BETTENDORF, Iowa — If you meet Griffin Liddle, here is a warning:
His handshake is fierce. It catches you off guard if you aren’t ready.
See, Iowa State football coaches came to Bettendorf High School last winter. The Bettendorf staff made Liddle introduce himself. He shook coach Matt Campbell’s hand before returning to his workout.
Campbell commented on Liddle’s grip, asking if he was a junior. No, the Bulldogs coaches replied. He was in middle school last year.
As the coaches kept chatting, Campbell’s eye wandered toward Liddle. As time passed, he paid more attention to the defensive tackle’s workout than he did the conversation. Before he left, Campbell told Liddle that Iowa State was going to recruit him. Shortly after, the Cyclones extended his first college scholarship offer.
“His grip gets your attention,” Bettendorf defensive line coach Kevin Freking said. “If you aren’t ready for it, he can hurt your hand.”
Why is Liddle one of the most talked-about Iowa high school recruits? Why did Iowa offer him a scholarship at age 14 in March?
The handshake is just the start.
• • •
Josh Liddle needs a second to gather his thoughts. He is not really sure the best way to describe his son.
“He is a unicorn,” he finally said. “He is pretty unique.”
He is not talking about his son’s thick 6-foot-3, 255-pound frame. Or the fact he played varsity football as a freshman.
It is more than that. Josh is describing Griffin’s personality. He is a perfectionist’s perfectionist.
“It’s just the way he lives his life,” Josh said. “It’s everything he does.”
Griffin doesn’t need to be right, but he hates being wrong. He fixates on the one question he missed rather than the 97 percent he scored on a test.
It is why the Liddles can’t play board games anymore. It is why Griffin approaches the teacher after the test to see what he did wrong.
“He is like a horse with blinders on,” Josh said.
Griffin chases improvement, constantly looking for ways to better himself. He was born this way when he arrived 9 pounds, 7 ounces on April 1, 2003.
He always was big. Josh first noticed Griffin’s broad shoulders in the hospital. It is in the family genes. His dad was an Iowa heavyweight wrestler in the early 2000s.
“He had a big old watermelon head like his dad,” Josh said.
Josh planned to pass on more to Griffin. He knows his task is to prepare his son to enter the world upon leaving his house after high school.
It is why he talks to his son about right and wrong. Manners are important, too. He taught Griffin to shake the hand of anyone he meets. A good first impression matters.
It also is why he enrolled him in wrestling as kindergartner.
“I did it just to get him independent,” Josh said. “I didn’t do it because I wrestled.”
• • •
On weekday afternoons, Josh helps oversee the Bettendorf High School weight room. One day three years ago, he turned around and Griffin walked in.
His seventh-grade student didn’t want to hang out with friends. He wanted to lift weights.
No one made Griffin attend. He came on his own, and it didn’t take him long to prove he was a high school student’s equal. Instead of taking weight off for Griffin’s set, they started adding it.
Now Griffin does four reps of 250 pounds on the bench and 380 pounds with his squats.
It was here, in the weight room, a thought hit Josh. Griffin might be more than a perfectionist. He could be something special.
“A year into it, he kind of started keeping up with those kids,” Josh said. “You look at it. It’s possible, but the possibility and him doing it are two different things.”
• • •
Josh swears Griffin isn’t a natural. Griffin won plenty of matches and became a standout wrestler, but he didn’t rely on talent alone. Others were more gifted, even in elementary school.
The one thing Griffin did was work. Josh preached it.
Josh came from a blue-collar family. His dad was a trucker. His mom worked in a factory. Nothing was handed out. Everything was earned. Wrestling at Iowa reinforced those notions.
“People, if they are gifted and don’t work at the end of the day, you don’t have anything,” Josh said. “Griffin has taken that and has done well with it.”
It is a speech tailor-made for a perfectionist. Griffin embraces work because it is the only path to improvement. It is why he asked to only go against seniors or starters in practice drills during his freshman football season.
He doesn’t know why he started showing up at the Bettendorf weight room when he was in middle school. He stuck around because the coaches made football more enjoyable.
“I liked the environment,” Griffin said. “It’s fun, but it also rewards you at the end.”
The weight room foreshadowed Griffin’s future success. The traits that forced the Bettendorf coaches to play him on varsity as a freshman were there when he first showed up.
“He absolutely just kills it in the weight room and the way he approaches that part of it,” Bettendorf football coach Aaron Wiley said. “He is mature beyond his years that way.”
Griffin started playing football in fifth grade. He loved the team aspect, and it became his favorite sport.
Still, he turned to wrestling every winter and racked up pins. Freking is convinced it served as an accelerator for Griffin’s high school football success. Understanding leverage and hand placement translates from wrestling to the defensive line.
Plus, Griffin wrestled in a series of high-profile wrestling tournaments. Performing under Friday night lights is nothing compared to wrestling in an all-star meet before an Iowa dual at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Griffin’s match was the last one before the Hawkeyes’ meet began. Several thousand people attended. Griffin picked up a quick pin in the same arena his dad wrestled in while attending college.
“It’s no big deal,” Freking said. “He’s used to the big stage.”
• • •
Bettendorf’s coaches sat at a clinic in Chicago last summer. A question headed Freking’s way.
Who would he start at defensive tackle?
“I’d probably start the freshman,” Freking said.
A debate quickly ensued. A few coaches reminded him sophomores aren’t locks on the varsity, let alone a freshman.
Freking held his ground. He watched Griffin in the weight room the last two years. He was already as strong as other varsity linemen. The technique was there from wrestling.
Some coaches were concerned about a 14-year-old being mature enough. Not Freking. If Griffin held his own lifting, he would do the same on the field.
The kid was ready.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had anybody like this,” Freking said.
• • •
Bettendorf opened the 2017 season against West Des Moines Valley, one of the state’s best programs.
Griffin didn’t find out he was starting until shortly before the game. He responded just like Freking expected.
“I just wanted to get out there and get after it,” Griffin said.
Despite weighing only 225 pounds, he more than held his own in his debut. Griffin figured he might play a few snaps each week. Wiley knew Griffin was more important than that before the second game arrived.
“Nothing was ever too much for him,” Wiley said.
Griffin’s physicality and ability to quickly learn from his mistakes impressed the coaches. By the third week of the season, Griffin got the best of Miami of Ohio-bound Cedar Rapids Washington offensive lineman Andrew Todd.
And Todd was an inch taller and 55 pounds heavier.
“Griff just stuck him,” Freking said. “He abused that kid. He mauled that kid the entire game.”
Griffin compiled 20½ tackles, 5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks as a freshman. He followed his football campaign by making the Class 3A state wrestling semifinals before placing fifth.
Iowa learned about Liddle last spring. Freking mentioned him to defensive line coach Reese Morgan at Iowa’s coaching clinic.
The Hawkeyes typically don’t throw out offers to underclassmen, let alone freshmen. The offer surprised the Bettendorf staff, but Griffin’s athleticism, work ethic and success at state wrestling were too much to ignore.
“They are usually pretty conservative and do their research,” Freking said. “I think everything they saw out of him fits who they are.”
Liddle headed to Iowa for a junior day on March 4. After an academic meeting, Iowa staffers led the Liddle family to coach Kirk Ferentz’s office. They chatted at length, and Ferentz offered Griffin a scholarship.
For a rare instance, Griffin looked like the freshman who enjoys playing Fortnite that he is. He didn’t realize what Ferentz did because the coach didn’t come right out and say it. His dad needed to explain it to him as they left his office.
“I just think in that atmosphere and everything else going on, he didn’t catch it,” Josh said. “Their coaches were going, ‘Congratulations,’ and he’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”
• • •
Seemingly the only one around Bettendorf football without a “here’s when I knew Griffin was special” moment is Griffin.
He never considered it, just like it is hard for him to explain what he does on the football field.
“I’ve never really thought of that,” Griffin said. “I am not sure.”
It probably is for the best. No one at Bettendorf is sure how high his potential goes.
Griffin is using his offers as motivation. He needs to improve if he is to play in college.
His dad thinks there is more good than bad with the early offers. It exposes his son to the recruiting world before coaches can directly contact him on the phone.
The family isn’t making a big deal about it. They already have talked about Griffin having plenty of time to make a decision and picking the right school for him.
With those important discussions out of the way, Griffin can focus chasing perfection.
“This isn’t the grand finale,” Josh said.
Griffin’s freshman year is just the start. He even will shake on it.