What's the difference

ABOUT 1,500 KIDS from a handful of countries are competing in the Baytaf AAU track meet in Tampa, Fla., the 99-degree heat gusting around the grounds like tumbleweeds from hell. The swelter does little to quell packs of squealing children zipping in and around the beach tents and loveseat-size coolers, and yet, as Shaquem and Shaquill Griffin wend through the crowd, spectators freeze and take note.

"Twiiins!" shriek several observers of the obvious, as if they've spotted a shooting star, some pointing as the identical 17-year-old brothers pass in matching neon yellow zip-ups and black running tights, their globular white headphones pushed behind their ears.

"Y'all look like you're going to be somebody," says a middle-aged woman in denim shorts and a tank top. "Can I take your picture?"

The twins pose, arms draped languidly over each other's shoulders, smiling full and proud.

An audience gathers at the track fence as the Griffins practice their triple jumps, coaching each other: "Out, not up." "Watch the knees." Shaquem is precise in his prep. He leans back, then forward, over and over in a bobbing rhythm, elbows sharp and back stiff as if he is dancing in slow motion. Before he runs, he raises his arms, slaps his right hand into his left forearm, the crowd joining in enthusiastically. Then he is off, the rhythmic applause growing faster as he tears down the track and launches himself like an artillery shell into the sand. He travels 48 feet, 11 inches, enough for the lead and just shy of the meet record.

Shaquill follows, and the spectators clap again until he too is airborne, landing with a nimble sprawl. He covers 48'9", good for second. The twins are pleased, but they do not celebrate unduly. They cheer on the rest of the jumpers. They stay classy and humble, even as they wade into the throng of beaming fans, their gold and silver medals bouncing around their chests.

Later, under a tent set up by their parents, Tangie and Terry, the brothers slurp down fruit cups and stretch, oblivious to a stream of double takes. Someone brings up their final football game at Lakewood High (St. Petersburg, Fla.); the team lost the Class 5A regional semis on a touchdown pass in the final 14 seconds. Shaquem, a safety, had been taken out.

"Coach said he looked tired," Shaquill says, his jaw set.

"I think the coach believed Shaquem couldn't make the play," says their mother, Tangie, a medical data analyst.

Both twins wept on the sideline. Not just for the crushing loss but for the lack of faith. Despite everything Shaquem had shown that season, over four seasons, in the end, in their eyes, Coach saw only what was missing.

ALL SHAQUEM GRIFFIN remembers about the day his left hand was removed is the little red wagon: "I was pulling it around. After that, everything is a blank."

He was 4 years old, the hand a casualty of amniotic band syndrome, a congenital disorder that occurs in roughly 1 in every 1,200 births. While she was pregnant, Tangie had been told the amniotic sac had entangled with her son's wrist, but because Shaquem was a twin, the risk was too great to operate. When the boys were born -- Shaquill first at 6.3 pounds, then Shaquem at 6.4 -- Tangie and Terry discovered the consequence of forgoing the operation. The tissue in Shaquem's left hand was soft, his fingers like a glove filled with jelly.

"Everything I touched burned," recalls Shaquem of his first four years.

The pain was so unbearable that he walked into the kitchen in the middle of the night sobbing and reached for a butcher's knife. But his mother interrupted the plan. "Cut them off," he begged, waving his fingers. "Please."

"I massaged his hand, tried to ease his pain any way I could," says Tangie, who called the next day to schedule surgery.

She and Terry did not tell their son why he was going to the hospital. They didn't know how.

THE MISSING HAND isn't the first thing you notice about Shaquem Griffin. That would be the hair, plaited and falling just past shoulder length. He and his brother have been growing their respective braids since seventh grade. Like everything else the two do, the hair was a joint decision, which brings up the second thing you notice about Shaquem: Shaquill.

"People say, 'I never see you without him,'" Shaquill says, sitting on the well-worn sofa of their family home in St. Petersburg, Shaquem to his right. "Being a twin attracts a lot of attention. But we never wished we weren't."

Identical twins are innately magnetic. They draw the eye, trip something primal in the subconscious. Mythology and science fiction are littered with twins, or the idea of twins, multiple copies of the same being, clones, otherworldly creatures that possess mystical knowledge and abilities normal humans do not. "Weird stuff does happen," Shaquill says. "But we just roll with it."

The brothers say they often crave the same food at the same moment. Or switch separate TV sets to the same channel simultaneously. "It's like we are in the room together when we aren't," marvels Shaquem.

"Like today," adds Shaquill, "I grabbed my blue swimming trunks, and he came out dressed in the same ones."

"When something happens to him, I feel it," says Shaquem, as Shaquill nods in agreement.

Injuries have followed suit. When Shaquem pulled a groin muscle, Shaquill did the same two days later. Their bodies are not only in sync but uncannily similar. They stand 6'1" and vacillate from 190 to 195 pounds. Even though Shaquem is a safety and Shaquill a corner, the two have developed in parallel, their muscles seemingly equal shape and size.

"They have that twin connection," says Terry, awed himself. "They share everything."

Both competed in baseball, football and track from age 5. Any physical disadvantage was ground to dust at home by Terry, a tow truck operator, who devised creative training solutions for Shaquem's missing hand: Like "the book," a block of wood with another smaller piece nailed to it, forming an L-shaped brace so Shaquem could bench-press. Or like the hurdles made from stacks of bricks and the bell hung from a tree limb 10 feet high.

"I was harder on them than their coaches because I knew what they could do," says Terry. He also didn't want to give anyone an excuse to dismiss Shaquem. "Players thought they'd just knock the ball from him," Terry says, laughing. "But they couldn't; he just kept on running."

College scouts took note of the twins early, but doubts about Shaquem lingered. At a Nike combine, a coach threw him the ball underhand, as if tossing it to a child. "No one ever told me I couldn't play," Shaquem says, pressing his lips together. "They just said I wouldn't be able to" -- dismissals he was determined to make them eat.

In his senior year, Shaquem logged 67 tackles and two interceptions for Lakewood, earning second-team all-state. He also ranked fifth in the nation in the triple jump and was state champ in the long jump. Shaquill matched his brother's success, with 44 tackles and five touchdowns, ranking fourth nationally in the triple jump, an event they taught themselves by watching YouTube videos. In June they were both declared Tampa Bay Track and Field Athlete of the Year by the Tampa Bay Times.

The brothers are used to being fused into one person. It is the social irony of all identical twins. You stand out because you are a pair, but you are processed in the minds of others as a single entity. When asked if she ever imagines her sons independently, Tangie cocks her head and considers the notion. "I don't," she realizes, smiling. "In my mind, they are always together."

The twins assert they are, in some ways, unique. "I'm funnier," says Shaquem. Shaquill says, "I'm more chill." On their 17th birthdays, both got tattoos. "I went first," says Shaquem. "Any time Shaquill is nervous or scared, he makes me go ahead of him." Shaquem inked power on one shoulder and strength on the other. Shaquill chose a griffin bird on one shoulder and honor scrawled on the other. They say their next tattoos (a Bible verse under the Virgin Mary) will match, though they promise Tangie nothing below the elbows.

"We plan ahead so we know what's to come," says Shaquill. "By eighth grade, we knew we would never leave each other. We talk about having adjacent houses when we get older."

Shaquill admits some folks have urged him to ditch Shaquem. "Coaches wanted me to go to that big-name college to help their program," he says. "They told me to think about it. I told them I wasn't doing any more thinking."

He turned down inquiries from Florida, Florida State and Ole Miss, offers Shaquem says he would have been "happy" for his brother to take: "It was always his call." Shaquill's call was to field interest only from programs that wanted them as a pair. Arkansas, Boston College, Illinois and Alabama were among more than a dozen FBS schools that made offers. The twins were also hotly pursued in track, with Kansas, Penn and Wake Forest among the many suitors.

After a campus visit, they chose Central Florida, in large part because it was close to home, a place neither is in much of a rush to leave, but also because of defensive backs coach Kirk Callahan, who made the bold move of recruiting the twins and screening their reels without informing the other coaches of Shaquem's missing appendage.

"Everybody loved the film," he remembers. Then he told them, "There's just one thing ... " He chuckles. "They wanted to pause the film to verify it was even true. It was that unbelievable."

Following a thorough Zapruder-ing of the tape, the staff signed off on meeting the Griffin brothers. "You can see them being captains in two years," says Callahan. "They have the height, weight and speed -- and the GPAs." (Shaquem graduated with a 3.6, Shaquill a 3.8.) "And we liked that they wouldn't go one without the other. Worst-case scenario, they leave here at 21 years old and train for the Olympics."

AT RED LOBSTER, it is Shaquem's turn to order.

"Really? Barbecue shrimp and mashed potatoes?" Shaquill whines, wrinkling his nose.

"I want to try something different," Shaquem says with a shrug. "You want strawberry lemonade?"

Shaquill shrugs back and keeps reviewing his menu, hoping to find something to tempt his brother. The waitress arrives.

"Barbecue shrimp and mashed potatoes. Strawberry lemonade," says Shaquem.

"Same," says Shaquill, never considering he could order something different. A few minutes later, Shaquem gathers his hair into a ponytail. Once he is done, Shaquill pulls his own hair back. They talk about when Shaquem was 6 and one particular girl mocked him relentlessly, calling him "pickle hand." He took it in stride, made his own joke about a shark and a fishing trip. Shaquill was less sanguine. He bonked the pickle hand girl in the head.

"Shaquill didn't like when people even looked at his brother's arm," Tangie recalls. "People figured out pretty quick if they messed with Shaquem, they'd have to deal with Shaquill."

Back home, the twins settle onto the living room couch, and Shaquill reveals he did contemplate going to a different school from Shaquem, once or twice. Imagined what that might be like. To be on his own. Distinct. But in the end, "I wanted to stay with my brother."

Shaquill insists he does not operate out of guilt, that he does only what brothers do. They push and prod and pull, but mostly they protect with doglike loyalty, may the circle be unbroken.

"I've never been lonely," Shaquill says, simply.

"Neither have I," says Shaquem.

The morning after his operation, Shaquem was already laughing and running in the yard, a football tucked between his hand and the bloody bandage where his other hand had been. As he leaped along, he kept looking over his shoulder, hollering for Shaquill to join him.

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