out and did it, right? So us telling them and someone doing it, it's two different things."
For so many reasons, from the spotlight on him to the fact that he was playing with his twin brother, Griffin's season was anything but a normal rookie year, but it was one he can be proud of and one to build upon heading into 2019.
"I think he handled it really well," Carroll said. "I think the two of them gaining strength from each other made their way through it with all of the attention and the focus on the brothers and all of that. They competed great. They were always here, their mentality was great every day. Every day, they were consistent with their attitude and their approach to it. I think (Shaquem) gave himself a chance to be a factor in a lot of ways on the team. He showed up, he played hard, he worked hard, he learned a lot playing his linebacker spot—he has come miles from where he started. I think he handled it really well, but it's hard to separate them handling it together. They just kind of, they're peas in a pod and I thought it was a very successful year under all of the attention."