North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn would be called anything but lucky when his acceptance of illegal benefits cost the top flight pass rusher his 2010 season with the Tar Heels. But the fact that the NFL career that awaits him is even an option figures to change that perception.
Yes, Quinn was wrong to accept jewelry and travel benefits, and paid the price by way of NCAA suspension. It’s also given NFL teams the exercise of trying to assure themselves about his long range potential and development after missing a full season of college ball.
“For scouts they’re nervous because to a certain extent you don’t know what you’re getting necessarily,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. “He’s not played all year long and sat out the year. Forget about knocking off the rust, but he’s lost out on the development and being there every day and working and getting better at his craft. That’s the frustrating part because there’s so much talent there.”
“I made a selfish mistake and I paid a price for it,” said Quinn. “And my team and my family and coaches paid a price for it. I truly apologized for it. I learned if you really love the game and don't want to sit out or miss any games, you have to stay away from it. You grow up fast.”
That’s what made Quinn’s misstep so puzzling because he had to grow up a lot quicker than most kids with a promising football career prior to facing the consequences of his NCAA violations.
In the middle of his senior high school season of football, Quinn had been having severe headaches, some of which prompted Quinn to faint.
“I was having a headache waking up and going to sleep,” Quinn recalled. "I'd take pills, but it would hardly help. I had three blackout spells. One about halfway through my senior year in football season, then in late October where I had two blackout spells. One morning when I was getting up to go to work, one was in my bedroom and the third one was walking into my bathroom. That was the final straw for my parents. An hour or two later, I found out I had a brain tumor.”
What doctors soon found was a tumor at the base of his brain by the top of his spine. Though it was only the size of a dime it had caused enough stress where a significant amount of fluid had built up around it putting pressure on his brain, which was the cause of the fainting spells and excruciating headaches.
Doctors had to drill two holes in his skull to drain the fluid and relieve the pressure. So stunned were the physicians by the amount of fluid extracted they told Quinn he would never be able to play sports again. Quinn wept.
“It was heartbreaking when they told me I wouldn't be able to play sports no more,” he said. “At one point they told me I should have been brain dead. I became that big old baby and busted out in tears. It was just heartbreaking.”
Quinn had brain surgery to reduce the size of the tumor, which was found to be benign, in October of 2007. By February Quinn had not only made a full recovery, but was cleared to re-join the wrestling team where he went undefeated and became the first ever three-time state heavyweight champion in South Carolina scholastic history.
He would also resume his football career that fall at the University of North Carolina. Quinn saw playing time early as veteran starter Darrius Massenburg went down with a knee injury in the 2008 opener making Quinn a starter the second game of his college career. By season’s end he finished third in the voting for ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The pass rusher would follow it up with a breakout season in 2009 with 11 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles. Quinn was very much on the radar of NFL scouts.
The following spring after the Tar Heels spring game was when Quinn’s decision to accept jewelry from a person who described himself as a jeweler when he was really an agent sent Quinn’s career into a tailspin.
Quinn, who said the lesson was a difficult one to stomach, was forced to watch his teammates play out the season without him and a handful of other teammates who committed similar NCAA violations. He realizes his mistake will be included on every NFL report written about him by every NFL team.
“I'm just going to move on from the past and let people make their judgments on that,” he said. “All I can do is compete and perform.”
On the whole Quinn did just that as his pro day, running in the high 4.5s at 265 pounds with a vertical leap of 33 inches and a broad jump of 10’6”.
It’s slightly off his best 40 time as a freshman (4.51), but ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper believes it’s all a part of getting re-acclimated to the game for Quinn.
“A year of inactivity is the issue,” Kiper said. “He needs time to transition back to the game. So instead of being the first, second or third pick overall, which he would’ve been had he played, at least to the level two years ago with all those sacks and tackles for loss and being a unblockabale entity off the edge. Right now I have him going 12 to Minnesota. I could see him in that 8-to-12 range easily. If he played this year like he did two years he’d be in the mix to be one, two or three.”
Quinn maintains that the tumor made him appreciate the little things in life and to not take anything for granted. That was only reinforced with the mistake he made in accepting illegal benefits. He hasn’t had a headache since the surgery four and a half years ago, and still goes for checkups every six months.
“It didn't slow me down,” he said. “Three, four years later, I'm still going.”
On the whole NFL teams don’t doubt his physical talent. They want to know that he’s learned his lesson. Something Quinn has been trying to convince NFL teams of since he’s declared for the draft.
“The suspension really made me mature and watch the people who come around me,” he said. “If they're really in the best interest for me or if they want (something) from me. So I really just watch my surroundings and people I bring around me.”
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