Doug Robinson: After the fall

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27 2014 6:35 p.m. MST

Griffin took up basketball three years after the accident, although it was not his sport of choice in his youth. He played football for Sky View High and went on to play one season at Ricks College on a team that included future BYU stars Ben Cahoon and Aaron Roderick. Then came the fall and paralysis. He was introduced to basketball by Mike Schlappi, the renowned wheelchair athlete and motivational speaker. Griffin embraced the sport instantly. He drove from Logan to Salt Lake each week to practice with the Wheelin’ Jazz before he and Emily, his wife, moved to Salt Lake City to facilitate his basketball aspirations.

He was urged to be patient — it takes time to learn to pass, dribble and shoot a ball while wheeling a chair around a court — but he made the traveling team immediately and then set his sights on the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. He put himself through a regimen of swimming, weight training and individual practice that consisted of 500 shots a day. He earned one of the 24 invitations for the Paralympic tryouts in Colorado Springs, then won a berth on the 2004 U.S. Paralympic team. That team failed to medal, but in 2006 Griffin played for Team USA in the World Championships and won a silver medal.

These days Griffin practices twice a week with the Wheelin’ Jazz and devotes several weekends to competition. The team packs eight players and 16 wheelchairs in a couple of vans and drives to any of three destinations — Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles — where they play four to five games in two days. Then they pile in the vans, exhausted and sore, for the return trip, arriving home late Sunday night, and on Monday morning they go to their day jobs.

Randall Wade, a former radio and TV producer, was so moved by Griffin's play that he created an audiobook to tell his story, with narration by former Utah Jazz president Frank Layden. For that matter, he was so inspired by disabled athletes that in 2004 he founded the Just Don’t Quit foundation, using websites, videos and fundraisers to raise awareness and promote them. He wrote, directed and produced “Doin’ Hard Work,” a documentary that follows the Utah Wheelin’ Jazz as they travel 1,500 miles in one weekend and sleep at a campground to save money on hotels to compete in a tournament.

“I want to tell these stories that are overlooked by the mainstream media,” says Wade.

* * * * * * *

Griffin once wondered what was left for him after the accident, but he has carved a life out of difficulty that is probably little different than he might have had otherwise — family, work, church, recreation, volunteerism.

He was introduced to his future wife by a friend who wanted to date her himself. After realizing she was attracted to Griffin, he urged him to ask her out. Griffin refused, thinking it was disloyal to his buddy, but he eventually relented. The friend was best man at their wedding.

“She says the first time she saw me she thought I was hot,” Griffin says, laughing. “She was able to look past the wheelchair and see the man.”

“He was always so positive and happy, and that’s what drew me to him,” says Emily. “He made me laugh. I never really thought about the wheelchair.”

Some family members were concerned initially. “Who’s going to carry the groceries in?” one of them asked. She laughed. “I will!” There was even a bonus in the relationship. At 5-foot-10, she could finally wear heels on a date because it no longer mattered if she was taller than a man if he was in a wheelchair.

They have a full house. Their children are Bradley (12), Savanna (10), Karlee (8) and Katelyn (2). “Whenever people find out I married an able-bodied woman they want to know if I have kids and if they’re mine,” he says. They are.

After the accident, Griffin went back to school and took a degree in political science, but what he really wanted to do was remain close to football, this time as a coach. He coached in the Sandy little league for several years, grades 7-9, but when the invitation came to coach at the high school level he was also trying to qualify for the Paralympic team.

“I had to make a choice,” he says. “I focused on the Paralympics. It would be interesting to see what would have happened (in coaching). You never see football coaches in wheelchairs.”

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