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Spagnola: Griffin Turns His Impossible Into Witten Award Winner

FRISCO, Texas –So what's your impossible?

         How fitting the Jason Witten Collegiate Man Of The Year Award debuted during the 2018 Winter Olympics, coinciding with the television ad campaign honoring Olympic and Paralympic athletes who have strived to overcome adversity and encouraging those who are struggling to never give up.

The slogan: Start your impossible.

Guessing we all, in some form or fashion, have faced or still face uphill battles in this life of ours. Or maybe there's something you've always wanted to do that you've never done or think, How could I ever possibly do that?

As the ad campaign says, "There is something impossible out there waiting for you … and it's telling you, you can't."

Well, on Thursday night the Ford Center was filled with those who have overcome some long odds to get where they wanted to go during the inaugural Jason Witten Collegiate Man Of The Year awards banquet honoring the three finalists chosen from 155 nominees: Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph and Central Florida linebacker/safety Shaquem Griffin.

There was Roger Staubach, recipient of the newly-created Legends of Leadership Award. Certainly the 1963 Heisman Trophy Award winner from the Naval Academy, no more than a 10th-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys in 1964, was told that an NFL career after having to serve a four-year commitment in the Navy, some of that time in Vietnam, was highly unlikely. He persevered, winding up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.

Jarrett Payton, having presented Witten the NFL Man Of The Year trophy in 2007, was present, bringing to mind how his late father, Walter Payton, defied the odds growing up in Columbia, Miss., having to be talked out of solely playing drums in the high school band and into first playing organized football his sophomore year. Walter ended up the NFL's all-time rushing leader until Emmitt Smith took the lead in 2002.

 Then there was Tony Romo, there to introduce Rudolph. Remember, Romo was too small, played at too small a high school in Burlington, Wis., for any D-I school to offer him a scholarship. So he accepted a *partial *scholarship to then Division I-AA Eastern Illinois where he became that division's Player of the Year. He, he went undrafted. Wasn't even invited to work out at the scouting combine. Ended up signing a free-agent deal with the Cowboys, only to sit and watch for three seasons. Sounds highly improbable in what became a 14-year NFL career that he would go on to own most of the Dallas Cowboys passing records. Oh, and upon retirement, he also was told it's impossible for a guy with absolutely no TV broadcasting experience to jump into CBS' No. 1 NFL booth and succeed. Hmmm, in your face?

Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee introduced Griffin. And we are all too familiar with the injury-adversities he has overcome, dating back to his college days at Penn State and why he was only a Cowboys second-round pick, to turn himself into a Pro Bowl linebacker.

And remember Witten himself. Grew up in tiny Elizabethton, Tenn., raised by his mother and grandparents, having to escape an abusive father. Who would have predicted the Cowboys tight end would break the franchise record for years of service (15 years) he's fixing to do so, now entering his 16th season ranked second in NFL history among tight ends with 1,152 receptions and 12,448 receiving yards.

All these guys, and probably like many of the rest of us, heard a whole bunch of *you can't(s) *along the way. Yet they defied the long odds.

And again, how fitting that the inaugural Jason Witten Collegiate Man Of The Year Award, recognizing players "demonstrating a record of leadership by exhibiting exceptional courage, integrity and sportsmanship both on and off the field," goes to …

Shaquem Griffin. Talk about an impossible.

His *impossible *began at age 4. Having suffered amniotic band syndrome at birth, the circulatory difficulty became so painful that a decision was finally made to amputate his left hand just above the wrist, that just after he nearly relieved himself of the pain by performing his own surgery one agonizing night.

Get it, no left hand.

Yet there he was on Thursday night, holding the look-alike Walter Payton NFL Man Of the Year trophy in his right hand, on stage talking about how he hopes his story inspires others with disabilities to never give up, and thanking his mom and dad, front and center in the audience shedding tears.

And look, this was not a sympathy award, Shaquem, born 60 seconds after his twin brother Shaquill, already a member of the Seattle Seahawks, earned every bit of it. First, on the field. After being buried on the bench for three seasons at Central Florida, he earned a starting role in 2016 and ended up starting for the undefeated Golden Knights in 2017. Was named the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player Of The Year in 2016 and not only second-team All-American in 2017, but also the 2018 Peach Bowl Defensive MVP, finishing the game against the Tigers with a team-leading 12 tackles (3.5 for losses) and 1.5 sacks. That's against Auburn, now, not some Austin Peay.

Not only that, he's already graduated with a degree in sociology and has been a regular volunteer at local Boys and Girls Clubs.

This is stuff you can't make up. Remember, playing football with the use of just his right hand.

         "You almost cannot believe what you see," Lee would say during his introductory speech. "He persevered."

         So here is his stat line for 2017 while playing both linebacker and a little fifth defensive back in the change-up defenses, and understand, he does not play with a prosthetic left hand: 74 tackles (13.5 for losses), two forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered (one scoop and score), three passes broken up and …

         One interception, as many interceptions as he has hands. Well, sort of.

         Because in that game against Houston when he corralled that interception, Griffin insisted on playing with a broken bone in his right hand. His only hand. Story goes he cut off the cast the day of the game, worried the coaches would not let him play. The training staff insisted, if the coaches were willing to play him that he at least had to play with a padded soft cast. No problem. He finished with 14 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one fumble recovery and …

         The interception.

         "He provides hope, hope to all of us," Lee would say.

         So far Griffin has played in the Senior Bowl, and after that appearance received an invitation to next week's combine in Indianapolis. He's a tad more than 6-0, and weighed 222 at the Senior Bowl weigh-ins, sort of a positional tweener.

         Hey, who knows if any NFL team will be willing to use a draft pick on a player with just one hand. And who knows if a team even will be willing to sign him to a free-agent contract if he goes undrafted. Probably somewhat of a better shot.

         Now, at least one draft scouting service had Griffin ranked as the 13th best outside linebacker, along with ranking him in the top 150 of all draftable players. That would factor out to somewhere between a fourth- or fifth-round pick. Who knows, if nothing else, some team might gamble a compensatory pick on a guy like him, figuring there is nothing to lose.

But from what Lee has seen of Griffin, he says, "They'd be crazy not to draft a guy like that."

         Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett is equally impressed, saying, "For him not to allow himself to make excuses, he's certainly an incredible young man."

         I'm sure there are those betting against him playing in the NFL. Just as those probably were betting against him playing football period, let alone at a high college level for an undefeated team that beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl and subsequently win that MVP award.

         He admitted to not paying too much attention to those Winter Olympics, but when explained about this catchy *start your impossible *theme. Griffin paused for a second before saying:

         "There's nothing that's ever impossible."

         And betting you don't want to argue with him about that.

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