Griffith living a dream by joining Illini as a walk-on

Griffith living a dream by joining Illini as a walk-on

CHAMPAIGN — Well wishes poured in from Fisher once word broke that former Bunnies standout Zach Griffith was joining the Illinois men's basketball team as a walk-on. Several of Griffith's former teammates wanted to remind him about a particular promise their seventh-grade basketball coach Matthew Jokisch made when they played for him.

"He told us one day if any of us played any role on a Division I team that he would eat his shoe," Griffith said with a laugh. "A couple of my buddies from that team were asking me when he's going to have the ceremony and he's going to eat his shoe. He actually texted me and said congrats, and I reminded him about that."

Current Fisher High School coach Cody Diskin, who also coached at the junior-high level, said he'd have to remind his former coaching colleague about his promise.

"Of course Zach remembers it," Diskin said, laughing as he heard the story for the first time. "I think it would be perfect for Zach to go back with a size 13 or whatever he wears and put it on Mr. Jokisch's desk."

Jokisch said he's been ready for one of his former players to answer that challenge. He got a couple of the text message reminders from his former players, too.

"If anybody was going to make me eat it, it was going to be him," Jokisch said. "I don't know if people know how hard he worked for that. He earned it. When I saw what he was doing at the high school level — seeing the work he put in — I was like, 'Watch out.' "

Jokisch called Griffith's news "surprising, but not surprising."

"The whole time I was playing glorified cheerleader for him," he said.

Diskin doesn't have any promises of his own to keep. He's just proud to see one of his former players back on the court. That it will be for the Illini makes it that much better.

"Zach was already blessed to be a part of the team last year as a team manager, but he earned being a part of the team as a player because of his dedication and work ethic," Diskin said. "Fisher is beyond proud of him for reaching his dream."

It really is the proverbial dream come true for Griffith. The former all-area selection grew up an Illinois fan. Truly since birth given his grandfather, Bill Schlueter, is what Griffith called a "diehard season ticket holder."

Some of Griffith's first Illinois basketball memories are going to games during the 2004-05 national title game season with his grandfather.

"Ever since I was a kid watching those guys play, I wanted to be like them," Griffith said. "I never thought it would happen. Going to those 2004-05 games with my grandpa and wishing someday I would be out there, now that's actually coming true. I remember the night we played North Carolina staying up with my mom and freaking out on the couch watching that game."

The 6-foot-6, 210-pound Griffith had some Division III opportunities after his senior season at Fisher, where he put up 17.3 points, 10 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game for the Bunnies and earned News-Gazette All-Area First Team honors.

The draw of Illinois was too much, though. It's close to home and his older brother Nick was there on the med school path after one semester at Purdue.

"I really love the university and this team," Griffith said. "I thought being a team manager would be awesome, and it is. Those guys are extremely hard working. Then being here, I wanted to be in there and practice and help those guys get better firsthand. I really thought I had hung it up and I was just going to help out any way I could, but now I'm really excited to be back."

Griffith's work as a manager caught the Illinois coaching staff's attention. So did his play this spring and summer in open gym sessions with the Illini.

"He was a guy that our guys really thought highly of," Illinois assistant coach Orlando Antigua said. "We needed another walk-on and someone with size, and he's been great. He's been phenomenal in practice and contributes."

The idea of Griffith joining the Illini as a walk-on started percolating at the end of the 2017-18 season. It started to firm up this summer, and Griffith made sure he was putting in plenty of work in the gym.

"Last year just watching the guys and how hard they compete and the coaching staff and how much energy they bring to practice just really inspired me to get my body right again," Griffith said. "I don't think I really lost too much from high school. (The 2017-18 season) was kind of like a redshirt year."

Griffith returned home to Fisher regularly during the summer for workouts. He was often times joined by his older brother, who was a standout for the Bunnies, too.

"His work ethic has improved even since high school," Diskin said of Griffith. "He'd reach out to me in the summer knowing I'd be around. 'Hey coach, can I get in the gym? Can I get in the weight room?' He just kept working hard."

Griffith said he didn't "do anything too crazy" playing in the open gym sessions that ultimately opened the door all the way for his walk-on opportunity. He was pleased he was able to show off his three-point shot and his defense.

"Played some good defense on (freshman Tevian Jones)," Griffith said. "He didn't score on me for a while. It was fun getting up and down. I haven't played with high-major guys like that ever. The tempo's a lot faster. I really enjoyed guarding those guys that are really, really good players."

The one-hour workouts Illinois has put in the final stage of the offseason since the school year started will give way to 2 1 / 2- to 3-hour practices this coming week. Griffith feels ready for the challenge and said his experience with the team — helping in those practices last season — has already proven beneficial.

"I'm kind of a new guy and kind of not is how I like to think of it," Griffith said. "I can help out with the younger guys with a lot of things, but I look to the older guys for a lot of things as well. Those hour practices are really intense. Three times that length takes a lot of focus and stick-to-itiveness.

"Since I'm a walk-on, I have a different role than the other guys. I'm trying to keep the energy up in practice and making guys better. Kind of doing that same thing as a manger last year is going to be good."