Griffin making most of his summer break before joining Illini

Griffin making most of his summer break before joining Illini

DANVILLE — Caleb Griffin isn't used to having this much downtime.

As a four-year, four-sport athlete at Danville High School, the recent graduate competed in football, soccer, basketball and baseball. That made it easy for Griffin to fill his calendar — on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis.

Now, Griffin is waiting.

He's biding his time until Aug. 3, when he can officially start working out with his new University of Illinois football teammates.

"It's weird having the summer to myself — no practices, no team anything," Griffin said. "Everybody else got there June 6. I've seen them probably five times this summer. They're like my brothers already."

Griffin initially blueshirted with coach Lovie Smith's program so he could join the Illini as an unrecruited player. But Griffin still garnered a scholarship, so he simply had to stay away from this year's summer activities before signing his paperwork ahead of preseason workouts to count toward the 2019 scholarship allotment.

That means the star kicker could be among the specialists Smith uses at some point in his program's 2018 campaign.

So he isn't lounging around in his family's above-ground pool. Nor is he passing the time by tossing bean bags on the all-white cornhole boards that sit right beside that body of water.

"Honestly, it's been weird just changing myself to getting ready to play on the biggest stage," Griffin said. "I've been working with my dad all summer long, breaking down my film and practicing different things. I've really started to figure it out the last few weeks, and that feels really good and gives me confidence."

Griffin could discuss football all day.

How he hopes to vie for playing time alongside fellow Illini kickers Blake Hayes, Chase McLaughlin and James McCourt this season.

How he's making the transition from kicker when he wasn't playing soccer to a full-time football guy.

How he feels Illinois is a team rapidly on the rise.

But it'd be impossible to forget the Vermilion County city he's coming from, and how Griffin has morphed into the type of young man he aspired to be during his younger years.

 

 

Griffin explicitly remembers looking up to a pair of Vikings well before he reached the prep ranks: Justin March and Trent Sherfield.

The former, whose last name is now March-Lillard, attended Akron University and is positioned at linebacker for the NFL's Dallas Cowboys.

Sherfield used a college football career at Vanderbilt to vault himself to the Arizona Cardinals, with whom he signed as an undrafted free agent earlier this year.

"I realized, that's what I want to do," Griffin said. "And now, to be one of those successful people to play at a big-time level, I think that's awesome."

March-Lillard and Sherfield clearly are making an athletic mark since graduating from Danville. But when Griffin thinks back to admiring the duo, he now realizes something about the city from which they all came.

"I thought about it, and those are the only two guys who went on to a big-time football program," Griffin said. "Now there's me and Julian (Pearl). We have Kendle (Moore) going for basketball, Anaya (Peoples), Sydney (Gouard) and Arieal (Scott) going for basketball, Phil (Hall) at Illinois for track and cross-country. The numbers we've put up the last couple years are awesome."

Yes, the Danville area — even beyond its public high school — is now flowing with Division I talent. What's even more interesting about this surge is the friendships that have grown among the athletes involved.

"I think something I learned at a young age was surround yourself with people you want to be the same as, or who have the same goals as you," Griffin said. "Seeing your close friends succeed makes you want to succeed even more. I have a great relationship with all the people out of Danville who are becoming successful."

 

 

For someone who still is a teenager, Griffin is also acutely aware that being an athlete means more than just trying to collect wins and avoid losses.

One example of this came after a tense high school boys' basketball game between Danville and Champaign Central on Dec. 8, 2017. The host Maroons came away with a 76-66 victory, but gunshots were fired just outside Combes Gymnasium shortly after the result.

Griffin immediately took to Twitter to express his concern after contributing for the Vikings on the court.

"This doesn't make any sense," he wrote, "... for someone to shoot bullets after the game is just crazy. Everyone be safe, and I'm thinking of those wounded."

"On a night where the rivalry started with both teams and fans singing the national anthem together, it should've never ended the way it did," Griffin added after the incident left three people wounded. "I apologize for all the tweets but this hit me hard."

Plenty of unpleasant stories and tragedies have come from both Champaign and Danville in recent years. As such, Griffin began to feel that athletes serve a purpose beyond entertaining fans in the stands.

"I think there's a bad (stigma), the way that people look at athletes and think they're all about their sports, and it's all about them," Griffin said. "It's more of a community thing to me. I like having the whole community out there for one main purpose and not focusing on the negatives happening in town."

While he's at Illinois, Griffin will represent Danville through more than his kicking prowess.

Though he said this wasn't planned, Griffin acquired the No. 38 jersey from Smith's Illini staff. After a little research, Griffin realized something unique about his new digits.

"I was like, I know my house is somewhere around that area," said Griffin, who admitted he requested Nos. 1 and 5 initially. "I got on the maps and checked (my home's distance from Memorial Stadium), and it was 38.2 miles."

 

 

As much as Griffin is going to miss being a Viking, he's more than ready to hop on the Illini train — even if, he admits, his childhood room is decked out in Duke gear that includes a Grayson Allen jersey.

He's also hyped to become a one-sport guy.

"That's going to be the biggest change," Griffin said. "In the winter, I'll be working out and doing football stuff instead of playing basketball games. I think it's going to be really cool because it allows me to perfect my craft."

Griffin also feels strongly about the direction in which Smith is taking Illinois football.

Its 2019 class presently boasts two four-star commits and six three-star standouts, according to 247sports. That's on top of bringing in a trio of three-star prospects this year, according to Rivals.

"I think it's awesome seeing people who had offers to Alabama and Ohio State choose Illinois," Griffin said. "It shows me the vision is clear: Something special is going to happen in the next couple years."

Griffin is plenty excited for the present, too. He's most looking forward to 2018 tilts against South Florida and Nebraska, on Sept. 15 and Nov. 10, respectively. The first of those two will take place inside the home of the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

"I remember as a kid, we watched Drew Brees play at Soldier Field," Griffin said. "We went down where the team bus was, and (now) I'm thinking, 'I'm going to be the one on the team bus now. I'm the one people are coming to see.'"

 

Preps coordinator Colin Likas writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com. or on Twitter at clikasNG.