In the days following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers and the resulting protests and violence last year, South Dakota State football coach John Stiegelmeier was approached with a suggestion.
His team was a melting pot of young men from diverse backgrounds, and the moment was right to gather the Jackrabbits for a discussion about race and equality. He agreed.
So the team held multiple meetings, shared their feelings and grew closer. The Jackrabbits later took part in a peaceful march through the campus town of Brookings, S.D.
The important suggestion came from his starting safety, senior Michael Griffin II.
"When all this stuff broke loose, the terrible things that have happened, he was one of the first guys who contacted me and had a concern that we need to be proactive with the team," Stiegelmeier said. "You're talking about a young man. Not a coach. Not an administrator. One of our players."
It was just another way Griffin, a Park of Cottage Grove graduate, has influenced those around him.
"At the time there were a lot of emotions going around with the people on the team and a lot of schools were putting out a statement on the topic," Griffin said. "When I reached out to Coach, I told him I felt it was necessary to address the team so that we are all on the same page."
On the field, Griffin is part of a fierce defense that has helped the Jackrabbits reach the FCS Championship Game on Sunday against Sam Houston State. He has 41 tackles and two interceptions.
Before he transferred to SDSU, Griffin played two seasons at Southwest Minnesota State. After sitting out a year, Griffin was named a team captain, which tells you what his teammates thought of him after only one year.
Approaching Stiegelmeier to talk about race is not the only time Griffin has addressed the issue in Brookings. The school approached him later in 2020 about joining its newly formed Diversity in Athletics committee, and he heartily agreed.
"We're just really trying to build awareness within the athletic department and get everybody else who is not into athletics to follow us," Griffin said. "We had people from Chicago talk to us and give their life experience. We had some speakers who were activists. A lot of them tell stories about how their life was and how they grew up and what they are doing with their work."
Griffin brings a unique perspective to the committee: He's the son of a 15-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department. The two discussed the events of the Floyd murder and the aftermath, as the son leaned on the father for greater understanding and clarity about details he was hearing or reading about.
"To me, it was difficult having these conversations, it was difficult going through those moments," Michael Griffin Sr. said, "but because we're able to share and reason our way through it, I believe we made it easier. I hope it made it easier for him."
Griffin the father, who plans on traveling to Frisco, Texas, to attend Sunday's game, described his son as a thinker who is well-spoken and passionate but keeps his emotions under control.
"Those traits are what makes him a good leader," he said. "In my mind, he's going to be able to achieve things."
Helping SDSU win an FCS championship — the Jackrabbits were knocked out of the playoffs in the semifinals in 2017 and 2018 — would be the greatest achievement of his athletic career.
"To never be in a championship but always getting close is one of the things I wanted to get over," said Griffin, who will return in the fall for one more season.
What he already had won, however, is the respect and adoration of those who know him well.
"In my mind, he's as good as he can be as a football player," Stiegelmeier said. "In terms of his leadership, it's where he's had an even greater impact."