By Idan Vinitsky
July 31, 2019
There are six tattoos on JD Griggs’ big, strong arms. The style and messages on the left arm are more human. The ones on the right arm, including a football with every jersey number Griggs has ever worn have special decorations, giving them a unique look. “That means that I am half man, half machine”, explaining the differences between the sides.
Two of the tattoos were added last season and say SACK (right arm) and KING (left), a nickname he got from a fan and later a teammate while starring for the Indoor Football League team Spokane Empire a few years ago. At first, JD admits, he did not like the nickname too much, but he quickly changed his mind: “It had a good ring to it”. When his mother approved, he decided to keep it. “Now it motivates me. It keeps driving me every play to try and lead the league in sacks.”
He even has a sack dance, which he was able to use nine (and a half) times this season, a team leading record and second overall in the National Arena League. “Sometimes the stat people don’t realize who got the sack, so I had to make a sack dance”, he says. He came up with his current dance a couple of years ago, but in Spokane he was using a different one. “Last year my family was here for a game and I got a sack. My brother and cousin pointed at me from the stands and the three of us just started doing the new dance together.”
JD and his brother Malcolm, who used to play football for the University of New Hampshire in Durham, had quite a childhood, growing up with a father who was an All-American and briefly played for the Patriots (“He injured his knee and it was the 1980s, before they had the technology to fix it”) and later became an athletic trainer and a sports conditioning expert, coaching many future professional athletes, including NBA star Karl Anthony Towns.
“Since I was probably six years old, it was either school or training”, recalls Griggs. “My father had me and my brother running cones and stuff like that. We were very competitive and he always pushed us to become better. I got to see some films from his playing days. I thought I was a good athlete, but he was better.” Now, Malcolm is an actor and a model (“He’s the star of the family, I’m just the athlete”, says JD, smiling) and his father also gives canoe lessons. “I tried it once and couldn’t do it. It wasn’t a good experience for me. My brother is good at it.”
The strong athletic roots helped JD when he attended his hometown high school, Piscataway Township, where the history is rich and the competition is fierce. “Football is king there. You come to the high school and you want to play football”, he says about the school that produced many professional athletes. He remembers NFL players coming back and working out with the high school kids, giving great example to the next generation on how to carry oneself on and off the field. “Growing up there, you either show that you are a great player and get a scholarship, or you got to go to work somewhere and for a lot of people: it’s either sports or nothing.”
He had six future NFL players on his team and they lost only in the New Jersey State Finals, but Griggs’ first love wasn’t the pigskin. It was the basketball. He started playing when he was four and it kept him active and agile when he was on the football field. He always felt that many of the things he was able to do in football were thanks to his basketball skills. So what changed? “Everybody thought I was going to play basketball in college, but more scholarships came for football.”
His role models were Kevin Garnett, a local hero in Massachusetts and LeBron James, whom he got to see working out many times with his wife at the gym, when JD played for the University of Akron and King James just switched teams and joined the Miami Heat. Akron, LeBron’s hometown, was Griggs’ third college, completing an unusual journey that began in Iowa and continued at Nassau Community College in New York.
“It was crazy”, he says about his college days. “I played tight end in Iowa and wanted to catch the ball and have a different feeling to the game, but it was culture shock and I understood that I’m a better defensive end than tight end. I did learn a lot and grew up there.” The move from Division I to the Junior College led to a very different lifestyle: “Nothing was free anymore, the meals and stuff like that. I had to pay and work for everything.”
With Nassau he went undefeated and to this day, he thinks of his time there as the years that put the final touches on the player he ended up being. After Akron, where he had great coaches and not too much team success, Griggs went undrafted before joining the Jacksonville Jaguars for the 2013 offseason: “That’s where I realized that everybody is fast. I thought that I was, coming out of college, but then saw that I was just fitting right in with the rest of the team.”
He was waived before the season, but carries to this day the lessons he learned from his stint in the big league: “It’s the business of the game. Every day is a tryout and you can’t take a single day, or play, off. Even if you get cut, seeing the best in the world and what they do really motivates you to work harder. It was a fun experience.”
All this traveling in college made life much easier for Griggs later, when he turned pro. First with the Jaguars and then with the Canadian Football League team he played for and the indoor football leagues he was part of until joining the Pirates. He always found himself knowing how to quickly fit in. “I learned that teams have different styles and that players from all over the country react to football in many ways. Everybody is coming for everywhere to the team and I knew how to react to that.”
His first indoor experience was in Spokane, Washington, where he played for the Empire and met Coach Anthony Payton, who was coaching the receivers. Griggs says it took him three games to understand the differences, especially regarding the speed of the game: “By the time I was thinking of something, another thing had already happened.”
When he caught up with things, he became a defensive force, finishing his season there as a First Team All-IFL. After he became available, the Pirates jumped on the opportunity, brought him in and saw him emerge as one of the leaders on the team. That skill proved to be extra valuable this season, since the Pirates had many “rookies” who never played indoor football before. With the veterans leading, Griggs being one of them, the team recovered from a 1-4 start, won seven of its last nine games and entered the postseason, where Carolina are waiting. As the third seed, “I learned this season how to only think of the team, and not myself. I think we are ready for the playoffs”, promises the most optimistic player on the team.
Idan Vinitsky is a weekly contributor to masspiratesfootball.com.