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‘I’m going to change the direction of my family’s life’: Stagg’s TJ Griffin signs with Illinois

After the Chargers finished an 0-9 fall season, Illinois coaches invited Griffin to campus for an unofficial visit.

Stagg’s TJ Griffin with family members during Signing Day.
Stagg’s TJ Griffin with family members during Signing Day.
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

TJ Griffin is not your typical Power Five football recruit.

The Stagg defensive back grew up dreaming of a college basketball career. He played one year of youth football as a fourth-grader, then didn’t put on pads again till his sophomore year.

An injury limited his playing time that year, then COVID pushed his junior season to this spring. And on top of that, Griffin played for a down-on-its-luck program in the shadows of SouthWest Suburban heavyweights Lockport and Lincoln-Way East as well as Catholic powers Marist, Brother Rice and more.

Oh, and Griffin began his senior season with no stars and no offers.

But none of that mattered Wednesday morning when Griffin signed a letter of intent to Illinois before family and friends in Stagg’s gym.

“This morning I woke up with a smile on my face, [thinking,] ‘Today, history is being made,’ ’’ Griffin said. ‘‘ ‘I’m going to change the direction of my family’s life. I’m going to start doing bigger things.’ It’s all starting to sink in slowly.”

It is indeed a heady feeling for someone who is believed to be the first major-college football player from Stagg since Joe Ganz went to Nebraska nearly 20 years ago and the first Power Five scholarship player in program history.

It’s only in the last few weeks that all the stars aligned for Griffin, a consensus three-star recruit rated 35th among Illinois seniors in the 247Sports.com composite rankings.

After the Chargers finished an 0-9 fall season, Illinois coaches invited Griffin to campus for an unofficial visit.

A couple of weeks after that, Illini defensive coordinator Ryan Walters came to Stagg to watch Griffin at basketball tryouts. A day later, Illinois offered a scholarship, and Griffin committed the day after that. Illinois was his only scholarship offer.

“So it was all very quick,” Griffin said. “The entire year has been crazy. And that month of just everything happening back to back to back was just surreal. But it’s a dream come true.”

But the dream did not come true without plenty of effort on Griffin’s part, Stagg coach Colt Nero said.

“Over this last summer, he worked his tail off in the weight room with us, and he’s really grown into his body,” Nero said. “He’s put some serious size on since last year.”

Griffin is 6-2 and 200 pounds, but getting bigger hasn’t slowed him down.

Stagg’s TJ Griffin holds up a banner to show his commitment to play football for Illinois.
Stagg’s TJ Griffin holds up a banner to show his commitment to play football for Illinois.
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

“He’s very explosive,” Nero said. “His first two steps are incredible. And he also has that breakaway speed.”

There’s more to Griffin than his physical gifts, significant as they are. Though the record may not show it — the Chargers were 0-15 this calendar year — Nero said there’s no doubt Griffin leaves Stagg football better than he found it.

“TJ has changed the trajectory of the Stagg High School football program,” Nero said. “The bar has been raised.”

That didn’t just happen in the weight room. Nero also noted the little things Griffin did, such as giving teammates a ride to practice, not to mention the example he set by going to his neighborhood school.

“It trickles down into the community and the middle schools and the younger kids that you don’t have to go somewhere else,” Nero said. “You don’t have to go to one of the [other] schools in the area because they’re telling you: ‘We’re gonna hook you up and get you where you want to go.’

“We talk a lot about being part of a family. And I think it’s important that kids go to school with their friends. That’s exactly what TJ did. And he’s proved to everybody that you can [go Division I]. You’ve just got to work hard.”