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Blanchette: Now a walk-on football player, Connor Griffin lands in CFP semifinals

Gonzaga’s Connor Griffin pokes the ball away from Sacramento State’s Zach Mills for a steal in a Nov. 2014 game. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga’s Connor Griffin pokes the ball away from Sacramento State’s Zach Mills for a steal in a Nov. 2014 game. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It was a Connor Griffin kind of game at Gonzaga on Thursday night. The margin reached 30. Everybody played.

We’d get a glimpse of him in those, peeling off his warmups with the outcome decided, running the offense just as he’d practiced – or practiced against, as a Bulldogs walk-on and scout-team surrogate. Occasionally we’d see him get some insane air on a rebound or hammer down a dunk and think, gee, maybe there should be something more for an athlete like him.

And there has been – something different, anyway – even if he had to go elsewhere to find it.

Yes, he’s part of the great transfer migration in college athletics that has some coaches and old-schoolers on edge – roster instability, loyalty issues and all that. Not that it’s a sure thing for the athletes. For every hike in playing time, there’s a risk of a hit to the ego food of winning.

So you have to like the way it worked out for Griffin.

He transferred off an Elite Eight team at Gonzaga.

And found himself in the Final Four.

Wait, not that Final Four.

While his old Zags teammates were polishing off Pepperdine 92-62 in their West Coast Conference basketball opener at the McCarthey Athletic Center, Griffin was in final preparations in Atlanta for Saturday’s Peach Bowl – the semifinals of the College Football Playoff, where he and his University of Washington teammates are staring down the barrel at uber-bully Alabama.

And you thought the Gonzaga-UW transfer route was an HOV lane going in only one direction.

As with the Zags, Griffin will not have a marquee part in Saturday’s drama. He’s still a walk-on, a backup wide receiver with one career catch to his credit – in last year’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. He did start in the Huskies’ 2016 season opener against Rutgers (“it was more about personnel groups than ‘starters,’” he said) and played in six other games. But his snaps and opportunities are limited, his role narrow.

And he couldn’t be happier.

“I talk to him almost every day and he’s taking it all in – sending me a bunch of photos I’m jealous of,” said Rem Bakamus, one of his old Gonzaga walk-on compadres. “He’s still living the dream.”

In the most unique way.

Griffin showed up at Gonzaga in 2013, with most of his bona fides as a football player – an Oregon all-stater at Lake Oswego who passed on scholarship offers from Portland State and Northern Colorado because “basketball was my real love.

“People think you’re crazy to do that and in some ways it probably is,” he said.

But there’s walking on, and there’s walking into fire. The Gonzaga program Griffin joined had reached No. 1 in the polls and earned a top seed in the NCAA Tournament the previous spring. In two seasons, Griffin managed to get into 29 games for a total of just 88 minutes. Those Zags teams won 64 games – reaching that Elite Eight in 2015 – but Griffin’s personal gratification had to be mined on weekday afternoons “hustling, doing the garbage work, trying to make great players even better.”

But it’s not like he’d given up on football, either.

“My thought was I had four years to play basketball and that I’d use my fifth year somewhere to try football,” Griffin said. “But I started thinking that one year of football wouldn’t give me the opportunity to succeed the way I wanted to.”

Except when it came time to make the switch, he again chose the path of most resistance.

The Huskies weren’t CFP material at the time, but a year into coach Chris Petersen’s program makeover it was clear they weren’t going to stay mired in mediocrity. A scholarship might have still been available at a Big Sky school. Why take the walk-on route again?

“I guess it’s just how I was raised,” Griffin said. “It can’t be fun if you’re just handed something.”

Another friend and Zag walk-on, Dustin Triano, grasps it.

“It might be the challenge,” Triano said, “or maybe you just want to be involved with something special. I think that takes a certain type of person. Obviously we don’t get the glory or whatever and people don’t know our names, but it feels like we’re part of something special – something bigger than us.”

Funny thing is, Griffin might have enjoyed a somewhat more substantial role had he stayed at GU last season, simply given the Zags’ lack of depth. He watched some of those games on TV a little wistfully, as he did when the Zags and Huskies renewed their basketball rivalry this winter.

Which maybe makes it no surprise that he’s recently been back on the court – practicing with the UW basketball team.

“I guess he just couldn’t stay away,” Bakamus said. “But he’ll be a great asset to any team.”

Even the opposing one.

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