On December 16, Harding University sophomore linebacker Clark Griffin made history by joining the short list of NCAA football players who have won national championships at both the Division I and II levels.
Griffin and his Harding Bisons teammates knocked off No. 1 seed Colorado School of the Mines 38-7 in dominant fashion on Saturday in the Division II football national championship in McKinney, Texas. The win capped off an undefeated season of 15-0 for the Bisons and their first national championship in school history. Griffin led Harding's defense with six tackles and two tackles for loss.
"The atmosphere was incredible. I think we brought like 7,500 fans there and the stadium had like 15,000 (capacity)," Griffin said in an interview on Tuesday with 1819 News. "There were close to 13,000 there so the atmosphere was great. Winning the game… couldn't ask for a better scenario to end things on the year."
Griffin was an invited walk-on at the University of Alabama after graduating from Mountain Brook High School in 2020. He was a member of the scout team at Alabama during the 2020 and 2021 seasons when they won a national championship and finished runner-up, respectively.
After the 2021 season, Griffin decided to transfer to Harding University, a Division II private school in Searcy, Ark.
"He's a player. He wants to compete and being on the scout team (at Alabama) you're not competing. You're serving. He's got that element to him too but the guy he wants to compete," Mountain Brook Head Football Coach Chris Yeager told 1819 News.
Yeager attended Harding's semifinal playoff win against Lenoir-Rhyne on December 9 in Searcy to watch his former player and said Harding's ability to find overlooked talent was one of the reasons for their success.
"He's just got a bunch of guys like him. That's what I love about that team. You look at that team and it's just a bunch of talent that people would overlook because it doesn't have the measurables," Yeager said.
Yeager said some college coaches showed interest in recruiting Griffin out of high school, but many were dissuaded by his lack of size for a linebacker.
"They would see him play when we'd send them the Hudl highlights and based on that they wanted to come by and visit and, just being 100% honest, the second they took a look at him they just discounted him and thought, you know, this guy can't play college football," Yeager said. "That's how it was. We always said, 'Look, trust us.' There were people that I had a close relationship with and they just said, 'Coach, there's just no way I can walk back into a recruiting meeting with, you know, a guy that's 5'9.' I think at that time Clark was around 180 pounds. It was just this consistent, they'd see him on film and the production was exactly what they were looking for, the production part of it was. They'd see him in person and it was just so disappointing. It was just that he didn't meet the measurables. It was almost like, 'Man, if you're not this tall, you can't ride.' That's what college football is right now. It's just such a superficial…you just have to pass that test. People will take that before anything. Again, he defied all that, you know, he showed them."
The D2 Conference Commissioners Association named Griffin to the 2023 All-Super Region 3 Second Team in November. Super Region 3 includes the Great American Conference, the MIAA, the Great Lakes Valley Conference and the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Griffin said Harding's selflessness was a major reason the team won a national championship this year. For example, Harding became the first team in the history of college football to rush for more than 6,000 yards in a season using an old-school flexbone offense.
"Our team this year had a ton of good players and on a normal Harding team, our twos and threes on this team would've started on the teams in the past. Everyone knowing and accepting their role played a big part in our team's success this year. Top to bottom to get in our 58-man roster for the playoffs everyone that dressed out could play and contribute in a significant way so I felt like just everyone knowing their role and taking what their role was and doing the best they could and being selfless had a big, big part in our team's success," Griffin said.
Harding finished with a 9-2 record in 2022 but wasn't selected to participate in the playoffs.
"We kind of knew coming in that we were going to be pretty good," Griffin said. "During fall camp this year, I was sitting at one of our teammate's houses and it was me, three of our defensive linemen, and three of our defensive backs. We were just kind of sitting around talking, like talking through every position and kind of how we knew we had a majority of our team back. Everyone was a lot more experienced. We were just sitting there like, 'Yeah, this team, if there's a Harding team that's going to go win it. It's this team.' Obviously, we believed from the beginning. I think after we beat (Ouachita Baptist University) 41-10 everyone is kind of looking around (and thinking), 'Alright, we can definitely win this thing.'"
Yeager said of Griffin, "He's everything that's great about football in general."
"Great football players, they come in all shapes, sizes, colors, whatever abilities. It's just the most diverse sport as far as ability and just everything. You can measure the height in inches. You can measure the speed in seconds. You can measure the weight of people in pounds. The thing people have never figured out is how to measure a heart," Yeager said. "That is what this sport is made for. The guys with all the measurables, they fail in this sport all the time. The scouts and all the people that are doing the drafting, they look over people like Clark all the time and they don't do anything but just succeed. To me, that's the thing I always loved about Clark. I'd watch him play and he was just made for this game. It just seemed like he was in the sweet spot of life when he was playing football. His last year (at Mountain Brook) he had a pretty significant injury and they wanted to do surgery. It was so bad he couldn't practice through the week but he could play on Friday nights. They'd tape him up and send him out there and he'd play on Friday nights. (He) had an incredible career."
Griffin plans on moving back to Birmingham after his playing days at Harding University are over to pursue a career in real estate development. He is scheduled to graduate from Harding in the upcoming spring semester but still has two years of eligibility to play football. He said he plans on playing at Harding for at least one more year and isn't interested in transferring to a third school to chase a national championship at a third level.
"All my friends were texting after, 'Alright, you've got to go D3 or JUCO now and get another one.' I'm like, 'Nah, I'm going to stay put right here.' I'm sure it is a really short list, but it's really cool to say I've been at the mountaintop in both," Griffin said.
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