Even to a mother, the scream from her 4-year-old was more urgent and scary than anything she had heard before.
Tangie Griffin jumped out of bed and went to the bedroom where her twin sons slept. Shaquill was there, but Shaquem wasn’t. She frantically searched the house and found him in the kitchen.
He had climbed to the silverware drawer and was threatening to cut his fingers off with a knife he held in his right hand.
“All I could do was take the knife away,” Tangie said. “He kept screaming that his hand hurt. I picked him up and rocked him back to sleep. And then I called the doctor.”
The next day, Shaquem Griffin’s left hand was amputated.
Shaquem, 22, recalled that night on a recent afternoon on the campus of Central Florida. He had just finished a practice for the Knights’ Jan. 1 game against Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
He was proud yet not boastful of being chosen American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2016. He was a finalist this year for UCF (12-0), the only undefeated team in major college football.
“My mom took me to a room [the next day] and all I remember is them putting a mask on me,” Shaquem said of the time he lost his hand. “When I woke up, I had a bandage on my hand and all I wanted was to get out of there.”
During Tangie’s pregnancy, doctors discovered a tiny amniotic membrane had wrapped around Shaquem’s hand.
“It’s a thin tissue you can barely see,” Tangie said. “The doctor answered the questions and explained the options. It could be taken off with a needle, but even the slightest move could have punctured [either of the twins] and it was possible one wouldn’t survive. I was not going to take that chance.”
Shaquem was born with fingers that were extremely painful to touch or pressure. On the night he went after a knife, he had banged his hand against the side of the bunk beds he shared with his twin brother, part of a family of four boys.
The day after the surgery, Shaquem was taken to day care. He and he and his teacher were given explicit instructions for him not to do anything outside or take part in any activities.
“I go to pick him up and I find him outside with a football in his hand and his bandage just dripping blood,” Tangie said.
Shaquem has displayed this kind of determination his entire life.
“I didn’t care, I was going to play football regardless,” he said. “It was tough until I had my fingers removed, but after that I knew I was going to play again. The pain was gone. … It didn’t hurt when the ball hit.”
Shaquem and Shaquill, older by 60 seconds, formed an even deeper bond. Tangie says Shaquem insists you say 60 seconds instead of a minute because a minute sounds longer.
They made a pact, it was both of them or neither.
“Before we got to high school, before we got the first offer, we made the decision we were going to stick together no matter what,” Shaquem said. “We talked about going to the same college. We talked about living in the same house when we got older and even dating twins together.”
Shaquill, a rookie cornerback with the Seattle Seahawks, started to get offers. First Mississippi and then Florida State. South Florida, close to their home in St. Petersburg, offered a scholarship, but only to Shaquill.
“We were a package deal,” Shaquill said. “It started when we were young. That was type of bond we had. When scholarships came in, we kept it the same way.”
Amid the recruiting process, they visited Central Florida, viewed it as a perfect fit and committed before then-coach George O’Leary made a home visit.
Things went well for Shaquill but Shaquem struggled. In his second year, he was a second-string linebacker when the team went to play Penn State in Ireland. That’s when he learned he was demoted.
“I thought in my head, why did I get moved back just before the game?” Shaquem said. “I did everything they asked me to. I had a good camp. I worked my way up the depth chart. Then I got moved back to third string and then the scout team after the game.”
Shaquem redshirted that season and Shaquill moved a year ahead of him.
“It was tough on him,” Shaquill said. “He thought about stopping playing or transferring. It was as tough for me as it was for him. It’s like everything we believed in wasn’t going to come through.”
As a sophomore, Shaquem played on special teams and was a backup safety. A switch in coaching from O’Leary to Scott Frost changed everything.
In his junior year, as a linebacker, he started every game and finished 12th in the nation in sacks. He had 92 tackles, 57 of them unassisted, while playing in the same unit as his brother.
In Shaquem’s initial game, he ended the first play by vomiting.
“I think it was the nerves,” Shaquem said. “My brother grabbed my hand and said, ‘You play football. Stay calm, have fun and play football.’ After that I calmed down.”
Shaquem had another trong this season this year, and also developed as a team leader.
“He’s got great leadership and he plays hard,” outside linebacker Pat Jasinski said. “He’s everything you would want from a player at his position.”
The team views him just like any other player, with no restrictions.
“It’s funny, you don’t think about it at all until you’re watching film and see him reach for a ball with an arm without a hand,” Jasinski said. “Some of the stuff he does out there is out of this world, just crazy.”
Few people think UCF’s game against Auburn will be Shaquem’s last at a high level. He has his eyes on the NFL, and the league is looking back.
“I think he’s got a chance [to be drafted], absolutely,” said one NFL scout, who declined to be identified because they were disclosing internal information. “I think he could go later in the draft.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. The kid’s got more heart and passion and toughness. He’s a darn good football player.”
Shaquill wants teams to target his brother on the field because he has only one hand.
“Any coach would try and exploit him,” he said. “It will give him more times to prove them wrong. He loves that. The one hand makes him better.”
The twins talk at least three times a day, but usually not about football. On game days, it’s before warmups, after warmups and while they are strapping on pads.
Shaquem is a good talker — and a huge Seahawks fan. His chance of playing with his brother are about 1 in 32. So, judging from Shaquem’s path to this point, a pretty good chance.
Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this story.