When West Mecklenburg High played South Mecklenburg on Oct. 11, Sabres quarterback Stephen Griffin took off on a long run for a touchdown. Watching from the sideline, in an otherwise easy 35-10 win, West Meck coach Jeff Caldwell marveled at Griffin’s size and speed. And he thought that Griffin, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound junior, was going to be a very special player very, very soon.
“The way he took off on us,” Caldwell said, his voice rising like a opera singer hitting a soprano, “son ... it was like he was shot out of a cannon. I was like, ‘I know ain’t nobody gonna catch him.’ He just looked like he had a great upside. I guess, to be honest, I thought he was going to be a problem for anyone they play.”
What Caldwell didn’t know then, was that Griffin is the son of the one of the greatest high school football players to ever come from Charlotte.
In 1981, the best high school football player in North Carolina was an impossily fast South Mecklenburg running back named Steve Griffin. At 5-foot-11, 177 pounds, he rushed 177 times for 1,671 yards and 24 touchdowns. He led the Sabres to a perfect 14-0 record and the school’s only N.C. 4A state championship.
It would be 14 years before another Mecklenburg County team would win a 4A title – West Charlotte in 1995. And the Sabres’ championship season was a special run that galvanized a the city that didn’t have NBA Bobcats or NFL Panthers, and it turned high school Sabres like Griffin and fullback Kelvin Croom into local celebrities. After the season, Griffin was a unanimous choice for the N.C. Associated Press player of the year. He went on to college at Clemson and played one year in the NFL, with the Falcons in 1987.
Caldwell was a sophomore on Myers Park’s junior varsity team in 1981. But, boy, does he remember Steve Griffin.
“Everyone holds Steve in high regard,” Caldwell said. “When I was a sophomore, he was the best player coming out of North Carolina. Everybody knew that. He put it down in football and in track. Steve was phenomenal. I didn’t know that (Stephen Griffin) was his son, but he’s a good athlete, too. He’s a playmaker, the son is. He’s a real playmaker.”
When Steve Griffin and his wife Amanda had their oldest child nearly 17 years ago, they named him after the father but changed the spelling so little Stephen wouldn’t be a Junior. Mom didn’t want that. So you had little Stephen and big Steve.
Growing up, first in Tennessee and later near Hampton, Va., little Stephen showed the same kind of athletic prowess that his father had before him.
Stephen Griffin turns 17 on Nov. 14. He loves the TV show “SpongeBob SquarePants” and has a soft spot for the movie “Remember the Titans.” Right now, Stephen is reading a book his father gave him about an African-American doctor, Ben Carson, who became the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins.
And Stephen said as soon as people in the South Meck community found out who he was, the talk about his father started flying.
“I hear about him all the time,” Stephen said. “I had thought about it coming to school here, but I knew what I came here to do, to play my game, so it really didn’t affect me. But people talk to me about him. They say, ‘You know your dad was a phenomenal player and pretty much gas him up.”
“They talk about how good and how fast he was,” he continues, “and about what he did.”
Coaches, like West Meck’s Caldwell, thinks the younger Griffin has a chance to make a name for himself, too. His father saw the potential at a young age.
“When he was 5 or 6, his soccer coaches were telling me, ‘Hey look, he’s an athlete,’” Steve Griffin said. “They said, ‘Look at how gracefully he runs.’ I began to pay attention to it.”
Little Stephen became somewhat of a Pee Wee football star growing up and started his career at Tabb High School in in Yorktown, Va. But big Steve decided to move the family home to Charlotte after losing his father and grandfather. Big Steve had been away from Charlotte since 1989. He figured it was time to come home, to re-establish roots.
He got a job in Rock Hill, as a human resources director at Springs Creative, a company that sells textile-based goods. And when the family was looking for a home in Charlotte this year, big Steve knew it needed to be on the south side of town.
“Working in Rock Hill,” Steve Griffin said, “I knew I didn’t need to fight the traffic in Charlotte. So we got to looking on the south end and South Meck made a lot of sense because of the familiarity.”
As a sophomore in 1979, Steve Griffin came to South Mecklenburg at 5-10 and 135 pounds. He was fast, though. He won 100- and 220-yard sectional and regional championships, something he would repeat before he graduated. But he loved football. He worked in the weight room to put on size and strength. South Meck was 2-8 in Griffin’s sophomore year. He ran for 860 yards as a junior, establishing himself as a lightning-quick star. South finished 8-2. By his senior year, as Caldwell said, there was little doubt as to who was the state’s top player or its top recruit. Griffin was heavily recruited by Clemson, North Carolina, N.C. State and Georgia.
During his first two high school seasons, South Meck didn’t have a home field, Griffin remembers. But that changed in the 1981 season, and every time he’s stepped onto that same field this year, big Steve said he still gets goosebumps.
“I spent a lot of time on that field and on that track,” he said. “It was a fun time. Folks I run into now, they obviously remind me of how special that team was. What folks don’t realize is that it was a core group of us that had been playing together for several years and that hard work from all those years finally culminated into that special season in 1981. That’s the cool thing.”
Big Steve wants the similar life-changing experience for his son, who has quickly become a big part of a fast-improving Sabres team. South Mecklenburg (3-6, 3-2 SoMeck 8) plays at rival Providence (6-3, 4-1) Friday.
Stephen Griffin joined the Sabres in July, just a few weeks before the season began. He had been playing cornerback in Virginia and South Meck coach Rocky White was planning to play him there, and at wide receiver – until he began to realize that Griffin had major potential.
“I’m fortunate,” White said. “I know his lineage a little and anticipated him being a good athlete. I knew he could run. But the first thing that stuck out to me was his size. You have people say, ‘Oh, he’s 6-2,’ but this kid is a legit 6-3. He’s long and he’ll get bigger. For someone his size to be able to move the way he does and have the agility he does at his age, he’s got a chance to be special.”
White moved Griffin to safety and says he hasn’t seen a better one all season – not in 7-on-7s, not in scrimmages, not in games.
“I’m telling you, he’s the best safety in the state,” White said. “He’s getting a lot of looks. Charlotte, North Carolina, Clemson, they all like him. He’s one of those guys that the first offer he gets, he’ll blow up. I promise you, there are just not a lot of safeties his size that can do all the things he can do. He can run. He can jump out of the stadium. He’s got great hands. He comes down and hits people with authority. He’s really the complete package.”
After the Sabres got off to a disappointing 0-4 start, White moved Griffin to quarterback.
“It took a little adjustment to move from corner to safety,” Griffin said. “I like being in the secondary, though. I like the technique it takes, the footwork. But I’d never played quarterback in my football career. I was nervous at first, but now I kind of like it. Whatever the team needs, I’m willing to do.”
South has been 3-2 since Griffin took over the position full-time. He had some spot duty there during the poor start. Now Griffin is averaging 150 yards total offense and improving swiftly. In last week’s 27-0 win over Olympic, for example, Griffin completed 9-of-13 passes for 88 yards. He ran 16 times for 135 yards and a touchdown. On defense, he had 10 tackles and two forced fumbles.
White said he doesn’t know if the son can be as good as the father, because the father was really good, but he thinks Stephen Griffin can be a big star at South Mecklenburg – 32 years after his father was one of the biggest stars ever.
“I think Stephen’s a national recruit due to his size and speed, if he couldn’t do anything else,” White said. “But he can, and the beautiful thing about Stephen is he’s being raised by two beautiful people. The kid has no negatives. He’s an outstanding student, an outstanding citizen and he’s embraced every challenge in front of him. The kids on this team love him. It’s like he’s been here three or four years, not just six months.”
Wertz: 704-612-9716; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr; Facebook.com/queencitypreps
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