On the last day he would run and walk unencumbered, Jeff Griffin noticed that it was a beautiful summer morning, with only a few clouds in a blue sky. He noticed this as he stared at a barn that he had contracted to paint.
Griffin had started a painting business that summer so he could buy a motorcycle and pay for school. A native of North Logan, he was a student at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho), where he was a backup receiver on the school’s unbeaten football team.
Griffin and his friend Doug assembled two layers of scaffolding that reached 20 feet high, then placed a ladder on top of that to reach the top of the barn. If that sounds like trouble, it was. Griffin climbed the ladder and was preparing to paint the barn, 40 feet above the ground, when he felt the ladder start to fall away from the barn. His stomach lurched. He would later compare that moment to the feeling you get when you lean back too far in a chair and instantly realize you’re going to fall backward and there is nothing that can be done to stop it.
The ladder leaned away from the barn. Time slowed. He leaped from the ladder and jammed his thumb into a one-inch gap between a set of doors at the top of the barn, dangling there as the ladder and scaffolding collapsed underneath him. It was a tenuous purchase and the muscles in his hand quickly gave out. As he was falling, he noticed a one-inch ledge under the doors and made a desperate grab for it. He managed to grip it momentarily, but his weight was too much for his fingers and they gave way. His fall resumed as he clawed wildly at the barn wall on the way down — later he would find splinters and paint chips jammed underneath his nails.
The ground rose up quickly, and he struck it feet first, legs straight. The tremendous force of the fall jammed his legs into his upper body, which was still coming down. As Griffin writes in his memoirs, “They both met at the L1 (first lumbar) vertebrae of my spine, causing it to explode into what I thought was a million pieces, like a china dish hitting the floor. The explosion ran down my legs, through my arms and out my body like an underground mine explosion.”
Pain rocketed through his body. He grabbed his legs. Doug rushed to his side. “I think I am paralyzed,” Griffin said.
As Griffin writes, “I wasn’t quite sure what to think at that moment when the dreaded question entered my mind: ‘What now?’ ”
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That was nearly 19 years ago and the answer to that question has been answered in a remarkable way. Griffin, now 41 and paralyzed from the waist down, met a tall, pretty woman — an able-bodied woman — and they married 16 years ago. They have four children — “four little miracles,” Griffin calls them. He teaches seminary at Murray High. He travels around the world for the Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints on humanitarian missions to third-world countries. Oh, and he plays basketball for the Utah Wheelin’ Jazz, but that’s an understatement.
He’s a seven-time all-star in the NWBA (National Wheelchair Basketball Association), a collection of about 200 teams, some of which are roughly affiliated with local NBA teams. The wheelchair all-star game is part of the annual NBA All-Star Weekend, usually played on Thursday. In the most recent all-star game, held earlier this month in New Orleans, Griffin was named the game’s Most Valuable Player — for the fourth time. During festivities at the 2008 all-star game, Griffin set a world record for most free throws in a minute (25) by a wheelchair athlete.
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.
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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.”
Eventually, he returned to schooling, enrolling in a seminary program and earning a master’s degree in educational curriculum. He has taught seminary at Murray High for 13 years.
In his free time he coaches young Paralympic athletes and does other volunteer work. He makes annual trips to third-world countries through the LDS Church to work with people who are confined to wheelchairs, many of whom are unaware of the possibilities that are available to them.
“We teach them how to live with a chair,” says Griffin. “We teach their disability rights, skin care, bladder care, sexuality, sports, transfer, job interviews, how to present themselves, how to get around We go out there and give them hope and inspiration.”
Looking back, Griffin says the fall from that barn “rocked his world.” How could he live the life he had envisioned in a chair? Now he says, “I have concluded — and I say this honestly — that I am grateful to be in a wheelchair. I see things differently. My perspective completely changed. Things I thought were important were not that important in the eternal perspective, the big picture. I had started to lose focus on the importance of friendships and relationships. I know I wouldn’t have met my wife. I’ve just experienced life differently. I had to develop other social and intellectual skills, not just physical strength.”
That doesn’t mean he wants to remain in a chair.
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After injury, he underwent eight hours of surgery. Afterward, he couldn’t feel his legs or move them. During grueling therapy sessions, he made incremental improvement. It took him five minutes just to stand. He walked by leaning on parallel bars, but he wasn’t really walking — therapists moved his legs for him. Soon he was able to stand up and reach the bars in 30 seconds. When he told his doctor about his progress, the doctor replied, “Don’t get your hopes up. You’ll never walk or move your legs again.”
Griffin was defiant. He never returned to that doctor again. Fast forward to the present. Griffin leaves his wheelchair in his truck when he is home. He moves around the house by walking, albeit slowly. "It's more of a waddle than a walk," he says. He no longer uses leg braces or crutches. He used to trip over his feet frequently, but not anymore. He can generate enough power to walk on an elliptical trainer at the gym.
“There’s been tremendous improvement since we’ve been married,” says Emily. When she and Griffin were dating in college, he would borrow his grandmother’s walker and they would go for a walk. His goal was to walk to a stop sign two blocks away. “He would get halfway and then get too tired and have to turn back,” she recalls. Eventually, he reached the stop sign.
Slowly, the feeling in his legs has returned. It started at the waist and moved down to his thighs, then his knees and now his shins. He hopes it continues to his feet.
“Through our whole marriage, Jeff has never been one to say, ‘Why me?’” says Emily. “It was: ‘What am I going to do to pick myself up and move forward?’”
Griffin does not spend much time sitting around, as it were. He took up golf three years ago. Initially, he swung the club while sitting in a cart; now he uses a crutch for balance and strikes the ball from a standing position, one-handed. He shoots in the low 50s for nine holes.
Such determination seems to have been passed on to his children. He and Bradley get up at 5 a.m. and go to the gym to work on Bradley’s basketball skills, Monday through Friday. “Jeff is an idol for him,” says Emily. “He looks up to his dad a lot with his example of never letting anything stop him.”
Says Griffin, “It’s easy to listen to the experts, but I am determined. Some might think it’s naïve. My faith has a lot to do with it. I believe someday I will walk again, not waddle. Perhaps I can walk my daughters down the aisle when they marry.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]