2:16pm

Sun April 24, 2011
Sports

Neither Ban Nor Tumor Can Stop Top NFL Prospect

Originally published on Sun April 24, 2011 8:20 pm

Normally, when a college player has health concerns or disciplinary issues, his NFL stock goes down.

This year, though, teams are clamoring to draft an exciting prospect out of the University of North Carolina — a kid with a tumor in his head who was suspended from college football for life.

Robert Quinn enters Thursday's NFL draft as one of its top defensive prospects. With the NFL doling out huge contracts to first-round picks, every player is a risk. Quinn presents a unique appraisal challenge to NFL front offices.

Longtime NFL scout Dan Shonka considers Quinn the top defensive end available, despite the medical and disciplinary red flags. He's not alone; against all odds, consensus is building for Quinn to become a top-10 selection.

The Tumor: Better, But Still There

Reporter Andrew Miller of Charleston's Post and Courier has covered Quinn since his freshman year of high school football. Miller was there when Quinn faced his most serious obstacle, the tumor that almost killed him.

"It became pretty clear early in his senior season that something was wrong," Miller says. "He was missing tackles, he was missing assignments; he was kind of looking around the field and, at times, wondering what the play was — what formation they were in."

After Quinn collapsed in his family's bathroom and was rushed to the hospital, doctors discovered a benign tumor had been blocking his spinal cavity. That caused a build-up of fluids in his skull, which had to be drained.

They opted against trying to remove the tumor. An operation that close to the spinal cord was deemed too risky, so the tumor is still in Quinn's head. Not only did he make a full recovery, but two months after the surgery, doctors cleared his return to football.

Banned For Life

After two years as a star defensive lineman with the University of North Carolina, however, Quinn faced trouble again.

"In the summer of 2010, before his junior season, Robert accepted cash and gifts — most notoriously a couple of watches — from a person that he did not think was an agent," Miller recounts.

But that person was acting for an agent, and that's strictly forbidden by college athletics' governing body, the NCAA. During their investigation, Quinn reportedly compounded the problem by lying about the incident.

As a result, Quinn was banned from college athletics — for life.

"I've been covering college football for 25 years, and that's the first time I've ever heard of a player having a lifetime ban," Miller says.

A Questionable Draft Pick

Shonka, who works for an independent scouting service, talks to teams all around the NFL. He hasn't found one willing to seriously downgrade Quinn. Quinn's agent refused to make his client available for this story, but Shonka says answers to the big questions are out there.

The tumor? It gets checked out by doctors every six months and hasn't been a problem since.

The gifts and the lying? A onetime mistake for an otherwise model student-athlete.

Shonka predicts Quinn could crack the top-10 next week. "The sixth pick in the draft with Cleveland — I think that would be his high point," he says.

Last year's No. 6 pick signed a $48.5-million contract, with $30 million guaranteed. That's a huge risk for a team to take on any player, even ones without red flags.

But, Miller says, "All you have to do is look at how he battled through the brain tumor and the ensuing rehab and recovery process to know what kind of person he is."

"He was put on the face of the Earth to play defensive line in the National Football League. There's no question about that."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The upcoming NFL season may be in jeopardy due to a labor lockout, but the NFL draft will go on as scheduled. It begins on Thursday.

Now, normally when a college player has health concerns or disciplinary issues, his NFL stock goes down. But this year, there's a kid who was suspended from college football all of last year, and he has a tumor in his skull.

Still, teams are clamoring to draft this exciting prospect out of the University of North Carolina. His name is Robert Quinn.

And NPR's Phil Harrell has this profile.

PHIL HARRELL: Dan Shonka has been a pro scout with the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins. So when he spots greatness, he knows it. And Robert Quinn's his top-rated defensive end this year. These are some of his notes on Quinn.

Mr. DAN SHONKA: Tough to block. He's a pass-rusher. Good flexibility to run the hoop or bend off the edge.

HARRELL: I have no idea what any of that means, but Dan assures me it's all positive. Shonka says all you need to know about Robert Quinn is how he humiliated one of the top tackles in the college game. The tackles are the guys who are protecting the quarterback from guys like Robert Quinn. His victim: Anthony Castonzo of Boston College.

Mr. SHONKA: He went around him like Castonzo was tied to a fence.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: And he is just going to beat Anthony Castonzo. Look at the move and the way he gets his shoulder down low underneath the pass, and - arms.

Mr. ANDREW MILLER (Sportswriter, The Post and Courier): He's not a guy who's going to let obstacles get in his way.

HARRELL: That's reporter Andrew Miller, speaking both literally and metaphorically there. He writes for The Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston, South Carolina. Miller's covered Robert Quinn since high school football. And that's when Quinn faced his most serious obstacle: the tumor that almost killed him.

Mr. MILLER: It became pretty clear early in his senior season that something was wrong.

HARRELL: Quinn was already one of the most decorated athletes in South Carolina, and college coaches were lining up to offer him scholarships. But something changed in Quinn's performance on the field.

Mr. MILLER: He was missing tackles. He was missing assignments. He was kind of looking around the field and at times wondering what the play was, what formation they were in.

HARRELL: After Quinn collapsed one night, he was rushed to the hospital, where doctors discovered a benign tumor at the top of his spinal cavity. That caused a buildup of fluids in his skull, which had to be drained.

Mr. MILLER: The doctors told him that most other people would have been brain-dead.

HARRELL: They opted against trying to remove the tumor: An operation that close to the spinal cord was deemed too risky. Not only did Quinn make a full recovery, but two months after the surgery, doctors okayed his return to sports.

Mr. MILLER: Now the football season has since ended, but he is an elite state wrestler and with little or no training at all ends up winning the state wrestling title. Robert Quinn is a freak of human nature.

HARRELL: Such a dramatic comeback meant that his scholarships stayed on the table, and he selected the University of North Carolina, where he played his freshman year.

Fast-forward two extraordinary seasons in Chapel Hill, and then his fast track to a pro career seemed to derail all over again.

Mr. MILLER: In the summer of 2010, before his junior season, Robert accepted cash and gifts, most notoriously a couple of watches, from a person that he did not think was an agent.

HARRELL: But that person did represent an agent, and that's strictly forbidden by college athletics governing body, the NCAA. During their investigation into the matter, Quinn reportedly compounded the problem by lying about the incident. That drew him a lifetime ban from college athletics.

Mr. MILLER: I've been covering college football for 25 years, and that's the first time I've ever heard of a player having a lifetime ban.

HARRELL: For Quinn, the decision was easy: Enter the NFL draft. Robert Quinn's agent, Carl Carey, refused to make his client available for this story. Not a surprise. It's probably wise less than a week away from the draft to shield your client when a reporter is asking about tumors and lifetime bans.

But former pro scout Dan Shonka talks to teams all around the NFL, and he hasn't found one willing to seriously downgrade Robert Quinn. Here's how they see it. The tumor? It gets checked out by doctors every six months, hasn't been a problem since. The contact with the agent, the lying? Isolated mistakes for an otherwise model student athlete. Shonka predicts Robert Quinn could crack the top 10 on Thursday.

Mr. SHONKA: I think the sixth pick in the draft with Cleveland, I think that would be his high point.

HARRELL: Now, last year's number six pick signed a $48 million contract with 30 million guaranteed. That's a huge risk for a team to take on any player, even the ones without red flags. Again, sportswriter Andrew Miller.

Mr. MILLER: I think all you have to do is look at how he battled through the brain tumor and the ensuing rehab and recovery process to know what kind of person he is. He was put on the face of the Earth to play defensive line in the National Football League. There's no question about that.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible) goes down. Robert Quinn wrestles him down for a loss of yardage to the 21.

HARRELL: Phil Harrell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.