Robert Quinn can’t tell his story; he’d like to but he can’t. The fact of the matter is he doesn’t remember it – or parts of it anyway. For the better part of three months his actions are mere snapshots in the mind’s eye.
Enter: Steve LaPrad, head football coach at Fort Dorchester High School and one of Robert’s surrogate storytellers. Where there are breaches in Robert’s memory it is family, friends and coaches who step up and fill in the blanks, like the day last Fall when he blacked out at school.
LaPrad was in his office, a modest, windowless frame enclosed by cinder blocks, thumping to the soundtrack of Jay Z., Mary J. and Kanye West, courtesy of the weight room it’s backed up against. But the din of music, laughter, grunts, groans and free weights clinking next door could not contain the sound of students shouting and racing toward the coach’s office from the end of the hall.
Robert blacked out and collapsed over a trash can while walking to class with his girlfriend. The entire episode was caught on campus security cameras. He’s walking, talking, he stumbles, his knees buckle and he’s down …
By the time LaPrad arrived, Robert was sitting in the school nurses office.
“What’s wrong Robert?” asked LaPrad.
Don’t ask Robert, he doesn’t know. He doesn’t even remember falling into the trash can outside the cafeteria. All Robert remembers is walking with his girlfriend, suddenly feeling light-headed and – boom – out go the lights.
“Have you eaten anything today?” LaPrad asked.
Robert shook his head no.
“Robert, you’re six-foot-five, 245 pounds and you haven’t eaten anything?” LaPrad asked in surprise.
The nurse rolled her eyes at the coach.
Robert’s mother Maria Quinn had just arrived home from a company meeting in Atlanta when the call came. She rushed to the school and found Robert in the nurse’s office sipping apple juice. If Maria hadn’t known from the nurse’s phone call, she’d have never been able to tell by looking at her son that he’d just passed out. There were no tells. He looked fine.
Robert’s morning started with a headache, just like many of his mornings during the summer of 2007. The pain had become chronic and the pressure was like a vice grip. But Robert wasn’t concerned, he just kept popping Advil and Tylenol.
“I thought they may have just been migraines,” said Robert’s father James Quinn.
First headaches, then dizzy spells and now black outs. These were no longer isolated incidents. The symptoms were escalating and they had begun affecting Robert’s quality of life. His right eye began to twitch and was “getting weak” remembers Maria. She also noticed his eyes changing color. Some days the whites of his eyes were yellow, other days they were bloodshot.
Robert spent the morning at the doctor’s office. In the waiting room, Maria asked Robert if he’d gone for the CT scan appointment she had scheduled weeks earlier. Robert said no. “He missed it,” she said, shaking her head now. “He chose to go to work instead. I think we would have found out something then.”
After a complete checkup, Robert checked out. He was told to take two days off, no football, not even practice. “Everything was fine,” said LaPrad. “So everybody was under the assumption that he didn’t eat anything and he passed out.”
Robert Quinn is a 6’5,” 245-pound teenager. In 2007, the rising Forth Dorchester high school senior student-athlete was on the football radars at Alabama, South Carolina, Auburn, Florida, Maryland, Rutgers, Tennessee, Clemson and North Carolina. Scouts were popping up everywhere, scholarships were on the table.
When it came to football, Robert Quinn wanted to be Deion Sanders, his boyhood idol. He admired the nine-time All Pro football star’s talent. He was inspired to reach the same heights as Sanders on the field. His work ethic was unmatched. Robert Quinn was always the first to practice, never missed a workout, “100% all the time, whether it’s in the weight room or practice,” bragged LaPrad.
But, off the field, he is the polar opposite of Sanders. He lacked Sanders amour-propre. He does not possess the ham gene, a quality that earned Sanders the off-field nickname Neon Deion. He’s a “big baby” describes his mother, a soft-spoken, quiet kid who would fade into the woodwork of a room if it weren’t for his obvious physical presence.
“There’s not a kid in this school he didn’t talk to, from the special ed. kid to the most popular girl in school,” said LaPrad. “Everybody loved him. Everybody respected him. To this day I don’t think Robert Quinn has got an enemy in the world.”
“He’s never belittled anybody on the football field or the wrestling mat – ever. He’s never tried to embarrass anybody. Even when he was so much stronger and so much faster, he’s never done anything for anybody to have any fuel to want to get back at Robert Quinn.”
That was Robert Quinn before last summer, before the headaches, the dizzy spells and the blackouts.
‘He just wasn’t Robert Quinn’
As the Fort Dorchester coaching staff huddled over the summer months, Robert Quinn was the least of their worries. His presence alone on the Patriots defensive line had opposing coaches preparing schemes to run away from him. The strategy created a unique challenge for LaPrad and his staff. The coaches offered alternatives: move Robert to the other side, move him to linebacker, scheme against the schemes. Get ahead of the opponents strategy, all because of Robert Quinn.
But, as camp broke, Robert’s condition spilled on to the field. He was now on his heels, runners were zipping by him untouched. He was playing uphill in scrimmages and, initially, it excited LaPrad. He was convinced this was a sign his offensive line has improved from the year before. But, as Robert continued to stumble and miss tackles, the vibe faded.
“We could see that things weren’t right. He wasn’t making plays,” said LaPrad. “I’m like, ‘What in the world is going on?’ I see (on film) he’s reaching in, he’s not putting his pads on the guy. I see guys running right by him and he’s not seeing them. He just wasn’t Robert Quinn.”
Robert Quinn had been reduced to an average high school athlete. LaPrad watched his shining star dimming right before his eyes. The Fort Dorchester head coach had been around long enough to know the signs. He’d seen this pattern – erratic behavior and performance – and it left him pondering: Did Robert Quinn have a drug problem?
It was difficult to even think it, let alone make himself believe it. Coach LaPrad knew Robert, it wasn’t his nature to turn to drugs, but this is high school and peer pressure was in play. Maybe, just maybe, for the first time, in a moment of weakness, Robert gave in. He made the wrong choice, he tried drugs and now it was a problem. He had to know. Not for himself, but for Robert, for his family, for everyone who saw Robert Quinn as a role model.
LaPrad pulled him into his office, closed the door and asked Robert Quinn flat out: Are you using drugs?
Robert denied he was using anything stronger than Tylenol.
“What’s wrong? Are you happy? Are you having fun?” Coach asked.
Robert loved football. He pleaded with LaPrad, he’d turn it around. Just watch, you’ll see.
Were there problems with his girlfriend? Robert had dated the same girl all four years in high school. They cared for each other and never had problems. Was there trouble at home? Were there problems he wasn’t telling his parents about? No way. The Quinn family was as close as a family gets. They took care of each other.
“It just went on every scrimmage, every game,” confessed LaPrad. “Does he not want to get hurt? Was he injured? Had he lost his desire? Does he have so much pressure at home about the scholarship? I talked to his parents. Our coaching staff talked to him. We don’t know what’s going on.”
LaPrad questioned himself. He began believing maybe it was him. Maybe he was failing as a coach. Did he miss a warning sign? Did he have headaches? Did he not want to tell me? Did he not want to miss practice? Did he not want to let the team down? I am doing an awful job coaching this kid he thought. Why can’t I motivate this kid? I got this stud and I can’t get him to play 100%. What is wrong with me?
Fort Dorchester had changed defensive coordinators. The team adopted the 3-4 defense. “I started thinking, is this too confusing for him?” said LaPrad. “Is this defense not the defense for Robert Quinn?”
Exhausting every possible option, LaPrad approached his defensive coordinator Fred Hamilton, an experienced high school and college coach.
“Coach, I don’t know, he’s just not getting’ after it,’” Hamilton told LaPrad. “He (Robert) says he’s confused. I think he’s thinking so much, he can’t play.”
LaPrad asked Hamilton if they should change back to a 4-3 defense.
“It’s so easy coach, it’s what he’s been doing for three years,” Hamilton said.
“Robert kept telling us, ‘I’m confused, I just can’t get it,’” said LaPrad. “That’s not like Robert, he’s very coachable.”
In the film room LaPrad watched as opponents ran by, at and through Robert. The word was getting around: Robert Quinn is no longer a threat. “He was just a normal, a little bit above average high school football player,” said the coach.
LaPrad was desperate for answers. As the film ran the Patriots coach never took his eyes off Robert, waiting and watching for something, a sign – anything. That’s about the time LaPrad spotted Robert turning to a teammate asking for direction. The Patriots coach snapped off the projector.
“Why is Robert asking the defensive back for help?” he asked. “He’s a leader on our team. Tell me? What’s wrong with him?”
The coaching staff sat in silence, shaking their heads. No one had a clue, let alone an answer.
‘He looked like someone scared the crap out if him’
Re-enter: Maria Quinn, Robert’s mother and another surrogate storyteller of this tale.
Saturday, October 13.
Robert was just a few short blocks from home visiting his girlfriend. It was 2 a.m. when Maria called him. The message was simple: It’s late. Get home. Robert and his father were leaving for North Carolina the next morning. She hung up and waited. Five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, no Robert. She called again but Robert had already left.
As any parent of a teenager knows, this is when you hit the panic button. Worry consumed Maria. Where could he be? He was minutes from home. She couldn’t wait idly while the answer came in the form of a police officer knocking on her front door, so she jumped in her car and started driving around the neighborhood.
Robert had turned the wrong way at the stop sign and was wandering aimlessly on neighborhood streets. How could that happen? These were the same streets where he learned to ride a bicycle, where he skateboarded through his youth, yet none of it looked familiar. Robert Quinn was lost in his own backyard.
He remembers starting the car. He remembers pulling to the stop sign. Then the lights went out. He doesn’t remember making the turn. Robert blacked out again. The next thing he remembers was bright headlights in front of his car. Those were Maria’s headlights.
Tears started rolling down Robert’s face as he followed his mother home. What … just … happened? He tried to remember. His memory was a blank. The harder he concentrated, the more frightened Robert became. The last 10, 12, 15 minutes or more of his life were in a vacuum. He looked around him as he drove, seeing nothing but ditches surrounding the neighborhood where his mom found him. His thoughts of ‘what could have been’ frightened him. He could have been in an accident – or dead. He asked himself, “What is going on with me?”
“He got out of the truck and his eyes were so red,” Maria said. “He looked like someone just scared the living crap out of him. He just started crying.”
That night, Robert lay in bed, afraid to close his eyes. He didn’t want to face the darkness again. If he closed his eyes, what would happen? Would he wake up and remember anything? Would he wake up – period? He could cope with an occasional dizzy spell; even the headaches were tolerable compared to this.
Robert’s athletic instincts would suggest a blitz, and like so many of the opponents who feared Robert coming around the corner he would wrap his arms around the problem and tackle it.
But Robert knew this, whatever it was, was out of his league. He couldn’t predict it and he certainly couldn’t control it. He knew it and those around him were starting to see it too. Robert was losing the battle to an unknown force.
Maria lay next to her son that night. She was sure he was telling the truth and that frightened her. But she couldn’t understand how? How could Robert get lost in his own neighborhood? Teenagers forget a lot of things. They forget to clean their rooms, take out the trash or what time you told them to be home but never – ever – how to get home. On foot or by car, he knew every street, sidewalk and shortcut through the neighborhood.
She knew something was wrong. The symptoms were starting to pile up. They were no longer just headaches, but symptoms to a larger, more serious problem. She saw the fear in his eyes.
Robert’s father remembers waking up that morning to the sound of a thud.
“I walked in the bathroom and he (Robert) was on his knees,” he said. “About two minutes later I heard him fall again.”
But what does Robert Quinn remember? That’s where it gets tricky.
He remembers waking up before sunrise. He remembers walking, in the dark, to the bathroom. He remembers feeling “light-headed,” but thought maybe he just got up too fast. That’s when he blacked out — the first time that morning.
Robert dropped to his knees on the bathroom floor. It may have lasted a moment, or five minutes, he can’t remember. He couldn’t judge time. When he finally got back to his feet, he was still light-headed.
On his second trip to the bathroom, Robert blacked out again, this time he collapsed against the wall. His father heard the second thud and found Robert collapsed on the floor between the door and cabinet. He began slapping his cheek, trying to wake him up.
James and Maria rushed him to the hospital where doctors put Robert through a battery tests. An MRI revealed “something was there” remembers Maria.
Robert was immediately sent to the Medical University of South Carolina, where it was more tests, more blood work, CT scans, MRI’s. As he was shuffled from one room to another, family, teammates, player’s parents and friends poured in to the hospital waiting room.
Maria called LaPrad and told him what happened.
Coach LaPrad raced down I-26 for the hospital with one particular meeting he had with Robert replaying in his mind. They were in his office watching game film and coach stopped the projector.
“Robert, why aren’t you putting your head on the ball?” he asked.
Coach LaPrad was always giving Robert a hard time about the size of his head, so Robert waited for the punchline, but it never came. He was serious now.
Robert shrugged it off. He didn’t have an answer.
In hindsight, the warning signs are now clear to LaPrad.
“The whole year, he never did that (put his head on the ball),” said the coach. “It’s weird now, knowing something was wrong with his head. But for some reason the boy never stuck his head on the ball all year long. Isn’t that weird?”
This explained everything.
Football was the furthest thing from LaPrad’s mind as he pulled into MUSC. It was almost embarrassing to think all the time, effort and energy he and his coaches put on football. Who cares about changing defenses now? All LaPrad could think was, what if something bad happens to Robert? Hindsight creates guilt, especially when things go south.
It was 9 p.m. when the doctor arrived at Robert’s room, results in hand.
That “something” was a brain tumor, no bigger than the size of a dime.
Until that moment brain tumors were reserved for other people; it would turn up in a movie, on television or a co-workers family, but not Robert Quinn. He was an athlete. He looked healthy. He was just a teenager for goodness sakes.
Doctors told the Quinn family fluid was building up in his brain as a result of the tumor. That explained the dizzy spells and blackouts, the memory loss, the “confusion” and the headaches. What hadn’t made sense now did. The questions that lingered for three months now had answers.
“She told me I’d never play sports again,” said Robert.
That Robert remembers clearly. He looked at his mom, but Maria’s eyes were locked on the doctor. He looked at the doctor. Her words were like daggers shooting through him.
“Most people don’t make it in here alive,” said the doctor. “Most of them are already in a coma, so he’s blessed to be here.”
Robert’s eyes filled with tears. He didn’t feel blessed, he felt cursed and scared. The dream that started with a game of catch on the backstreets of North Charleston with childhood friend Toby Mack were seemingly spoiled. He’d never play football again. No Shrine Bowl. No All-American Bowl. No college scholarship. You could certainly throw out any NFL dreams. He wouldn’t be able to defend his wrestling title his senior year of high school. Tears rolled down his face.
Robert Quinn had been playing football all his life. By the seventh grade he was playing organized football. Then, during his freshman year of high school at Fort Dorchester, Robert started growing physically. He didn’t stop until he was 6 feet, five inches and weight 245 pounds.
“I didn’t know how to deal with it,” admitted Robert later. “I looked at my mom and asked ‘Why me?’”
“I told him, the Devil is a liar,” Maria said. “I told him, Robert, let’s just get through tomorrow and see what happens. We’re gonna pray about this.”
Maria held it together as long as she could. She walked out into the waiting room in tears and collapsed into the arms of Tonya Hall, the mother of one of Robert’s teammates, and Coach LaPrad.
“I was at a loss for words,” said James Quinn. “My concern was his health, his life. If he could weather that and stay healthy, the other stuff will take care of itself.”
October 28 ended with another thud.
Brain tumor: not funny, but in hindsight, anyone who saw Robert Quinn in a hospital bed laughs. Take a moment and imagine what a manchild that size looked like, lying in a children’s bed at the Medical University of South Carolina.
“He looked like King Kong in that bed,” remembers LaPrad. “They didn’t have a bed or a hospital gown that fit him.”
“Hey coach! It’s the biggest bed they got!” said Robert, smiling ear-to-ear.
It was one of the few laughs all day.
That night, Maria was at Robert’s bedside, as she had been when he was cleared by doctors in September, and again when he blacked out driving home two weeks earlier. She never left his side, sleeping on the floor of his hospital room. She could have gone into the waiting room, but she didn’t. Maria would stay awake every night until Robert would fall asleep. In the peace and quiet, she’d watch her son as he slept.
The next morning Robert was rolled into surgery. The procedure would determine whether the tumor was benign or malignant. A waiting room full of players, family and friends waited.
It would be days before Robert Quinn learned his fate. The days in between are where hope and fear collided. Waiting became a psychological battle. Will I live? Will I die? Robert tried to stay optimistic but, at times, fear set in and “until that final answer came out, he got depressed,” remembers Maria.
Hoping for the best and fearing the worst, Robert resigned himself to playing football again. “If I’m going to go, let me get back to playing until I do,” he said.
A source of strength
As time appeared to be moving in slow motion, the news broke and the phone started ringing, emails filled inboxes, letters and cards were in arriving in the mail. Complete strangers reached into cyberspace and poured out their hearts.
I don’t know you at all. I am a 23-year old college student (UNC Chapel Hill) … I am pulling like crazy for you to make it through this … life is so very fragile and events like these help put things into perspective … I, personally, have wasted precious hours worrying about things that, in the end, do not matter at all … I think we need to live each day like it’s our last because life is that fragile … Tell those people you care about how you feel whenever you can … I am sure you love football as I loved my sport, lacrosse. I shattered my thumb playing my freshman year and realized that I needed to make the painful decision to walk away from the game. Don’t give up hope.
– Matthew Wiesmore (10.31.2007)
Robert Quinn was high on the recruiting roster at the University of North Carolina and when the news got back to Butch Davis, the Tarheels head football coach immediately picked up the phone.
Davis knew what Robert and his family were going through. In 2006 he was diagnosed with cancer in his mouth. The memories and the fears were still fresh in his mind. When he was diagnosed, he didn’t know if he was going to live or die. He started putting together a bucket list in the event it was the latter.
“It puts you in a fraternity of people when you can say you’ve successfully beat cancer. I’m a cancer survivor,” said Davis. “Having gone through the chemo, the radiation, you go through the same fears, same anxieties.
“When I talked to his mom and dad and we talked to Robert about it, it wasn’t like there was this big, pink elephant in the middle of the room and no one wants to talk about it,” the North Carolina coach continued. “We did talk about it. Hopefully it helped us bridge a personal relationship that’s not all about tackling and sacks.”
Davis had recruited Robert and an athletic scholarship was on the table, but that would surely be pulled back until his health status was determined and he was cleared to play football.
“Your health has nothing to do with whether we’re going to continue to recruit you,” Davis told Robert and his family. “When we make a commitment and say we want you to come to North Carolina, you’ve got a scholarship no matter what happens. If you can never play again you’re still going to be offered a scholarship because of your character and integrity.”
The mood was lighter as Robert waited for the results. A couple days after his surgery he had more unexpected guests: clowns. It was Halloween and MUSC was alive with costumed characters. Like it or not Robert was thrown into the spirit of the holiday. The clowns wrapped him in toilet paper and the manchild was now The Mummy.
Meanwhile, the letters and cards were piling up. A get well card from the Gamecocks and Steve Spurrier, a fax from Nick Saban at Alabama, a pile of handmade cards from fifth graders in North Charleston, a letter from his former fourth grade teacher Mrs. Nix, a signed card from John McKissick and football archrival Summerville and a handwritten letter from Hanahan High School senior Jessica Smith.
Dear Robert Quinn,
Hello! You probably don’t know me, but my name is Jessica Smith and I am a senior at Hanahan High School. I heard what happened to you and I just want to say, I will keep you in my prayers … Everything happens for a reason, so keep your head up. I should know, my house was destroyed in a fire my eighth grade year …
Robert Quinn found out he had fans. Not football fans, but “life” fans. The cheering that once reverberated from the bleachers was now showering him with encouragement in letters, cards and emails. Even his opponents, the men he’s left flat on their backs on the football field and wrestling mat, reached out in support. All the kindness he poured into people he came in contact with, started coming back to him. Their support said something about Robert Quinn. It confirmed the message scrawled on the red, white and blue banner that that hangs outside the front doors at Fort Dorchester High School. It reads, “Patriots Show Respect!”
“Sometimes when you lose a really good athlete it hurts you,” said LaPrad. “But when you lose a really good athlete that everybody respects, and everybody cares about … they lost a teammate and they lost a friend. Sometimes you may have a great athlete on your team, people respect his athletic ability, but you may have 10 or 15 people who don’t really care very much for him.”
The next day the doctor revealed Robert’s biopsy results. The tumor was benign. Maria’s prayers were answered. Robert’s were too. He’d play football again and months later, on Signing Day, he made it official: Robert Quinn would play college football for the University of North Carolina Tarheels.
Maybe its serendipity, or maybe pure coincidence, but as Robert Quinn sat in the football offices at the University of North Carolina he looked out the window and there it was: The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“If you look out my window, it’s about 175 yards from here,” said head coach Butch Davis. “I told him (Robert), if anything ever reoccurred, you are going to have access to the best medical facility in the country.”
In September, Robert started his first game at linebacker for UNC. He has come so far, but he is never apart from his experience. Robert Quinn is the only known active Tarheel playing with a brain tumor and he is reminded daily of his journey, when he glances in the mirror and sees the scar. The mark has become a source of strength and a humbling reminder of the gift of life.
“Just don’t take anything for granted,” Robert says today. “Life is very special. It’s not mine. It’s a gift from God.”