VANCOUVER — Zyell Griffin remembers it like it was yesterday. He was finishing up a shootaround during his freshman basketball season at Evergreen High School when his grandmother, Rosetta Warfield, pulled out her phone and began to film.
She peppered him with interview-style questions like, “what’s your favorite sport?” He was confused. It was, of course, all a ploy to capture his reaction when his father, Lester Griffin, popped out from behind her.
Zyell, then 14 years old, stood momentarily stunned, before lunging for the embrace of his father, who had just been released from prison after serving an 8 1/2 year sentence. Sitting with his dad in a Pizza Hut that night, and each day that followed, Zyell found himself asking over and over again: is this real? Are you really here?
For much of his childhood, Zyell’s father was in prison. But he knew his dad. They always had a relationship.
Lester was sentenced to 24 years in prison for first-degree assault and first-degree burglary that stemmed from a shooting in 2008. He served 8 1/2 before he was released in Jan. 2017 when he pled guilty to less severe charges, The Columbian reported in 2017. A court of appeals vacated his convictions after it ruled that his rights to a fair trial were potentially violated.
It was Lester’s second stint in prison during Zyell’s life. When he was 19 years old, weeks after Zyell was born, he served around 18 months for charges tied to a home invasion.
“I was putting a lot of bad energy in the universe and in the community period, so it was bound to come back to me,” Lester said. “And it did.”
That version of his father, the one mired in legal trouble, is a blur now. Since his release, Zyell notices a difference in his dad’s demeanor, and credits that man for helping shape him into the person — and athlete — he is today.
“You could tell,” Zyell said. “Especially over time, the way he moves, the way he talks, how he talks, how he comes across.”
More than three years later as Zyell, now a senior at Evergreen, has elevated into a three-star wide receiver and a UNLV signee, his father has been there every step of the way. Their relationship hasn’t just been fostered through football, but also the work that goes into being a great football player.
But more importantly, the family of four is a unit again.
Latasha Turner was angry. She was stressed. She was stretched thin. She needed to be there for two kids under the age of 10. She had to put food on the table. There was pressure to advance in her career working for the Vancouver Clinic, where she started as a front desk attendant when she was 21.
Warfield, Lester’s mom, stepped in to help, but for the most part she was shouldering the parenting work of two, and she was supporting Lester — financially as well as emotionally — while he was behind bars.
She’d send all the money she could to Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Ten bucks here, 10 bucks there ensured her children’s father could afford phone calls home. It allowed him to buy snacks at night when his three square meals weren’t enough. And what she wasn’t sending him for himself, she was saving so her and the kids could make a monthly drive to Aberdeen to visit him.
For Lester, not being able to provide for himself or his kids was humbling.
“Man, come on, being 27, 28 asking your mom for stuff?” Lester said. “Needing your wife like that? It wasn’t OK with me because she had to carry the load for what was going on out here.”
The stress was, at times, overbearing. But she was determined to make her kids’ childhoods as normal as possible. What wore on Latasha, they never saw.
“I’m the type of person who holds everything inside anyways, but just because I didn’t want them to feel stressed,” Turner said. “Kids shouldn’t feel that. I think it’s easier for them to not be involved in that, and keep it as calm as possible. And well, it was very stressful. I just tried to work through it.”
The process of working through it was deeply personal. When Lester was first arrested, she considered leaving him.
But they had a history that was undeniable. They’d first met in a community center in Vancouver. He was 15, she was 14. On one of their first dates, Lester’s 16th birthday, he rented a limo and picked her up wearing a suit. None of that erased her devastation when he was sent to prison. But she saw the father Lester was, and she loved him.
“I know what kind of person, man that he really is and should have been,” Turner said. “That’s made it better and easier.”
When her stress became insurmountable during his sentence, Turner broke down crying late at night, alone in her room. Turner never wanted to put the burden of their father’s decisions on them. She wanted them to just worry about being kids.
And those bouts of stress never made it to Zyell and his young sister, Zatera. The kids knew their mom to be encouraging, strong and never saw her flustered. She was the one who brought Zyell to Pop Warner practice after school five days a week. She put food on the table. She was their rock. And she assured them, time and time again, their father would be home “soon.”
Zyell trusted her.
“Anything that was stressful, she never really showed it to us,” Zyell said. “We were always straight, everything was good, we kept it rolling until dad came home.”
After he was released from prison in January 2017, Lester went through a few jobs before he found some semblance of stability.
He eventually landed a stable, well-paying job as a painter at a shipyard. After he was a part of a round of layoffs, he found a lower paying job stacking boxes for UPS. He called it quits after a week and wound up doing construction cleanup. He liked the work, found out he was good at it, and started building the skills he needed to secure his contractor’s license. That allowed him to take on bigger projects.
“That’s when a lot of things changed,” Lester said.
Last May, Lester had taken Zyell down to Oakland for a regional recruiting event called The Opening. Zyell was assessed in various categories, like at the NFL combine, and his marks had turned many heads. Still, Lester and Latasha were braving the brunt of the financial commitment required by participating in the world of 7-on-7 and college football recruiting showcases.
That’s when Lester received a call when the two were out eating burgers. It was a big contracting job he’d put a bid in for a year prior, and it was going to cover the trip completely — and several more going forward.
“Now we getting bigger burgers,” Lester said, referring to an inside joke the family has about Lester’s love for burgers. “Extra cheese, extra bacon. We ate well that night, man. We knew it would be taken care of.”
Zyell and his dad don’t talk about Lester’s past much. But Zyell sees a different man in his dad today. It took years into his second sentence until Lester felt like he turned a corner. He stopped smoking marijuana, knowing how a failed drug test could impact his ability to see his family. He dove into books. He studied different religions. He read up on how to flip houses. He started to map out potential careers after he was released.
He was searching for direction.
“I just realized there’s a bigger purpose,” Lester said. “That’s how I understood that I put myself in prison, but I put myself in prison for this purpose: changing.”
He thought about his responsibility as a father, and compared his own childhood to what Zyell was going through while he was behind bars.
“I realized, in our community, when you’re raised without a dad, hands on, the whole time, you and your friends are raising each other,” Lester said. “You go off of each other’s approval.”
Zyell relied on friends emotionally over the years. He had friends whose fathers were incarcerated. One of the first things he did after his dad’s release was call a close friend on FaceTime to show him the news.
Lester wanted sorely for Zyell to become a great football player. When Zyell was five or six, Lester recalls putting him through cone drills. In retrospect, he wonders: could that level of intensity, had he been physically present all those years, have driven Zyell away from the sport? Would his own son have grown to resent him?
But Zyell embraced the grind of becoming a better football player. He enjoyed workouts, like how his dad now has him doing 500 pushups per day (“that’s just 100 every three hours,” Lester says) while the school’s weight room is shut down due to COVID-19. And Zyell always jumped at opportunities to showcase his athleticism.
Coaches have called Zyell a diamond in the rough, a late bloomer and an unpolished raw talent. He’s only been a receiver for two years after being moved from running back as a junior. During the spring of 2019, as his recruiting started to heat up, Evergreen football coach Christian Swain said Zyell was still honing the technical ins and outs of being a receiver with Evergreen receivers coach Jamar Howard.
“He’s still learning,” Swain said. “He’s raw, raw, raw clay.”
While Swain says he couldn’t catch an in-breaking route a year ago, Zyell boasts athleticism that can’t be taught. That weekend in Oakland, he was clocked at a 4.54 40-yard dash, which would have put him as the 30th fastest time at the 2020 NFL combine without having ever trained for the event and no formal track experience.
His potential is sky-high.
“UNLV got a steal, man, because he has so much room to continue to improve, whereas you get certain guys who are really finished products,” Swain said. “He’s a long way off from reaching his potential, which is why I think he has a chance to do big things in the future.”
It was the fall of 2017 and Brett Henry had just taken over as the boys basketball coach at Evergreen High School. It was his first head coaching job after several stops as an assistant coach in the Portland area. One of the first people to introduce himself was Lester Griffin.
“He was at everything,” Henry said. “Every game, every tournament.”
It didn’t take long for Henry to realize he needed Lester on his sidelines as a volunteer. Though Lester didn’t have much formal coaching experience, when he talked, Henry’s players listened. The two became friends over the course of Henry’s first two years at the helm.
After a successful first football season at Evergreen, Swain joined the basketball coaching staff last December to bring continuity with some of the players he made relationships with in the fall. Those players included Zyell and sharpshooting guard Carter Monda, who is one of Zyell’s best friends as well as his quarterback last season, and a budding MLB prospect.
The Plainsmen swept the 3A GSHL and finished second in the district tournament before a first round exit to eventual fifth-place state finisher Rainier Beach. Zyell brought raw athleticism and leadership. He put his 37-inch vertical leap to good use and at 6-2, played well above his height on the glass.
“He’s just a worker,” Henry said. “It doesn’t happen by accident.”
Throughout Zyell’s last three years of high school, Lester was never far away. He’d served as a volunteer assistant in the past and though he wasn’t on the bench this past season, Henry felt he was an extension of the coaching staff. He taught Lester how to tie a tie when he required his assistant coaches to wear them on the bench and gave him a league championship t-shirt.
“I didn’t know Lester when he was getting in trouble,” Henry said. “All I know is that he’s one of the most standup guys I’ve met. I consider him a friend forever. He was a tremendous part of why we had a successful year this year even though he wasn’t coaching.”
During the football season, Lester can be heard whooping and hollering from the stands. He’s often the most audible parent. Zyell says he loves hearing the support. It’s especially hard to miss during the basketball season in the confines of a gymnasium.
Zyell bets he’ll still be able to hear his dad next year in Allegiant Stadium, since the parent section isn’t far from the UNLV sidelines. Regardless, as he awaits his next chapter, he can’t help but appreciate the way everything has fallen into place.
“I’ve been waiting forever for this,” Zyell said.
Packed in the Evergreen High School common area in February, Lester sat in the front row and saved a chair for Latasha. It was the only empty chair as students, staff and families crowded around a table where five smiling faces sat on national signing day.
Among the five college signees, Zyell was the center of attention. Over the course of his four years at Evergreen, he wowed as a dynamic, coverage-killing receiver who was a threat to score any time he touched the ball. Get him in the open field, something was bound to happen.
- RELATED: A disrupter and a playmaker: O’Dea’s Jalen Dixon, Evergreen’s Zyell Griffin sign with UNLV on National Signing Day 2020
Griffin’s senior season brought a taste of winning football back to a program that climbed to a 2004 state championship, but hadn’t experienced a season above .500 since 2008.
After the arrival of Swain, who’d previously turned winless Roosevelt (Ore.) into a playoff contender, Evergreen went 5-5 with a signature win over perennial 3A Greater St. Helens League power Mountain View. They took Garfield down to the last possession in the 3A regional playoffs, losing 36-34. Griffin, a return specialist and a punter in addition to being a running back-turned receiver, had 875 receiving yards and 269 rushing yards on the season, and logged two 99-yard touchdowns in the team’s first three games.
And on that morning in February, there he was, the Plainsmen’s Flash Gordon, inking with UNLV, where he looked forward to playing for first-time head coach Marcus Arroyo in shiny new Allegiant Stadium on the edge of the Las Vegas strip.
Latasha has a picture of Zyell when he was three weeks old. He can hardly open his eyes, and he’s holding a football. That day, she thought of that picture — 3-week-old Zyell, and how far he’d come. How much they had been through. She held it up side-by-side with a photo of him signing his college letter of intent.
“It seemed real at that point,” Turner said, “like oh wow, this is really happening.”
Lester thought about a letter he wrote Zyell from prison during his first sentence. He was in his early 20s, and as a young father, he was still figuring out what kind of dad he was going to be. So he wrote to Zyell, telling him about the life he saw for his first born child. He foretold Zyell’s athletic achievements. Putting him in football at a young age was important to Lester. It would provide the structure that he didn’t have as a child.
“Knowing that I had the athletic ability, if I was pushed in the way that he was going to be pushed … I probably would have been better and had a different situation,” said Lester.
That drove his desire for sports to be an outlet for his son.
The June date fast approaches when Zyell is set to head off to Las Vegas. It’s already sunk in for him that he’s going to be living on his own. He’s ready to take on more responsibility, and he knows through it all, he’ll have his family by his side. For all he’s experienced, in many ways, his story has just begun.
“There’s just so much to look forward to,” Zyell said.