LOS ANGELES • Shaquem Griffin's odds-defying American football journey is set to continue after the linebacker who lost one hand at the age of four was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday.
The Seahawks chose Griffin in the fifth round (141st overall), making him the first one-handed player ever selected in National Football League (NFL) entry draft.
Getting picked was a dream come true for Griffin as he joins his 22-year-old twin brother, Shaquill Griffin, who was drafted by Seattle in the third round last year.
"That was the phone call I was waiting for my entire life," Shaquem said regarding the call from Seattle general manager John Schneider when he was chosen.
"I literally broke down after that. I couldn't breathe. I didn't know how to talk, I was just lost for words."
His undeveloped left hand was amputated when he was four after the pain led him to try to cut off his own fingers.
ONE SPECIAL MOMENT
That was the phone call I was waiting for my entire life. I literally broke down after that. I couldn't breathe. I didn't know how to talk, I was just lost for words.
SHAQUEM GRIFFIN, on the call from Seattle general manager John Schneider when he was chosen.
Despite the complications from a rare birth defect called amniotic band syndrome - a condition that can result in damaged tissue or, in extreme cases, even foetal death - he grew up to star for his high school in track, American football and baseball.
He won the state title in the triple jump in 2013 and was offered an athletics scholarship to the University of Central Florida (UCF) alongside Shaquill.
He enjoyed an outstanding American football career at the UCF, where he appeared in 39 games with 26 starts, amassing 175 tackles, 18.5 sacks two interceptions and 11 passes defended.
His play earned him a first team all-conference selection twice and, in 2016, he was the Defensive Player of the Year in the American Athletic Conference.
The Seahawks envision him contributing as a pass-rushing outside linebacker and on special teams.
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said Griffin has great speed, is mature beyond his years, and they are going to try to put him in situations where he can succeed.
"He will be a big factor in special teams. We are going to try to put him in spots where we can utilise the great speed he has. He is as fast as you can get as a linebacker," Carroll said. "He is an extraordinary young man. He is an explosive, talented guy and he backs it up."
The 1.8m, 103kg Shaquem impressed at the NFL scouting combine, clocking 4.38sec in the 40-yard dash - first among all linebackers present, with 4.65sec considered outstanding.
Using a prosthetic on his left arm he bench pressed over 100kg 20 times as NFL hopefuls were put through their paces by team representatives in March.
But NFL evaluators found weaknesses too. For NFL.com scouts, those limitations primarily relate to his tackling ability: "Griffin's physical limitation should be discussed as it pertains to areas like tackle disengagement and consistency of finishing, but his instincts, play speed and technique have all been major factors in helping him thrive at his position."
Johnny Nansen , linebackers and assistant head coach for the USC (University of Southern California) Trojans, says those doubts may be due to the huge step-up from college to professional football.
"In the NFL, particularly at linebacker, great tackling technique is expected," says Nansen. "The ball carriers will be faster and stronger than those at the college level, requiring the defensive players to have good technique to bring them to the ground and end the play."
Amid scepticism, Shaquill, a minute older than his twin, made sure he always put in a good word for his brother. He said he lobbied the Seattle coaching and scouting staff to pick his brother.
"I made sure I kept his name fresh in that building," said Shaquill, who started 11 games for Seattle last year. "So every day I made sure to mention my brother about something, even if it was just, 'Hey man, my brother got a good workout in, his backpedal is looking smooth every day'."
Historically, NFL talent evaluators tend to shy away from the different - the short quarterback, the slow wide receiver, or the undersized offensive lineman - afraid to take a chance in a results-driven business on a player who does not fit the mould.
Yet there is one aspect of Griffin's game that cannot be measured - his drive to prove his doubters wrong. "I don't want to be a guy who's just a feel-good story," he told American media at the draft.
"I want to be a football player, and a good one at that."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN